Must-have Penang street food

Freshly fried plates of Penang char kway teow
I’m standing at the car-rental counter in Penang International Airport, waiting for the staff to sort out the paperwork for my rented car when two young men came along to join the queue for their car.  They are standing next to me so I can’t be accused of eavesdropping as I just can’t help listening into their conversation.  One is showing signs of impatience, grumbling to his friend that with such a long wait to collect their car, they may be too late to have char kway teow!’

To the uninitiated, char kway teow is a local stir-fried flat rice noodle meal cooked in the Teochew recipe.  Ingredients for stir-fried kway teow or flat rice noodles may vary but the Teochew recipe is distinguished by the distinct flavour of thick sweet dark sauce, made from a traditional brew of molasses, sugar and caramel.  The freshly fried noodles is mixed with ingredients like whole prawns, sliced Chinese sausages or lap cheong, crunchy bean sprouts and another distinguishing item, cockles or see hum.   In Penang, these noodles are usually served on a plate lined with a small square sheet of banana leaf for added fragrance!

Penang assam laksa
I can understand the sentiments of the impatient young men because a visit to Penang is not complete without savouring their signature street food.  Most restaurants and cafes will serve street food throughout the day but they are probably aiming to go to their favourite shop or stall that may only serve while stocks lasts.  One of the must-have meals in Penang is certainly char kway teow – the other being Penang assam laksa – and the meal should aptly end with a dessert of Penang Road famous Teochew chendol

I steal a surreptitious look at the guys and hide a knowing smile because I’ve had my share of these Penang must-have street foods and am about to catch my flight back to Johor Baru.  

Facade of Joo Hooi Cafe in Penang Road
In fact just a day ago, I told my friends that I WILL NOT leave Penang until I have eaten my share of authentic Penang char kway teow and assam laksa!  I’m sure they can hear the tone of acute desperation in my voice because I was not only longing to walk the old streets and browse in the shops but also to taste the local food, the way I did during my last visit in 2008.

A great deal has changed to preserve and improve various sites in Georgetown since it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage City but some things remain the same.  I’m talking about Joo Hooi Café in Penang Road.  It’s a traditional Chinese coffeeshop that has earned a reputation for the typically Penang fare served from several stalls there.  I picked up several brochures from the airport to refresh my memory about what’s where and am impressed to discover that this humble little coffeeshop is listed among the recommended eateries in the city! 

Check out the before-lunch crowd in Joo Hooi Cafe
I’m amused to see that the signboard for Joo Hooi Café in its façade is literally cast in stone with Chinese characters embossed on the stone banner and columns.  I instantly recognised the shop from my previous visit and made a beeline for it.  Even though the hugh turnover of customers are keeping the harried serving staff on their toes, I’m prepared to ignore the hastily wiped marble-topped tables and the claustrophobic feel of people seated too close together in a small space. 

In places like this, you are supposed to know what you want to eat and should order without hesitation.  I can see the food served by the popular stalls that line one side of the shop walls and the dessert stall on the side lane outside and ordered all my must-have food quickly.  Any delay on your part will put you at the bottom end of the order list so it is wise to place your order sooner than the next customers who are constantly rushing in to grab tables that have just been vacated!

Customers standing and eating their favourite dessert
around this famous chendol stall
It’s a familiar feeling to sink into a typical coffeeshop atmosphere where the staff is shouting out orders, servers searching for customers with laden plates or bowls and elderly staff helping to wipe the tables and take orders.  There just seems to be an uncanny order in this chaos as the order-takers somehow manage to keep tabs of the sequence of the customers’ requirements.  It absolutely normal to have a constant stream of regulars and tourist groups (like us!) squeezing pass the busy staff to get a seat or go to place an order and then patiently wait for the food to be served because we must taste everything from all the stalls!

Thirst-quenchers, chendol [Top] and ABC
We are hot and thirsty as we come into the shop from the scorching sun, so we must first have some thirst-quenchers like chendol and Ais Batu Campur or ABC in short for mixed ingredients in syrupy shaved ice.  When we place our orders to be served at the table, a group of customers are standing around the Teochew chendol stall, shamelessly slurping up bowls of chendol.  From the first spoonful of chendol in coconut milk and palm sugar, I’m comforted to see that the little floury strings of chendol are of the original natural green colour and its texture and taste are just as it was from way back when…

When our orders for char kway teow and assam laksa are served, I give a passing thought to how many thousands of people have eaten out of these seasoned melamine tableware, before I dismiss the thought and dig in hungrily.  Our orders are served in a reasonable amount of time so during the wait, I go to observe the hawkers hard at work. 

Our masked char kway teow lady!
I can’t help but marvel at the lady who is stir-frying the kway teow noodles as she goes through the motion step-by-step to pick ingredients, add sauce and other condiments without missing a beat.  She must have strong leg muscles to be constantly on her feet and a very steady arm to keep stir-frying to serve up plate upon plate of orders, almost non-stop.  Then I was back at my seat to enjoy my share of the meal before it gets polished off the plates and bowls. 

“Now I can leave Penang,” I declared with a satisfied sigh.  The lunch crowd is descending on the shop so we quickly vacate our table for them and decide to walk off the meal with a tour of the neighbourhood.  I pass the lady who is still stir-frying her famous kway teow and notice something different about her.  While she is still wearing her apron, socks and visor and working furiously in front of the sizzling wok, she is now wearing a facial mask fashioned from a man’s handkerchief!

The long queue, waiting to be served with
refreshing chendol by the famous Teochew chendol stall
I guess the aroma from the hot wok is getting too much for her comfort so she needed a mask to filter the air she breathed and keep on stir-frying the noodles for the lunch customers and beyond.  

As I walk along, I’m thinking that these entrepreneurs work so hard to maintain the traditional quality of freshly cooked street food.  And that’s probably why connoisseurs of good Penang street food (like us!) will find our way back to this humble coffeeshop for a taste of the real thing. 

The weather is just right for exploring the old streets in our after-meal walkabout and I will share more in a separate story.  It covers a circuit from the side road that borders Joo Hooi Café to Chowrasta Market and back to Penang Road.  And when we return to the side of Joo Hooi Cafe again, we have to walk around the crowd because the side road is occupied by a long queue of tourists (maybe from an entire coach!) who are patiently waiting to be served the much anticipated bowls of refreshing Teochew chendol!


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