George Town, Penang - Street Food, South Indian

Prawn based curry - rich, gratifying and full bodied, goes well with the traditional south Indian banana leaf rice or with Penang's unique Nasi Kandar.


The tongue has to twirl itself a bit in naming this snack, but it is a truly simple rice flour breakfast creation from Tamil Nadu in southern India and also popular in Sri Lanka and south-east Asia.  Idiyappam flour is mixed with coconut milk to form a mixture which is then pressed against a holed ladle to create the vermicelli-like noodles.  Such noodles are steamed for eating and often flavoured with the Pandanus leaves favoured in tropical climes.  As the Putu itself is often plain, they are served often with palm sugar, grated coconut or jaggery (which is Hindi or Urdu for a composite made from sugar cane and palm sugar, which can be mixed with peanuts and coconut).  A total vegetarian diet choice!

Suggested Sources of Putu Mayam:

1.   Stall at the Sin Hup Aun Cafe, Pulau Tikus, near the site of the markets, from 6pm to 10pm.

2.  Stall in front of the preserved Birch House, now part of the Berjaya Times Square complex, Datuk Keramat Road near lower Penang Road. 


Rice flour, thick coconut milk, eggs, corn starch, pinches of salt and sugar, baking powder and even a little cooked rice are the main ingredients mix into a batter in preparing these fluffy Indian styled crepes. The batter can then be pan cooked on flat skillets with several round holes.

They are flaky light on the palate, excellent for breakfast and usually eaten by themselves or with small banana cuts, kaya toast, poached eggs, shredded coconut and sweet corn.

There are even the so-called Chinese versions in Penang called the Ban Chien Kueh.  Such sweet crepes are also alternatively called Apong or Apong Balik (turned over crepes) in multi-cultural Malaysia.  The Chinese styled versions tend to be slightly thicker at times.

Suggested Sources of Apom:

1.  Ravi's Apom Manis at the Swee Kong coffee shop, at corner of Moulmein Close and Burma Road, opposite the Pulau Tikus police station. Open 6am to 10am.

2. Stall at the New Cathy Cafe, near corner with Kuching Lane and Burma Road, Pulau Tikus - open from 730am to 3pm.

2.  Apom Chooi and Apom Guan along Burma Road -  run by two aging brothers whose push cart stalls are placed only around 30 metres apart. Both stalls are open from the afternoon till 8pm and are well known amongst Penang locals. Their stalls are parked in front of the Union Girls Primary School.  Note the use of the delicious local banana type
Pisang Raja in their Apoms.


Roti is the sustenance when you are twenty years old, carrying your knapsack in a  strange land, sweating it out with fellow travellers.  You are hungry after a late night out, still thrive on this inner passion for adventure and yearn for this wheat based snack as an alternative to all the exotic foods that are in front of you. You do not have much money, still dream of covering more unexplored lands with what you have and there is this sweet young something walking beside you. Life is seemingly free, life is uncomplicated and you can do anything with your time.

The legend of Roti Canai stretches from the Indian sub-continent to South-east Asia and even the capital cities of Australasia.  Yes, they are essentially carbohydrates, required to pump the body under the relentless carrying of all your possessions on your shoulders, doing the outdoor thing and effectively managing a tight budget whilst on the go.  Usually the Dalcha bean vegetarian curry is provided to dip the roti with.  You sit on rickety chairs beside equally unstable tables on road pavements or inside well run shops.  The Indian vendors do know a spattering of touristy English - do not under estimate them! In Penang, they offer different varieties of Roti  - with names like Roti John for Australians, Roti Tissue, with an empty high cone, Roti Telur for those who miss eggs and Roti Kosong for plain flat breads.

Nowadays, you can also request for meat based curry dips to accompany your Roti - I prefer mutton, chicken or lamb.

Most of these Roti Canai places are deftly run by Indian Muslims around the upper Penang Road area, Transfer Road and Argyll Road - all within the UNESCO heritage designated are of George Town.  Often open from mornings till evening time.

Vegetarian version of banana leaf rice - you may get this at religious festivals in Hindu temples but also at commercial outlets around Penang Island. My recommendations are to go to the Kerala Restaurant in the New World Park, Swatow Lane in George Town and to its parent outlet in the southern suburb of Gelugor (at 5, Lorong Endah 4 near Permai Road and the small playground).
My rating for their banana leaf rice at Kerala, New World Park, is an eight out of ten.


