Marco Ferrarese

Marco Ferrarese didn’t plan on writing for a living. An Italian-born punk guitarist that started playing in his teens, he fled to China after his band broke up and he has been in Asia since. His adventures on the road inspired him to write about them and laid the foundations for a career as an internationally published travel journalist and guidebook author. For The Local Tongue, he’s sharing his black book to his adopted home, the Malaysian state of Penang.

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Before You Come To Penang

Penang is not a city for gourmet food. I feel like a lot of visitors get that wrong. You can’t experience real Penang food in a comfortable, high-end restaurant setting. And it’s a shame because over the years, I’ve seen restaurants evolve and become more formal, thinking that they have to do this to attract tourists. But for me, this has only decayed Penang’s charm — its scruff and nonchalance — which is what attracted me to the city over a decade ago. Its boisterous night markets. Its street food settings cramped with sticky tables and plastic chairs, and aunties and uncles who serve you with flip flops on their feet and soy sauce on their shirt. It’s messy. It’s unfussy. It’s glorious. This is and always will be the best way to experience the food culture of George Town and other parts of the island.

Homestyle Malaysian Cooking

As you might have picked up on, I don’t love eating in restaurants, I love eating in food courts and at street food stalls. I’d happily eat Apple Economy Rice (you get rice on your plate and then choose whatever cooked food is available on the day)in the Medan Selera food court at Taman Free School for lunch every day. It’s so local and off the expat and tourist trail. It’s awesome. The auntie there can cook an astounding array of meats, fish and vegetables — from curry fish head to curry chicken and potatoes, boiled pumpkin and fried fish. There’s so much choice. But arrive as early as 11am, or you’ll miss out on the best dishes. And as the name suggests, it’s super economic: you’ll get rice and a few choices of meat and vegetable dishes for only $1.50. I love it because it tastes homemade, fresh and healthy. You can tell that everything has been cooked that day. It’s a very traditional Chinese Malaysian staple dish that you can diversify day after day.

My Favourite Penang Food Court

As far as food courts go, I think Supertanker, set in a residential area in Taman Lip Sin near Sungai Dua, is perfect for both new and seasoned visitors. It has a bit of everything the island is famous for. And I like how local it feels: it’s too far out for tourists to get to without their own transport. Seek out a chicken and duck rice stall for sliced, juicy meat with soy-drenched white rice. Also try jawa mee: a dish of yellow noodles, tofu and crunchy crackers in a thick, creamy sauce with herbs and chili paste. The food court is also home to some of Penang’s best ban chang kuih (Chinese pancakes) dished up by a couple of tattooed chefs. I go classic and take it with crunched peanuts and corn, but you can get them with an array of salty and sweet toppings like chocolate or fruit.

A No-Frills Thai-Muslim Restaurant

One of my favourite restaurants is Rezeki Tomyam in Tanjung Bungah. It’s a no-frills street side restaurant owned by a Thai-Muslim family from Pattani, a predominantly Muslim town in the far south of Thailand. It specialises in tom yam, a Thai sweet and sour soup, but it’s not the only delicious dish on the menu. The menu is full of rich, Malay-Thai dishes and plates of fresh seafood that are as tasty as they are affordable. I can never go past the fried squid.

A Long-Time, Southern Indian Favourite (With Spice)

I’ve been eating an Woodlands Vegetarian Restaurant, in the centre of Little India, for years. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been in the last decade. It’s a great spot that I love to take family and visitors to. It’s very affordable and damn tasty. It mostly serves Madras-oriented Southern Indian food. Think dosai (a Southern Indian pancake made from rice and lentils), idly (a round, savoury rice cake), utthapam (a common Southern Indian breakfast of a crepe-like pancake made from urad dal that’s topped with vegetables), and vadai (a crisp and savoury deep fried doughnut). For me, it’s all about the curries. From palaak paneer and malai kofta to paneer butter masala and bendhi masala. It’s very delicious, but be warned: it’s also very spicy.

