After reading so much about Penang being the cuisine capital of Malaysia, I am ready to eat my way around the island. And, with masses of locals, expats and travellers all revelling in the local foodie culture, it comes as no surprise that the food courts and street stalls hold pride of place. Penang has long been viewed as the edgy, less developed cousin of Kuala Lumpur.

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The island was initially developed by mistake in 1786 as a trading post by Captain Francis Light, of the East India Company, who had actually been sent by his British bosses to take Thailand as a trading port. But fate intervened and, after a romantic love affair, he eloped to Penang to settle with his love, turning the island into the trading port instead.

This, in turn, led to the blending of cultural delights that Penang is renowned for today. Heading out onto the streets of the island’s capital, George Town, I am determined to find some street food – a term which perhaps, for many South Africans, conjures up images of grubby stalls selling past-their-prime food items on greasy plates, lazy flies buzzing around and the thought of food poisoning never far off. But, as I am about to discover, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

New World Park Food Court

A local fish stall in one of the street markets of George Town

A local fish stall in one of the street markets of George Town

The first stop on my culinary journey is the New World Park Food Court. Here, plastic tables and chairs share an undercover courtyard surrounded by 25 vendor stalls selling a variety of local dishes. I slink around the periphery, eventually settling for a bowl of asam laksa – a spicy noodle dish made with mackerel, tamarind, lemongrass, chillies and shrimp paste. It is fantastic!

Another stand grabs my attention and I head over and order a bowl of hokkien hae mee. Soaking up the piping hot broth is a mixture of noodles, prawns, sliced chicken, squid and spinach. It is a firm local favourite and I can taste why. With my lunchtime craving finally satisfied, I traipse off in search of the street art that George Town is so famous for. In 2012, for the George Town Festival, the Penang Island Municipal Council commissioned a young artist to create paintings, murals and 3D art around the city. Today, this art has brought the city to life and encourages locals and visitors alike to venture out onto the streets on foot.

Streets and walls of George Town

In the last few years, other artists have added their pieces to the streets and walls of George Town, making this one of the best areas in the world for street-art fans. It doesn’t take me long to find the piece I’ve been looking for. I gaze at it in fascination. Not only is it on the side of an old, dilapidated building, but it has an actual bicycle standing in front of it, attached to the wall, and two painted children riding it. This is the first of many 3D images I come across and I fall in love with all of them. That evening, with weary legs and a grumbling stomach, I fall upon another of George Town’s famous food courts, Red Garden Food Paradise (redgarden-food.com). This place is clearly geared towards tourists with its great location, slightly higher prices and karaoke set up in the centre.

Despite the live ‘music’, I’m immediately a fan. The food court has a large number of stalls, the majority of which sell seafood. But I am in the mood for something different and I find it at Kimpo Famous Roasted Crispy Duck stall where a row of golden-skinned ducks hang behind a plate of glass. Served with rice, cucumber and a sticky sauce, the duck is so tasty that I decide one portion definitely isn’t enough and head back for more. But, I get sidetracked and walk away with a plate of crispy pork – soft and juicy and the sauce silky and delicious.

De Tai Tong Dim Sum Restaurant

De Tai Tong Dim Sum Restaurant

De Tai Tong Dim Sum Restaurant

The following day, and after an enthralling trip to the Kek Lok Si Temple complex, I set off to find one of Penang’s highly rated dim sum restaurants, De Tai Tong Dim Sum. This local eatery is often bursting at the seams with locals and travellers alike and it can be difficult to get a table, but luck is on my side. No sooner do I sit down when an elderly lady pushing a silver trolley, piled high with wooden baskets of warm dim sum, approaches my table. She points at the contents of her trolley and does her best to explain the different choices to me. I can’t help but feel like a local popping soya sauce-soaked dumplings into my mouth.

Penang Hill

My last day in Penang is spent ascending Penang Hill (penanghill.gov.my), which is 833 metres above sea
level. It is one of the oldest colonial hill stations established by the British during their time in Malaysia. Although it is possible to hike up the hill, I have no intention of embarking on such a strenuous mission and wait for the Penang Hill Funicular Railway. After a day filled with amazing views and plenty of Kodak moments, I decide to spice things up and head off to an area known as Little India and a restaurant called Sri Ananda Bahwan for dinner.

With the stifling heat and humidity that settles over Penang in August, I ask the waiters to set up a table for me outside on the pavement. I have a spicy, thick crab curry in front of me, a garlic naan and a large Tiger beer calling my name. What bliss. Penang is an island of surprises.

A traditional clan house in Cannon Square

A traditional clan house in Cannon Square

Whether you arrive ready to immerse yourself in new experiences or you are retracing footsteps, she doesn’t fail to delight. And it is these thoughts that are running through my mind when the heavens open and down comes the rain. People scurry across the street, waiters grab curry-laden dishes off tables and scramble for cover. “Madam, you must come inside,” urges a waiter dashing to my table. “I will find you somewhere nice to sit.” “Actually, I think I’ll just sit here for now. It’s so hot anyway and it will probably stop soon.” And just like that the downpour is over. “See, I told you,” I say with a smile. “I am surprised,” he replies. “I thought the rain was going to stay.” It seems that even the locals nevercease to be surprised by what Penang offers up.