Cafes, restaurants, markets places and hawker stalls
Potpourri of delicacies, pub grubs and more, all in one single thoroughfare
While Penang island is better known as a food paradise among tourists and local Malaysians alike, the exciting and spectacular gastronomic fare along the 3.5km stretch of Jalan Raja Uda has been a secret hitherto known and appreciated only by Butterworth folks. The diversity of mostly Chinese and western choices available here makes it among the most alluring food destinations in the northern region. These include an array of vegetarian cuisine due to the presents of prominent Toaist and Buddhist temples in the area.
As soon as one enters Jalan Raja Uda at its southern point, a number of trendy cafes on the left side greet the eye as though enticing one with their the wafting aroma of freshly brewed coffee beans and tea leaves. Across the street from these cafes and behind a block of shoplots is a little known party enclave set around the towering Aroma Hotel. Here one finds pubs, cafes and steak houses, as well as Japanese restaurant and others.
Moving northward, there is another hidden hub worth adding to your list of restaurants and trendy places to hang out and be seen. This is a indeed a surprising and exciting little world nestled at the far corner of Jalan Ong Yi How. As you sip your cup of ice-blended frappuccino and enjoy exotic designer cakes, take the opportunity of snapping a selfie or two to share with your friends on social media.
Although Penangites are an adventurous lot, always game to try new things and sample modernist fare, they will however more than often crave for their comfort food of hawker delights at down-to-earth coffee shops and food courts, many of which are around the traditional market places. Many of these items have been served through generations and are eternal in their appeal. Not only are they truly lip-smackingly good, but they are also cooked and served amid the throbbing and palpable pulse of common Penang folks. Thank for example a simple plate of Char Koay Teow could be wok-fried to your liking with the assortment of condiments and even its spiciness adjusted to your preferences. Unlike microwaved meals, most of the meals here are cooked right in front of your eyes by the hawkers, with fresh ingredients and gusto.
This is where you can unleash the authentic feel of Penang's true local gastronomic spirit on your tastebuds. Order a tall glass of ambra fruit juice with dried sour plum or a bowl of ice kacang with a dollop of vanilla ice cream to compliment your fiery bowl of curry mee. Or better still, order more to fill the table with a scrumptious spread of lor bak, ikan panggang, claypot chicken rice, satay, popiah, assam laksa, wantan mee, curry fish head, fried oysters and chee cheong fun. It is such a very remarkable experience that has help to hurled Penang onto to top 10 food destinations of the world. You can get all these and more without having to cross the channel to Penang island, in the culturally rich precinct of Jalan Raja Uda.
Among the many hawker centres and kopitiams, the two most famous ones are the Apollo Market and the Sin Tatt Garden Hawker Centre. Apollo Market is the largest open public market in Penang. It is so huge that within its vicinity alone there are more than 500 vendors including stalls selling fresh market produce and food stalls (over three shifts for breakfast, lunch and dinner).
Just a short distance south, Sin Tatt Garden is another dynamic and throbbing site with some sixty food and beverage stalls open for dinner till midnight. Whether it be the tossing of the Apom, the energetic stir-frying of Koay Kak over a flaming wok, or the rapid dexterous movements of “Popiah aunties”, the fluid and almost acrobatic culinary actions before one’s eyes will certainly leave visitors entertained.
If are inclined to end your culinary adventure for the evening with some memorable dessert treats, make sure to visit the traditional Nyonya kuih stalls for genuine taste of Peranakan delights. As you ponder and mull over the variegated selection of items including kuih kosui, angku, seri muka, kow chan kuih, kuih talam, pulut tai tai, abuk abuk, onde onde, pulut inti or kuih bengka, you can never go wrong here.
As you savour the colorful, petite and delicate Nyonya kuih, do reflect on the legacy and heritage of the simple yet enchanting treats. These Nyonya delicacies encapsulate the essence and creativity of our grandmothers and forefathers of yore in adapting and assimilating the best flavours of the region with those inherited from distant and now forgotten homelands. For they verily gave rise to the remarkable syncretic kaleidoscope of the world-famous Peranakan cuisine that we know of today.
As we enjoy the best of both worlds – the traditional and the ultra-modern – at Jalan Raja Uda, the emergence of hip and trendy outlets may just lead to the blossoming of a new phase in Penang's cultural and culinary history.
Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographs by Adrian Cheah