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Malaysian Food Fest PENANG – Introduction

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This month’s Malaysian Food Fest brings us to Penang! To date, MFF has brought us on a virtual culinary tour to almost all the states in Malaysia. As we come almost to an end of this long journey, it is time for us to pay a long due visit to this beautiful island found on the northern tip of the Straits of Malacca.

“Modern” history of Penang stretches back almost half a millenium ago when it was part of the Kedah Sultanate that was ruled by the Siamese overlords who named the island Koh Maak to mean “Areca nut palm Island” in Thai. Admiral 郑和 Cheng Ho from the Ming Dynasty then pinned this place as 槟榔屿 on his maps, the Chinese equivalent of its Thai name, when his entourage passed through the Malay Peninsula as they set sail for the west. This formed the basis of its name in Malay “Pulau Pinang” which was later anglicised to become “Penang” as we know it today.

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After it became an important trading post for the East India Company (alongside Melaka and Singapore) in the 1800s, Penang saw an influx of migrants from various ethnicities. These migrants range from those who were near, like the other parts of the Malay Archipelago to as far as the Indian sub-continent as well as the Middle East. During the late Qing period, flocks of Chinese migrants from various dialect groups, particularly those from the southeastern coastal region of China came to Penang in search of better livelihood. They helped to shape Penang to become a diaspora with one of the highest population densities of Chinese folks outside Mainland China. It remains so, even till today. Collectively, these people carved the culinary history of Penang, consolidating a wide repertoire of unique dishes which characterise what we today call “Penang Cuisine”. Many of these dishes have traceable roots to well defined origins. Yet, changes were made along the way by the Penangites, be it to better cater to the palates of the locals, or to overcome the difficulties in obtaining certain ingredients used in the original dishes in their traditional forms, or better still to exploit the vast riches of gastronomic resources this tropical island and surroundings have to offer. It is precisely the successful modifications made and nuances created by generations after generations of “Penang Langs” that craft these dishes and formulate what is uniquely “Penang”.

Penang Peranakan
perut ikan
However, even before this vast migration wave into Penang in the 1800s occurred, there was already a Chinese community on the island who arrived here long before and had already established themselves very well here. The Peranakans form a distinct group in Penang, just as they did in the other Straits Chinese strongholds of Melaka and Singapore.  These early Chinese settlers were believed to have married the local women and started homes here. Despite being firm believers upholding cultural practices which they brought along with them from China, the Peranakans also adopted and infused many colloquial elements into their lifestyles, especially in their food culture. Unlike the southern Straits Chinese in Melaka and Singapore who were thoroughly influenced by the Malay and Indonesian ways of life, the Penang Peranakans up north ventured down a different path. Many of these settlers were believed to have arrived from Kuala Kedah and then-Siam, particularly Phuket. The differences between these two groups are quite striking in many aspects.  Linguistically, the southern Peranakans spoke Baba Malay, a patois characterised by Bahasa Melayu thoroughly infused and dotted with words borrowed from the 闽 Min lexicon. On the other hand, Penang Peranakans do not speak Baba Malay but instead developed an interesting variety of the Min dialect known today as “Penang Hokkien”. This is most apparent in the names of dishes from Penang Nyonya versus Melaka Nyonya fanfare. Jiu Hu Char and Perut Ikan are two signature dishes in Penang Peranakan cooking. The former uses dried cuttlefish finely julienned and stir-fried with yam bean, carrots and chinese mushrooms, not unlike what we were expect for the filling for wrapping poh piah. The latter is an exotic dish which is much of an acquired taste. Perut Ikan is prepared by stewing the fermented stomachs of ikan kurau with a hoard of herbs like daun kadok, daun cekur, daun kunyit and daun kesom etc. This unique blend not only serves to mask any unpleasant tastes or pungent odours from the fermented fish stomachs, but also lends the dish its unique taste.
asam pedas
Even “common dishes” found in both Penang and Melakan nyonya cooking show distinct variations in ingredients used and thus in flavour. For sour and spicy fish, the Melakan “Gerang Asam” hardly used any herbs except a couple of daun limau purut while “Asam Pedas” in Penang liberally highlights daun kesom as the key ingredient and sometimes bunga kantan as well. Also, the rempah in Gerang Asam is first tumis over a low flame before air asam jawa is added. But in the Penang version, the ingredient paste is merely cooked together into the broth with no oil added before chunks of fish are thrown in.  As such, the ingredients list for Penang Ikan Asam Pedas actually bears an uncanny resemblance to the Johorean Asam Pedas Ikan Pari! However in Penang, pomfret is the preferred fish instead.

