By Ian Ong, Managing Editor
Located next to the iconic Chinatown arch, there stands a bastion of good food and friendly service.
Sharing its name with the Malaysian state in question, Penang is a modest, sit-down restaurant specializing in Malaysian and Thai cuisine. The venue has a delightful, rustic ambience, reminiscent of the village homes found in Malaysian kampongs. Seating is abundant, and their menus offer a variety of platters, meaning that you are sure to find something you love.
Join me on my culinary journey as I sample some of Southeast Asia’s most iconic dishes, Penang style.
Roti canai is an Indian-style flatbread traditionally eaten with a side of curry. In Malaysia, it is commonly eaten as a breakfast dish. It’s almost like eating a pancake—except replace the maple syrup with savory chicken curry. The roti at Penang stays true to the classic, simple recipe and is a great appetizer for nearly any meal.
The next appetizer on the list is popiah. Similar to spring rolls, popiah are flour wraps chock full of tasty ingredients. These fillings may consist of turnips, grated carrots, bean sprouts, tofu, shredded omelette—almost anything, really. Penang’s version of the roll is topped with a fried onion garnish and drizzled with hoisin sauce, creating a delectable, bite-sized treat.
Now, onto the main dishes. Nasi lemak is a fragrant rice dish cooked using coconut milk and pandan leaf. Nasi lemak is a definite favorite among Malaysians; in fact, it is considered a national dish there. And what’s not to like about it? Along with the whole rice deal, you get anchovies, peanuts, cucumber slices, curry and a boiled egg. While that may seem like a bizarre list of ingredients at first, my advice is: don’t bash it until you try it. Nasi lemak has a truly unique flavor of its own.
Chow kueh teow
Next, I ordered one of my favorite dishes in Malaysian cuisine: the ever-so-savory chow kueh teow. It is a popular noodle dish with a reputation for being unhealthy due to the fact that it is traditionally fried in pig lard. If you are a fan of stir fried dishes, then chow kueh teow is something that you just have to try sooner or later, even if just a few bites.
Hainanese chicken rice
You won’t find a more iconic Southeast Asian dish than Hainanese chicken rice. Consisting of poached chicken and rice cooked with ginger, garlic and pandan leaves, it is deliciousness condensed into its purest form. It is also considered one of the national dishes of Singapore, and is widely eaten in places such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. Penang’s take on the dish does not disappoint, with their use of ginger accentuating the bold taste of chicken and their rice, cooked and flavored to perfection.
Curry mee (coconut laksa)
To finish off my hearty meal, I turned to a cultural classic: curry mee. If you like spicy stuff, then curry mee is for you. The dish consists of thin noodles, tofu and meat, all simmered in a scalding-hot curry stew.
Penang is most definitely a rare find among restaurants. It taps into a niche style of cuisine and is able to do it well, while staying true to the authentic dishes and culture. Top that off with affordable prices, and it definitely gets my recommendation. So, the next time you swing by downtown Philly, make a stop in Chinatown, grab a lychee drink, and remember to get a taste of some of the best foods in the world.
Ian can be reached at email@example.com.