Penang is an island that is nestled in the northern part of Malaysia on the Straits of Malacca. Covering an area of just 293 km2 (113 sq mi), Penang is one of the most populous islands in Malaysia and is home to a predominantly Hokkien Chinese community.
At the same time, the island is a melting pot of cultures, religions, and festivals, with the Malay, Chinese, and Indian populations blending together to create a unique cultural tapestry. Its rich history is evident in the architecture and the people, shaped by British colonialism during its time as part of the Straits Settlement from 1826 to 1946. Today, Penang is a popular tourist attraction and has been a UNESCO Heritage Site since 2008. With its vibrant culture, stunning architecture, and mouth-watering culinary haven, it’s no surprise that Anthony Bourdain was drawn to visit Penang during his visits to Southeast Asia.
Anthony Bourdain visited Panang to film season 8 (episode 8) of No Reservations. It was his only on-screen visit to this part of Malaysia – but not his only visit to the country. In this episode, Bourdain arrived on the island in the middle of the Chinese New Year festivities, which is a major celebration in Malaysia. In Bourdain’s words, Penang is a chaotic cultural stew, more like a mosaic, with no shortage of festivals.”
Ready to explore the places visited by Anthony Bourdain in Penang to plan your own trip? Read on!
CF Food Court (The Jetty Food Court)
In Malaysia, food courts are the go-to destination for locals seeking a delicious and affordable meal. These bustling hubs are home to a variety of hawker stalls, each run as a multigenerational business specializing in a particular dish.
Bourdain and Moggie began their meal with Wanton Mee. This noodle dish features wanton noodles, which are cooked to perfection and served in a dark, sweet, and savory soy sauce. Topped with juicy barbecued pork, tender shredded chicken, fresh greens, and wanton dumplings filled with flavorful minced pork, Wanton Mee is a true culinary delight. To add a bit of heat, the dish is typically served with a spoonful of pickled green chili on the side.
Next, they had Balitong, a spiral-shaped sea snail. According to Bourdain, Balitong falls somewhere between a periwinkle and a whelk in terms of its flavor and texture. The Balitong dish was stir-fried in a rich, spicy chili sauce. To enjoy this unique dish, one must suck the snail out of its shell.
Pasar Air Itam
The following day, Bourdain’s culinary journey led him to Air Itam to savor the flavors of Assam Laksa, another must-try noodle dish in Penang.
Having tasted laksa before in Kuching, Sarawak, Bourdain was excited to try this. However, Kuching’s laksa is vastly different from Penang’s laksa even if they share similar names. The Penang Assam Laksa’s thick rice noodles are immersed in a fish-based broth that is both tangy and savory. Its sourness comes from tamarind, which is cooked with fragrant herbs and topped with shredded fish (mackerel), sliced cucumber, onions, red chillies, mint leaves, laksa leaves, and finely chopped torch ginger flower.
Muthu Restaurant Chettinad aka “The Mess”
On his third meal, Bourdain ventured to a hidden gem with Penang native, Leonard Selva in search of banana leaf curry rice. This Southern Indian dish got its name after the banana leaf where hot piping rice is served on top of the banana leaf and accompanied by various curries and side dishes. Additionally, diners are treated to papadum, a thin savory cracker, alongside their meal.
New Lane Food Stalls
Bourdain’s culinary journey continued to the bustling New Lane Food Stalls, a popular destination for outdoor dining. Located in the heart of Georgetown, Penang, New Lane offers a unique dining experience with hawkers lining up the street, serving a variety of local cuisines. Diners enjoy their meals on small plastic stools and tables, adding to the charming street food ambiance. Here, Bourdain had Char Kuey Teow, another infamous Malaysia dish.
Char Kuey Teow is fresh rice noodles stir-fried with pork lard, prawns, eggs, chives, and homemade soy sauce. Dining with Helen Ong, a food writer, Helen describes that a good Char Kuey Teow has a distinct smoky flavor, known as “wok hei,” which comes from a well-seasoned wok that has been used for years.
Red Garden Food Court (CLOSED)
The next night, Bourdain and Moggie headed out for dinner at the Red Garden Food Court where they ordered fish head curry. Fish head curry is a dish that features a fish head cooked in a deep, flavorful curry with a variety of vegetables. Bourdain noted that the dish’s uniqueness doesn’t lie in the fish head, but rather in the depth of flavor provided by the curry. Although Red Garden Food Court is permanently closed, fish head curry remains a popular dish that can still be ordered at many seafood-serving Chinese restaurants throughout Malaysia.
Restoran Nasi Kandar Line Clear
Bourdain’s last food destination in Penang was Line Clear Nasi Kandar. Located in downtown Penang, the eatery is open 24 hours a day and is always bustling with customers. Bourdain met up with Leonard Selva again who explained that the name “Line Clear” is a local phrase that means “no problem.”
At Line Clear Nasi Kandar, customers have a wide variety of curry dishes to choose from, including chicken, lamb, beef, fish, and seafood, all served with a generous portion of white rice and topped with the curry of their choice. The restaurant is especially popular among late-night partygoers looking for a delicious meal after a night out.
Local Dining Experiences Tony Had in Penang
During his visit to Penang, Bourdain had the opportunity to partake in unique dining experiences that were not in public restaurants. These experiences highlight the distinctiveness of Penang’s cuisine and contribute to its reputation as a food paradise in Malaysia.
- Roast pork and traditional steamed buns – Bourdain visited Sue Ping, a Hokkien and native of Penang who was celebrating the Jade Emperor King’s festival on the ninth day of the Chinese New Year. During the festival, the Chinese community makes elaborate food offerings to the Jade Emperor King. Whole roast pork is a common offering, and Bourdain enjoyed roast pork served in traditional steamed buns, which are typically eaten during the celebration.
- Fresh seafood – Bourdain also had a unique seafood experience, purchasing fresh fish from a fishing village known as Keylongs. After buying the seafood, Bourdain jet skied to Monkey Beach, a remote location accessible only by jetski, and enjoyed a barbecue featuring Red Snapper, shrimps, and baitfish on the beach. Additionally, Bourdain had fresh seafood at an unnamed Chinese restaurant in a fishing village in Balik Pulau. There is no set menu and locals would bring fresh seafood to the restaurant to be cooked. Unfortunately, this restaurant is now closed.
- Homemade Baba & Nyonya cuisine – Bourdain experienced a unique dining experience with Helen Ong, a food writer, who introduced him to the world of Baba Nyonya cuisine. Baba & Nyonya, also known as Peranakan Chinese, are the descendants of Chinese immigrants who have assimilated Malay and European cultures over the years. This fusion is reflected in their cuisine, which combines Chinese and Malay flavors and techniques. Helen’s mother prepared traditional Baba Nyonya dishes such as Perut Ikan, Otak Otak, and Jiu Hu Char. Visitors to Penang can still savor these unique dishes at Baba Nyonya and Peranakan restaurants.
Bourdain’s visit to Penang showcased the rich diversity of food and culture that the island has to offer. Penang’s food scene is truly a melting pot of flavors and traditions. With its vibrant street food culture and eclectic mix of restaurants, Penang is a must-visit destination for foodies and cultural enthusiasts alike. A visit to this Malaysian island promises to be a culinary adventure filled with unique and unforgettable dining experiences.
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