Hokkien Influence

With the very many groups of ethnic Chinese who settled in Penang, the one which formed the largest community are probably the Hokkiens. Like in many Chinese diasporas around the world, many of these early migrants grouped together and lived within closed knitted communities aimed at protecting and helping their fellow kinsman adapt and assimilate into the new environment. This was the basis behind the founding of many chinese clans in Penang, most notably the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi. The Hokkiens brought with them many of their own dishes, many of which were infused with local influences to form variations which we can only see in Penang. The Penang Hokkien Heh Mee (Prawn Noodle) is one such classic example.
hokkien mee 2
A soupy noodle dish with a broth base cooked from pork bones and prawn shells reminds us of its roots in traditional chinese cooking. Yet, an interesting twist is introduced in its preparation through the frying of the shrimp shells in a rempah paste, the latter an obvious influence from traditional Malay cuisine. Chili boh is boldly added and the noodles are finally enjoyed over sambal. A fusion dish over and over again!

Teochew Influence
char koay teow 2
The Teochews too bore influence in paving Penang’s culinary map. Penang Char Koay Teow, a popular roadside hawker dish can be found in perpetually every corner of the island. With their roots traceable back to the Chaozhou district in southeastern China, these delectable strands of dark flat rice noodles glistening in sauce and oil have thoroughly captivated the hearts of Penangites both young and old. Enjoyed throughout the day, be it for breakfast or supper, the rhythmic “cling clang” of the metal spatula against the Chinese kuali together with wafts of unmistakable aroma from good “wok hei” is altogether part of the gastronomic experience. What characterises Penang Char Koay Teow and differentiates it from the variation in Singapore is the use of chives and prawns. Also, the Penang version is void of any hint of sweetness unlike Singapore Char Kway Teow (note the difference in the anglicised form used in Singapore) which incorporates Kicap Manis in addition to dark soya sauce. Traditionally, duck egg is used in Penang Char Koay Teow for its much coveted creamy textures and probably more robust flavours. Though some stalls still adopt the old ways of using duck egg, and incidentally charcoal fire, most have switched to the more easily available chicken eggs.

Hainanese Influence

The Hainanese also found their way to this British trading post, albeit much later than the others from Fujian or Guangdong (Canton) Province. Likening many Hainanese in Singapore, the migrants from Hainan to Penang found labour mainly by working for the British, most notably as cooks or domestic help for the households.  Known locally as “cham poh” they not only worked for the colonial masters but also served Peranakan families, engaged especially for big family gatherings and festive celebrations. Hence, they seem to have the “best of both worlds” quite literally. Good at improvising their menus to suit the tastebuds of the differing groups they work and cook for, the Hainanese cham pohs soon developed an interesting menu of dishes which also helped to shape Penang’s culinary topography. Roti Babi, Kari Kapitan, Min Chee, Bian Chee and Inche Kabin are just some of the interesting examples.
inche kabin
Inche Kabin is essentially chunks of chicken which had been marinated in a wonderful hoard of spices and subsequently “double-fried”, the first soak cooks the chicken while the later return crisps the exterior and forces any remnants of oil out. Though commonly touted as a Nyonya dish, many Penangites know this dish as being truly Hainanese. There are many interesting explanations to its name, mostly pointing to a a bastardised way of saying “Encik, Cabin”, suggesting that this dish might have been made and served on board a ship.
kari kapitan
Kari Kapitan is another interesting lemak-based curry dish which can be traced back to Malay cooking. Unlike the typical gulais , it is served with deep-fried shallots and in some recipes, cubes of fried salted fish. The use of daun limau purut is another highlight of this dish. Like Inche Kabin, this dish is frequently labelled as being “Nyonya” but probably invented by the Hainanese cham pohs for their Peranakan employers. Like Inche Kabin, Kari Kapitan‘s name is quite intriguing. One popular tale speaks of a cook when asked on what was made for dinner, promptly replied “Kari, Kapitan”. It is not exactly known whom the “Kapitan” refers to. Some say it is the captain of a ship, while others are more inclined to believe that he might very well be one of many appointed “Kapitans” in Penang during the late Qing period. Kapitan Chung Keng Qwee who built the famous Hye Kee Chan along Church Street is just one of them. The building became what is now commonly known as the “Pinang Peranakan Mansion”, an important landmark of Peranakan culture in Penang today.

