Georgetown: Melting pot and foodies’ heaven

Unlike the other countries we’ve visited in this trip we didn’t do much research or reading about Malaysia before arriving, so we knew very little about this country and we didn’t know what to expect.

Once we got to Georgetown we found out that the guesthouse we had booked online the day before was well outside the backpacking district in a posh part of town between Jalan Burma and Gurney drive, a scenic sea front promenade with many upmarket restaurants, hotels, skyscrapers and shopping centres. However, our guesthouse was not expensive at all, it was nice and cosy and the staff was brilliant.

The seafront at Gurney Drive (Persiaran Gurney)
The seafront at Gurney Drive (Persiaran Gurney)

With the historical centre (UNESCO heritage site since 2008) not so close, and with other attractions being out of town, we had to find an alternative to expensive taxis to keep our budget down while moving from one place to another. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that there was a public bus system (Rapid Penang) – a very organized and efficient one indeed! Buses are so clean and modern, and some of them also have wi-fi. Would you believe it?

The Rapid Penang bus station near Weld Quay in Georgetown.
The Rapid Penang bus station near Weld Quay in Georgetown

During our stay we learned that Malay people are about 50% of the population and the remaining 50% are mainly Indian and Chinese. Chinese are the owners of the economy and entrepreneurship is their second nature. An Indian-Malay told us and during Chinese new year the country stops, because Chinese people own most businesses and they don’t work during this period.

Muslim Malay women
Muslim Malay women.
A typical Chinese building in the historical centre of Georgetown.
A typical Chinese building in the historical centre of Georgetown

The other major component of the Malay society are Indians – most come from the state of Tamil Nadu in the south, and many of them are Muslim.

The owner of Lakshmi video in Little India, in the UNESCO heritage area
The owner of Lakshmi video in Little India, in the UNESCO heritage area
An Indian Muslim praying into Kapitan Keling Mosque in the city centre
An Indian Muslim praying into Kapitan Keling Mosque in the city centre

Pulau Pinang (this is the Malay name for Penang, the island where Georgetown is), like all Malaysia, is a big melting pot and this diversity is reflected in its cuisine. Locals will tell you they have the best food in Malaysia, and if you say, like we did, that you’ve heard that Kuala Lumpur is also supposed to have good food, they’ll tell you that you won’t find KL’s food good after having tried Penang’s delicacies.

Normally we would have done a lot of sightseeing (we did some of course) but our stay took inevitably (and rightly so) an intense gastronomic twist. Therefore we spent 4 days exploring… the food markets!!

The Georgetown town hall
The Georgetown town hall
The Han Jiang ancestral temple of the Penang Teochew Association
The Han Jiang ancestral temple of the Penang Teochew Association
A red shed at the Chinese settlement in the Weld Quay jetties
A red shed at the Chinese settlement in the Weld Quay jetties
The front of a house in the Chinese settlement in Weld Quay
The front of a house in the Chinese settlement in Weld Quay
One of the minarets of Kapitan Keling Mosque
One of the minarets of Kapitan Keling Mosque
The floating mosque on the way to Batu Ferringhi
The floating mosque on the way to Batu Ferringhi

What we will remember the most about Georgetown are the numerous food courts (the Hawkers centres), the fusion Indian, Chinese, Malay dishes, with their smell of spices and of course extra kilos we gained there.

Georgetown eateries you shouldn’t miss out on

Of course there are many places to go for food. The places below are, among the ones that were recommended to us by locals and other travellers, the ones that we tried and loved. Make sure you get a copy of ‘Penang Food Trail’, a free map for foodies, with restaurants and the types of specialities they offer. The map also includes a section with photos and notes about typical local dishes, including desserts.

One last note about Hawker centres. These are open air, street restaurants with many different food stalls. Usually there’ll be only one stall serving drinks and a few selling desserts (don’t miss Ice Kacang and Cendol, and if you are adventurous try durian at least once). Our main tip is to eat small portion of many dishes to maximise variety – there is only a limited number of lunches and dinners you can have but a limitless range of exotic delicacies to try!

Gurney drive hawker centre

Quite outside the historical centre, we wouldn’t have known about this night food market if we didn’t take this out-of-the-way guesthouse. Looi, the guesthouse owner, recommended this place to us and we went there for dinner on our first night in Georgetown. What a great way to get introduced to Penang’s food.

The Gurney drive hawker centre
The Gurney drive hawker centre

To see Gurney drive hawker centre on the map click here

Red garden food court

This is the most famous food hawker centre in Georgetown, straight in the middle of the action in Jalan Penang, centre of gravity of the backpacking and local night-life.

Live Chinese music show at the Red Garden food court
Live Chinese music show at the Red Garden food court
The cendol we had at one of the food stalls in the Red Garden food court
The cendol we had at one of the food stalls in the Red Garden food court

To see Red Garden food court on the map click here

Lorong baru (new lane), off Macalister street (Jalan Macalister)

We’d seen many food hawker centres in Macalister street from the bus on our way into town. On our last night we decided to give this one a try and it was worth – definitely.

Preparing Char Koay Kak at the new lane night food market
Preparing Char Koay Kak at the new lane night food market
The Ais Kacang we had at the first stall in new lane
The Ais Kacang we had at the first stall in new lane
Chee Cheong Fun, a dish featuring an interesting mix of sweet, savoury and spicy
Chee Cheong Fun, a dish featuring an interesting mix of sweet, savoury and spicy

To see Lorong Baru on the map click here

Sri Weld food court

Even though this food market is in the historical centre not many tourists end up here. We were lucky enough to try the delicious food they some of the stalls have. But don’t go there at night, as this food court is only open for lunch.

Hawker food at Sri Weld food court
Hawker food at Sri Weld food court

To see Sri Weld food court on the map click here

Little India

If you’ve been to India before, the smell of incense mixed with notes of curries and spices, Hindi music coming out loud from sari shops and images of Hindu deities are guaranteed to give an emotional twist. Try one of the many Indian restaurants in lebuh Queen, lebuh King or lebuh Bishop. Look for Nasi Kandar restaurants – in these restaurants you’ll get a plate with plain rice which you will be able to ‘decorate’ with as many types of curry (and meat or fish) as you want.

Indian restarant in the heart of Little India
Indian restarant in the heart of Little India

To see little India on the map click here

Oh… did I mention we tried Durian too? 🙂

A street food seller opening our first Durian
A street food seller opening our first Durian
Finally eating the 'king of all fruits' as the Asian call it. After eating it I understood why they say it smells like hell and tastes like heaven :)
Finally eating the 'king of all fruits' as the Asian call it. After eating it I understood why they say it smells like hell and tastes like heaven 🙂