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Penang, Malaysia: a historical and culinary delight

Welded Cast Iron Sculptures Depict Penang's History
Welded Cast Iron Sculptures Depict Penang's History
Jennifer Eiber

The sizable island of Penang is located on the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Known for it’s vibrant culture, charming towns and a food scene like no other, one could easily pass through without stepping foot on a beach. No white sands and turquoise water here. Penang has skyscrapers and Starbucks and it’s Malaysia’s second largest city aside from the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

The island became a British settlement in the late 18th century and there are certainly signs of British colonization in it’s historical capital, George Town. George Town is rooted in deep history and has enough eye candy to keep anyone entertained for days with it’s colonial buildings, inspiring street art and temples, mosques and churches aplenty. In 2008 George Town was awarded a UNESCO World Heritage site and to celebrate, the city commissioned artwork to reflect its cultural heritage. The stories of George Town’s past are revealed through welded cast iron sculptures that hang against the facade of old buildings in many alleyways throughout the city.

Geographically centered between the Middle East, India and China maritime trade routes, Malaysia has always attracted immigration. The Peninsula is home to roughly 50% Malays, 40% Chinese and 10% Indians. Many speak three languages: their native tongue, Malay, and English. While the majority of Malays are Muslim, there are still a significant number of Hindus, Buddhists and a slightly less number of Christians. Somehow they all seem to live and work together with their cultures and religions overlapping.

When there’s a mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisine all bundled together it’s like a nonstop party (disco ball included) for your taste buds. Penang is a foodie’s delight and hawker stalls are where the magic happens. These massive outdoor areas with multiple food vendors sizzle up inexpensive, mouthwatering cuisine. Local dishes to savor include:

Malay:
Chow down on char kuey taew (flat noodles with prawns, squid and a duck egg), nasi campur (buffet of steamed rice with dozens of meat and vegetable options) and nasi lamak (coconut milk rice with fried anchovies and chili paste served at breakfast).

Chinese:
Devour crispy noodles with gravy, tom yum soup with prawns, fried clams and grilled stingray.

Indian:
Feast on roti canai (flaky flat bread), tandori chicken and naan (bread) with separate mint, spicy and sweet sauces, tosai (flat roti with sauces served at breakfast) and cool cha (Indian pizza).

After all the grubbing take a stroll through history to walk it off. Be sure to check out the old Chinese shophouses, Fort Cornwallis, Mansion Peranakan Penang and the Penang City and Town Halls.