Thai Influence
Since Penang is located very near to the Thai border, historically, Thai cuisine bore a very strong influence over Penang’s local food. This is most noted from the large variety of kerabus found in Penang Peranakan cuisine, ranging from vegetable based ingredients like Kerabu Kacang Botol (winged bean), Kerabu Taugeh (bean sprouts) and Kerabu Bok Ngee (black cloud fungus) to those which incorporate meat like Kerabu Kay which uses shredded chicken. Some are a completely meal by itself with both vegetable and meat components, like Kerabu Tang Hoon and Kerabu Bee Hoon. There are also more exotic forms like Kerabu Hai Thay (jellyfish), Kerabu Bak Eu Pok (fried pork lard) and Kerabu Kay Kah where the gelatinous skin of chicken feet are used! Unlike Thai salads which uses fish sauce, lime katsuri is used alongside two other kerabu staples, sambal belachan and kerisik (toasted grated coconut)
penang otak
penang otak 1
Penang Otak Otak is another signature dish in the local cuisine. Closely resembling the popular Thai dish Hor Mok Pla, Penang Otak Otak is steamed instead of grilled, unlike the other varieties found far south in Muar, Singapore and parts of Indonesia. Also, banana leaves are used to wrap the wet lemak-based curry like concoction as nipah leaves used in Muah and Singapore Otak simply would not do the job. Another defining factor of Penang Otak Otak is the use of daun kadok, young leaves of wild pepper which lends its characteristic aroma and taste to the custardy and spicy egg and fish concoction.
penang laksa
Penang Laksa is another dish which is synonymous with the island. Unlike the coconut milk-based “lemak” varieties found in the southern states, Penang Laksa uses an asam fish broth, in line with the laksa varieties found in the other northern states like Perlis. Like many Penang dishes, the aromatics are played through the liberal use of “ulam” ingredients. In this case, its daun kesom, daun pudina (mint leaves) and bunga kantan. The flavours are further enhanced by the use of “heh gor” shrimp paste, which is also commonly used in rojak as well.  Finally cucumber is added for the crunch and sweet pineapple for a fruity dimension to counteract the sourish hues from the soup making this dish all the more moreish!

Malay and Indian Influence

Despite its high population densities of ethnic Chinese, some parts of Penang remains very rustic “Kampung Melayu”, like in Teluk Bahang and Batu Maung. Classic Malay dishes from this region include nasi ulam, nasi lemak and of course a unique variety of Nasi Daging in Penang which is prepared with chunks of beef are parboiled and cooked together with bastmati rice amidst the generous use of spices and herbs, in an almost biryani-like fashion.
nasi kandar
No discussion of Penang cuisine can be complete without an honorable mention of Nasi Kandar where it had originated. Traditionally peddled as street food by Indian Muslim hawkers who carried baskets of rice and an assortment of dishes and curries propped up by a wooden pole, giving rise to its name, Nasi Kandar has since walked into “kedais” and even “restorans”.
tambun pheah
And finally, any visitor to Penang would be reminded in one way or another to bring back with them a box of Tambun Pheah, alongside other “souvenirs” like pickled nutmeg or belachan. A variation of the more traditional Tau Sah Pheah, Tambun Pheah are rolled into smaller balls, like big “golis” which make them very easy to “pop” into the mouth. But why buy when you can make some for yourself? So do join us for one whole month of delectable dishes and desserts from Penang. Below is a summary of recipe links for the dishes mentioned above which you may wish to try.

