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Savoring the Flavors of Penang

A confluence of cultures makes this Malaysian island’s cuisine—and especially its street food— something special.

Savoring the Flavors of Penang

George Town, Penang

Photo by Morgan Owens

This itinerary is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips and inspired itineraries on the Travel Tales home page.

Consistently praised as having some of the most delectable dishes in all of Asia, the island of Penang, in Malaysia, can thank its unique blend of settlers. Malay, Indian, and Chinese cultures have all contributed to the commingling of complex flavors here. And in Penang’s capital, UNESCO-designated George Town, sampling food from the city’s many street vendors makes for a delicious—and deliciously authentic—experience.

Macalister Mansion, George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Macalister Mansion, George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Check in and Dine

Arrive in town and head to Macalister Mansion, the only member of Design Hotels in Malaysia. This colonial mansion, which dates to the early 1900s, was restored with a bright, modern decor and white walls that match the exterior. Each of the eight stylish rooms come with individually commissioned artwork and unique details like a private balcony or wrought-iron spiral staircase. Relax at the outdoor pool and enjoy a meal here at the upscale restaurant, Blanc, before diving into the hawker stalls. Order the tasting menu, and dishes featuring Asian flavors with a French flair will begin to arrive.

Kek Lok Si Temple, Air Itam, Penang

Kek Lok Si Temple, Air Itam, Penang

Bring Your Appetite

Begin your cultural exploration at Kek Lok Si Temple. This sprawling structure, which dates to 1891, is the country’s largest Buddhist temple and an important pilgrimage center for Buddhists from all over Southeast Asia. It’s full of carvings, sculptures, and murals.

Since it’s never too early to eat, make your way to Air Itam Market, one of Penang’s oldest markets. Check out vendors selling spices, fruits, and vegetables, and start sampling Penang’s famous street food, like the asam laksa, a fish-based rice noodle soup that’s part of the Peranakan culture.

Duly sated, wander around downtown. Visit Little India and Penang’s oldest Hindu temple, Sri Mariamman. Then, for some kitschy fun, stop in at the Wonder Food Museum to see its deliberately oversized displays of Malaysian dishes.

For dinner, you’ll have to choose from among the city’s biggest variety of street-food vendors at the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre. Try the char koay kak—fried rice cake with radish, bean sprouts, and sometimes egg and chili powder—and stop by the barbecue roasting station. (Hint: Grab your seats before ordering food.)

Eat Some More

Continue your exploration of Penang’s cultural mashup. Visit Kuan Yin Temple, constructed by early immigrant settlers from China; see 18th-century Fort Cornwallis, the largest standing fort in Malaysia; and pass by the Indo-Moorish Kapitan Keling Mosque, built in 1801 by Penang’s first Indian Muslim settlers.

Have lunch at the family-run Tek Sen. Savor dishes with Chinese roots, like deep-fried tofu with fermented bean sauce and stir-fried potato leaves with prawns.

Walk it off while perusing contemporary paintings by local artists at the Alpha Utara gallery. And keep an eye out for George Town’s famous street art, which includes large-scale murals by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic.

Enjoy your final dinner at the bustling New Lane Hawker Center. Try mee lemak, a noodles and curry dish made with coconut milk. Also order some rojak—a salad of fruits and vegetables drizzled with a sweet and sour sauce; with both Chinese and Malay ingredients, it’s the perfect symbol of cultural diversity and an ideal way to end your Penang visit.

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