Street food or “hawker” stands is nothing short of an institution in Penang, and is in fact one of the region’s biggest draws. You can hardly turn a corner in the island’s capital of Georgetown without finding one of these ubiquitous street-side food stalls, or a congregation of them known as “hawker centres” (typically a dining area of tables and chairs surrounded by stalls). There is protocol to eating at these foodie meccas however, which took some awkward maneuvering to figure out the first time I was there. Here is my complete guide to eating at one.
At hawker centres and most street-side restaurants in Penang, you can usually just go straight to the tables and sit down at any empty seat you see, and someone will be by shortly to take your drink order. Buying at least one beverage is usually mandatory and even water isn’t free, but they are generally cheap. (Although tap water is drinkable in Malaysia, it has a distinctive taste to it and I usually ask for bottled water just to be safe.)
How to Order
After you get your drink and pay for it, you can leave it at the table to reserve your spot, and go up to any of the individually-run stalls with your table number to place an order. You pay in cash when your food is delivered so don’t try to hand money to the person cooking the food!
If you forgot your number or there isn’t one, you can just point out the general area of your table to the vendor. Sometimes the person who took your order will bring your food personally. Most will send the server to walk around that area with your food until you hail them, so keep a look out for people carrying your dish!
There is no limit to how many different hawker stalls you can order from, but in my experience, turnover from ordering to getting your food has been pretty fast, so I recommend getting your orders in quickly and returning to your seat as soon as possible.
How to Eat
Although most stands and even restaurants have napkins, the custom is not to automatically give it out unless the customer asks for them. (Someone told me this is a sort of “go green” effort to deal with the levels of trash on the island.) However, there are usually sinks to wash your hands, so look around or ask your waiter if that’s your preference.
There will usually be runners going around clearing plates, so you can leave whenever you are done eating (provided you’ve paid). It is not the custom in Malaysia to tip, and you will not be expected to pay above what you are asked for your food and drink. I would also not advise leaving cash on the table when you leave as there is no knowing who will pick it up.
As a general rule – when in doubt about etiquette, imitate the locals!
When to Eat
Penang is famous for its 24/7 availability of food, but there is such a variety of places to eat that you will be hard-pressed to try even a fraction of it if you only have a few days in town. One strategy imparted to me by the superstar driver that picked me up from the airport (whose other job is as a tour guide) is eating many small meals throughout the day, for example: early breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, and then supper later at night (after 9pm).
The key is to ask for small portions of everything you try. You can usually just say “small” when you are ordering and sign a small plate with your fingers if it doesn’t seem like the vendor understood you. Because eating this way is the norm, even vendors that don’t speak English should get what you are asking for.
How to Find Them
Few if any of the local eateries have a web presence so you will basically have to walk around and see what you can find. A local tour guide told me that a good strategy for finding great food is to look around to see where the elderly locals go. The thinking is that older people tend to be set in their ways, and once they find a good restaurant, will go to it regularly for years.