This unassuming snack is made from rice and beans - the Urad Dhal  (split bean which is black outside and white inside) with ghee or margarine - and so can provide much energy if you are on a travelling diet.   Both the rice and beans are soaked in preparing for Tosei, which requires a flat based skillet for making the batter.  They can be served with chicken curry or coconut chutney.  Recommended for breakfast time.  Does a Tosei look like an Apom?  No, the former is savoury and has a spicy mix - not as plain as the fluffy thin Apom.  

You can easily find this offered in Little India, especially along Penang and Market Streets in the UNESCO heritage designated area of George Town.


Pasembor refers to a snack with crunchy deep fried stuff and julienned slices of crunchy vegetables. Prawn fritters, boiled and sliced potatoes, cuttlefish, sliced cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, shredded turnip, servings of spiced up crab and cubed deep fried tofu are ingredients.  The sauce is critical, it makes or breaks this dish - and it is made from tamarind juice extract;  boiled, peeled and mashed sweet potatoes; roasted groundnuts; peeled shallots; oil-fired dry chilis; garlic; toasted sesame seeds; and sugar and salt to taste.
The resulting mix is tossed and served fresh.  The gravy is potato rich and yet the outcome is spicy, light and gratifying.  In other parts of Peninsular Malaysia, this dish is known as the Rojak Mamak, "mamak'  being the Malaysian term to mean the south Indian Muslim community.

Suggested Sources of Pasembor:

1.  Stall at the Gurney Drive Food Centre, northern end of Gurney Drive near the Gurney Plaza and Paragon Shopping Centres (Indian version) - open during evenings only.

2.  Stall at the Padang Brown hawker complex in the afternoons  (Chinese version)

3.  Stall at the New World Park, Swatow Lane, open from 11am to 5pm.  (Chinese version)

Map Copyright Cozy Home Inn


The delights of these two wok prepared hawker dishes goes back to my childhood.  Many a time, these dishes were a treat for me at tea time in the afternoons, an alternative to plainer Chinese food, with my stomach instinctively prepared for the aromatic wok heat of the stir fried noodles of Mee Goreng or the yumminess in the sweet potato based gravy version of Mee Rebus.  Best eaten with cooling syrup drinks like Ais Tingkap (a  blend of coconut water, basil seeds, shaved ice and dug out coconut flesh), I can still envisage the vision of a hot setting sun, with the concurrent bite into the deep fried stuff and twist of the Kalamansi lime juice that accompanied the noodles.  Easy to get into a sweat from this, but there is an inner satisfaction from the kick of the chili hot noodles and its marinade.

Mee Goreng - Just referring to stir-fried yellow Hokkien noodles, the uniqueness of this dish is in the marinade utilised.  The garnishings are the same as for the Mee Rebus mentioned below.

Mee Rebus - Literally meaning boiled yellow Hokkien noodles, but its taste is better than its name.  Garnished usually with dried shrimp battered crunchy bites, tofu squares, sliced Chinese cabbage, deep fried shallots, green chili bits, bean sprouts, hard boiled eggs and deep fried marinated cuttle fish.  The gravy  is a rich wonderful recipe based on both potatoes and sweet potatoes.

The Mee Rebus has  a variation in the Mee Java, with Indonesian influences.  These related dishes are all based on the plain noodle dishes from southern China, except that they have been fusion-influenced with chilis, given a south-east Asian stir and enriched with innovative sauces and garnishing.

Suggested Sources of Mee Rebus and Mee Goreng:

1.  Excellent Cafe at the New Asia Coffee Shop, 39-B Air Itam Road, Air Itam, on the way to the station to take the furnicular railway up Penang Hill. Open from morning till late at night.

2.   Stall at the New World Park, Swatow from 11am to 5pm.

3.   Seong Huat coffee shop ( formerly the Larut Cafe ) at No.1 Larut Road, the corner of Larut and Bawasah Roads – this stall has an enviable positive reputation amongst the locals and was formerly based along the road at the Chinese Recreation Club. Open from 530pm to 1030pm.

4.   Malay styled version at the hawker centre, Fort Cornwallis, Esplanade. Open from the afternoons except Fridays.

5.    Stall at coffee shop, 270 Bangkok Lane, at junction with Burma Road, Pulau Tikus, from 830am to 5pm.  My long time favourite.