Penang Char Koay Teow  & here 
Penang Hokkien Heh Mee
Inche Kabin
Kari Kapitan
Perut Ikan
Penang Ikan Asam Pedas
Lor Bak
Jiu hu char & here
Kerabu Kacang Botol and Kerabu Tang Hoon
Penang Otak Otak and here
Penang Laksa , here , here and here
Nasi daging  and pictorial guide
Tambun Pheah


1. Who can join? Anyone can join.
2. Prepare a dish ( sweet or savoury ) that is from Penang, be it old time favourites, modern goodies or dishes that has been localized. Take a picture of the food or many pictures.
3. Provide recipe that is credited ( from books, internet, friends or family or your own, be specific).
Submissions without stating recipe sources will not be accepted for all forms of submission.
4.Submit your entry latest by 30 June 2013 except for Facebook submissions.


a. Prepare a dish ( sweet or savoury ) that is from Penang
b. Blog about it from 1st June – 3oth June 2013
c. Include this caption below your blog post

” I am submitting this post to Malaysian Food Fest (Link to MFF Page), Penang Month hosted by Alan of Travellingfoodies (Link to my Penang Intro Post)”

Send the following information to this email address ( travellingfoodies.sg@gmail.com ) with the email subject as “MFF PENANG”

Name/Nickname :

Blog name :
Name of dish :
Url of post :
Picture : ( URL or attachment that is lesser than 500k)

2. Facebook user

a. Like the Penang Food Fest Facebook page
b. Prepare a dish ( sweet or savoury ) from Penang
c. Take a picture and upload it into Facebook on Penang Food Fest facebook page here
d. Provide recipe with picture.

Bloggers can submit old recipes to Facebook. Anyone that has once cooked a Penang dish and have a picture and recipe can submit to Facebook. Not necessarily a recently done dish.

For a pictorial guide on how to submit via facebook, please click here

3. Non Facebook users and Non Bloggers

Email a picture of the dish together with the recipe to (travellingfoodies.sg@gmail.com) latest by 30th June 2013 by 11.59pm ( Singapore & Malaysian time )

A Round Up will be done for all blog entries and emailed in entries on 1st July 2013. 
Facebook entries are not included in the round up.

Meanwhile, please pop over to Mary’s blog for the roundup of MFF Sabah!

Note: All photos are copyrighted to their respective owners, blogs and websites unless stated otherwise. Their original links can be found on my flickr album accessible through clicking on the photos above.

37 responses

  1. wah published on the dot of 1st June! and a very long detailed explanation. great job alan! Thanks for linking my mama’s Jiu Hu Char recipe 🙂

    June 1, 2013 at 12:32 am

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      No problem Shannon! Good things are meant to be shared! 🙂

      June 1, 2013 at 9:30 am

  2. The pictures looked so good. Don’t tell me these are all cooked by you over the years?? I love Penang Char Kway Teow and Penang Laksa. All these looked quite difficult for me to make. :p Just looking at those pictures made me happy already!

    June 1, 2013 at 9:28 am

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      Hi Jane, the photos are actually from the internet with the sources credited for each photo on my flickr album. You can view the original photo source/link by clicking on each photo to access. 🙂

      June 1, 2013 at 9:31 am

  3. Thank you Alan for the link to my Kari Kapitan 🙂
    Lovely space you have 😀

    June 1, 2013 at 10:19 am

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      Thanks for visiting Lisa. You are most welcome 🙂

      June 1, 2013 at 10:51 pm

  4. Now that I am stronger, let’s see my kids allow me the time to do some research on this.

    June 1, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      Try your best Edith! I’m sure you can do it! 🙂

      June 1, 2013 at 10:52 pm

  5. Very well written post with mouth watering photos. I’m SOOOOO hungry now, luckily I’m going to be in Penang next week!