An Indian Restaurant That’s Open 24 Hours

When I arrived in Penang from Thailand over a decade ago, I had my very first meal at Kassim Mustafa Nasi Dalcha. I still go there today. The service is terrible but the food is fantastic. Its tandoori chicken is possibly the best in George Town. And its nasi dalcha (a hearty mixed rice dish) is the best across the island. A hot tip: the restaurant is open 24 hours so visit late after a night of drinking — or the next morning when you need recovery food — for the hot naan bread. I swear it’s the best hangover food you can get. I always bring people here for a teh tarik (a hot tea with condensed milk) over a chat. I love its street side seating, but if I were you, sit at the tables on the farthest side of the curb to be safe from the road traffic.

Where To Try Penang-Style Laksa

You can’t visit Penang without eating laksa. One of my favourite versions is at Kim Seng, a very old and traditional shop in Balik Pulau, a part of the island that’s often overlooked. It serves both the tangy assam laksa and the more curry-like siam laksa. Both are delicious. Another dish to try while you’re in Penang is curry mee: a spicy egg noodle soup typically garnished with lemongrass. I love the red curry version with coconut cream.

A True Taste of Penang Food Culture

I love to take visiting food lovers to Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery for Peranakan cuisine. If you want a true experience of Penang food culture, this is the place. The restaurant is set in a homey, heritage building that feels like it’s still stuck in the past. Both the environment and menu blends Chinese and Malay traditions. If you do visit, try one of its set menus.

Affordable Seafood Cooking

For great seafood, visit Kim Hin or Heng Leong Seafood on Jalan Sungai Dua, a few hundred meters up from Universiti Sains Malaysia’s main gate. The restaurants are only a couple of doors down from each other, and were both opened by the same chef (Heng Leong Seafood was opened by the former chef at Kim Ming). You can find egregious chu char seafood at both. And both have big menus of Chinese favourites: barbecue duck, steamed fish and sweet and sour pork to name a few. The specialty at both is fish, and it’s damn cheap too — some of the most affordable on the island. The curried fish, a thick and creamy curry with just the right amount of sourness, is the signature dish. I also always recommend trying the fried mantis prawn: a local specialty fished fresh from the waters of nearby Pulau Aman.

The Quintessential Malaysian Breakfast

The dish I miss most when I’m away from Penang is roti canai and roti bakar: both are quintessential Malaysian breakfasts. Roti canai is a round fried bread, generally served with curry or dahl. Roti bakar, which translates to burnt bread, is the local version of toast and eggs. It’s served with margarine and butter or kaya (coconut jam) and, if one wants, a couple of half-boiled eggs. Malays, Indians and Chinese all make it in a different way. There are at least six great places for roti bakar in Penang: Toh Soon Café, Joo Leong Coffee Shop, Roti Canai Transfer Road, Abdul Hamid Gerai Kop Dan Makan, Roti Canai Gemas Road and Kong Thai Lai Coffee Shop. These are all street stalls with plastic tables and stools, and not much else but an awning to protect from the elements.

French Fine Dining

If you are looking for a more refined dining experience, I would send you to Orinea by Farquhar Mansion. It’s a fine dining restaurant serving French-inspired dishes. The food is impressive, as is the setting. It’s set in a colonial house refurbished to look like a neo-noir mansion.

My Favourite Penang Bars

Speaking of impressive, I love to take visitors to Out of Nowhere speakeasy. They always get a kick out of entering through a fridge door. Another great speakeasy is Backdoor Bodega. It has cool, chilled vibe that isn’t pretentious. It’s tucked at the back of Good Friends Club and instead of selling drinks, it sells drink-themed pins. With each pin, you get a “free drink”. Best to think of it as a free pin with each drink. The cocktails use local ingredients like pandan. It a very local and friendly spot: a simple room with just a few stools and great music.

Exploring The Local Music Scene

Soundmaker is a bar and an underground alternative music club.  Like many alternative music hangouts in Southeast Asia, it’s often looking a little empty, but it’s a great spot to meet and swap stories with like-minded people. It’s scruffy and basic, which is why I like it. You’ll find Cole Mew behind the bar: a musician and sound engineer who’s been through the thick and thin of the underground punk and metal music scenes. It often hosts music gigs, so check its calendar before going. Narrow Marrow is another hip spot to have a drink and rub elbows with local creatives. There are a lot of established and aspiring music artists in Penang, and this is where they gather. The bar’s decorations and furnishings are definitely creative. I love the toddy (local coconut-infused spirit) mojitos here, too.

Guide last updated April 2021

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