6.  Java Mee at the Cecil Street Markets, Cecil Street, not far from Weld Quay.  The stall is open from  9am to 5pm.

7.   Java Mee at  the Kek Seng coffee shop, lower Pernang Road, open from 11am to 430pm daily.This place has other street food dishes worth trying - Ais Kacang, tamarind Laksa, Lor Bak, Poh Pniah and Satay.


Popular at break fast, lunch time or dinner sessions and even for supper, this dish epitomises the passion for food in multi-cultural Malaysia.   It is one specific dish that transgresses any boundaries in race, culture and wealth groups.  A main meal by itself, it offers steamed white rice, or Briyani cooked with various aromatic condiments, or tomato flavoured rice, on top of cut and cleaned banana leaves or plates.  You choose from a spectrum of meat, veg and seafood curries - my preference is for okra, deep fried chicken, braised mutton curry, creamy fish curry and stir-fried vegetables.  

The dish literally means cooked rice carried by a vendor's pole - that was how the dish evolved when sold in the early 20th century by people moving from street to street, house to house, market to market.  Today you can enjoy eating this in the comfort of air-conditioned restaurants, beside street pavements and in market food courts, the only difference is that the consumer has to go to the source!

Suggested Sources of Nasi Kandar:

1.  Restaurant Caravan (formerly known as  the Craven A Cafe fro many years) at 4 Datuk Keramat Road, near junction with Macalister Road and the GAMA Shopping Centre and KOMTAR.

2.  Outlets along Tamil Street, in Little India section of the UNESCO designated heritage area of George Town, near the Esplanade.

3.  Line Clear, with an address of 177 Penang Road, near junction of upper Penang Road and Chulia Street.  Stall hidden away from Penang Road but there is a yellow marker that points towards this stall. Open 24 hours a day, except between 1pm and 2pm on Fridays and every alternate Tuesday. Best for a take away!

4.   Merlin Coffee Shop, 1 Penang Street, near the junction with Union Street and part of an old styled hotel. Within the UNESCO designated heritage area of George Town, near the Esplanade.  My personal favourite! Lunch time only.

Banana leaf rice in the south Indian style is often vegetarian whilst Nasi Kandar is always served with meat based curries and cooked vegetables.

Crispy deep fried sides are always popular in the variety off street food in Penang - the best contain seafood or vegetables.

The extent of dip on curries is a must try when you are in George Town - photo above has a display of accompaniments that go with veg meals.

POST NOTE: Do plan your route ahead when exploring Georgetown's street food.  Public transport quality can be patchy and not on schedule.  I recommend hiring a bicycle/motor bike/ car or getting a friend to drive! The weather can be warm, humid or rainy at times.  Always have pocket tissues with you, for unlike in Australia and New Zealand, no vendor offers such tissues with your food. Always be ready to be able to pack snacks or left overs. Be careful when crossing streets for motor cycles, usually small powered Hondas, as there can be a casualness with these local riders on narrow streets and pavements, especially in the UNESCO designated heritage zones. Most businesses open late from 11am.  

At the time of this posting, most of the dishes recommended in this blog post cost from Malaysian Ringgit 3 to 5 per serving.  Coffee and most other drinks  in traditional coffee shops ask for a couple of Malaysian ringgit on average. The GST is planned to be introduced to Malaysia from April 2015. For local barista places, be prepared to pay around Malaysian Ringgit 4 to 8 for their drinks.

Common Malay words in maps are as follows: Jalan is a road, Lebuh refers to a street,  Solok indicates a cul-de-sac, Lorong means a lane, Lebuhraya is an avenue.  Jalan sehala indicates one way only for vehicle traffic.

Have on hand small currency notes - and a coin purse to handle change.  When consuming street food on a provided table in  food court or traditional coffee shop, you are expected to order drinks from the drinks stall. Street food stalls can be finicky handling opening hours, it can depend  on their other job, festive days and ingredients running out.  Portions can be rather small when compared to what you have in Asian outlets in Western countries but it is a perfect opportunity to sample the variety of what is available before you go to hit the gym, beach or park.  Acknowledgement and thanks to several of my family and friends, especially Mr Philip Yeoh for their valued guidance and efforts in helping us secure a spectrum of street food places in February 2015. Feedback from readers of this blog post is most welcome.