    June 1, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      Remember to give us a field report of your eating spree in Penang! Include them in your blog posts for MFF Penang! 🙂

      June 1, 2013 at 10:51 pm

      • Hopefully I will get to eat local food….. We are there to play a gig so it’s in and out, but I will combine the food pics from my last weekend’s trip.

        June 2, 2013 at 2:48 pm

  6. will be supporting you and MFF!

    June 1, 2013 at 8:34 pm

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      Thanks Lena! Looking forward to your delicious food!

      June 1, 2013 at 10:50 pm

  7. Hi Alan,
    I have never participated in MFF. If I wanna make, say, tambun pheah or kari kapitan, do I have to follow the exact recipe stated here, or can I just reference any good recipes that I find, even though the kari kapitan maybe a peranakan recipe from SIngapore?

    June 1, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      Hi Miss B! Nope you don’t have to follow the recipes exactly. The list provided only serves as a general guide. you are free to use any recipes on Kari Kapitan which you may find which is credible. Look forward to your entries for MFF Penang!

      June 1, 2013 at 10:49 pm

  8. Teong Ong

    Your photo of curry kapitan doesn’t like the dish I know. It is a semi-dry curry.

    June 1, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      you are right Dr Ong! I just took the photo over the internet actually. My own cooking of Kari Kapitan would be posted over the next couple of days! 🙂

      June 1, 2013 at 10:48 pm

  9. Pingback: Penang Char Koay Teow 槟城炒粿条 | travellingfoodies

  10. Pingback: Penang Otak Otak | travellingfoodies

  11. Hi Alan…
    Saya pun nak ikut meriah-meriahkan dunia masakan tanahair kita… oooh! nampak macam-macam menu dari Penang ni buat saya teruja untuk mencuba!

    June 4, 2013 at 10:06 am

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      Yes! please make some Penang food and join in the fun! Looking forward to your dishes, Amie!

      June 6, 2013 at 1:24 am

  12. Pingback: On the Trail of the Phoenix – Penang Jiu Hu Char | travellingfoodies

  13. Pingback: Kerabu Kacang Botol – Spicy Winged Bean Salad | travellingfoodies

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  16. Very impressive write up. Enjoyed reading the stories behind the dishes mentioned 🙂

    June 13, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      Thanks Adeline 🙂 much appreciated!

      June 14, 2013 at 1:37 am

  17. Pingback: Kerabu Bok Hnee – Spicy Fungus and Chicken Salad | travellingfoodies

  18. Pingback: Acar Awak (Penang Acar) | Feats of Feasts | A Food Blog

  19. Pingback: Penang MFF: Char Kueh Tiaw | Kelly Siew Cooks

  20. Pingback: Nyonya Roti Babi | travellingfoodies

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  22. Useful info. Lucky me I found your web site unintentionally,
    and I’m surprised why this accident didn’t happened earlier!

    I bookmarked it.

    September 18, 2013 at 4:31 pm

  23. ONG Jin Teong

    Have a look at my book, “Penang Heritage Food” if you are interested in Penang food. It is about cooking Penang heritage food and heritage about food. There is a chapter on Penang Specialties and chapters on Malay, Hokkien, Hainanese, Indian and Thai influences on Penang food. It is written from a Penang Nonya/Baba perspective.
    And there are numerous old photograhs!

    June 24, 2014 at 11:52 am

  24. Pingback: Penang Muar Chee | JustAsDelish.com

  25. Pingback: Penang Acar | Penang Achar (Penang Spicy Pickled Vegetables) | JustAsDelish.com

  26. Pingback: Penang Asam laksa | JustAsDelish.com

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