Street Food - Penang vs Singapore vs Kuala Lumpur

Foreign visitors to Singapore and Malaysia are often confused by the differing versions of street foods they encounter in Penang compared to those in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The fact is that Malaysia is a federation of disparate states which, together with Singapore, were cobbled together by the British in 1957 to form one country. Singapore left the Malaysian federation in 1965 due to political differences.

Besides Penang and Singapore, which were basically founded by the British East India Company just over 200 years ago, the others were Malay sultanates which had lived independently for centuries and have their own culinary cultures.

Even as the Chinese and Indians migrate en masse to Singapore and Malaysia during the two centuries of British colonial rule, their cuisines also evolved separately depending upon the states they lived in.

These are some of the major street food items which bear the same names, but may be very different dishes, depending on where one finds them:

Hokkien Mee
As the name suggests, this noodle dish is of Hokkien/Fujianese origin. The Hokkiens form the majority of the Chinese in Penang and Singapore, but a small minority in Kuala Lumpur which has a mainly Cantonese Chinese populace.

Penang Hokkien mee comes in soup form: a mixture of yellow Hokkien wheat noodles, beansprouts, and thin rice vermicelli (“bee hoon”) in a spicy pork-prawn broth, garnished with poached slivers of pork, de-shelled shrimps, hard-boiled egg and golden-fried shallots.

Singapore Hokkien mee is a fried noodle dish which consisted of yellow Hokkien wheat noodles and a thick form of rice vermicelli (“chor bee hoon”). Pork-prawn broth is added during the frying process, so it can be absorbed by the noodles. The noodle dish will be garnished with slivers of pork, squid and unshelled prawns, with calamansi lime and sambal on the side. No beansprouts., which is hardly used in Singapore street food cooking.

KL Hokkien mee is fried yellow Hokkien wheat noodles with a trademark dark hue from the addition of dark soy sauce. A pork-prawn broth is also added in during the frying process. It’s fried in pork lard and heavily flavored with garlic and dried flounder. It’ll be garnished with pork, shrimp and shredded cabbage. No beansprouts.

Char Koay Teow
Of Teochew/Chaozhou/Chiuchow origin, the dish utilizes flat rice noodles called “koay teow” in Teochew and Hokkien, and “hor fun” in Cantonese.

Penang char koay teow is lightly fried “koay teow” noodles in lard, with de-shelled shrimps, blood cockles, Chinese waxed sausages and egg. Beansprouts and chives are also added. The condiments would include light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, rock sugar, and salted radish.

Singapore char koay teow is a blend of “koay teow” and yellow Hokkien wheat noodles, fried in lard, garnished with cockles and shrimps. Condiments included light and dark soy sauces, and caramel sauce (molasses/treacle). It’s wetter, gluggier than the lighter Penang version. No beansprouts, but chives may be added.

KL char koay teow - fried “koay teow” noodles with beansprouts, cockles and de-shelled shrimps. Its condiments included light and dark soy sauces, but no caramel or any form of sugar. It’s darker than the Penang version, but not as dark or gluggy as the Singapore one.

Curry Mee
Penang curry mee is a blend of yellow Hokkien wheat noodles, beansprouts, and thin rice vermicelli (“bee hoon”) in a thin, milky, salty-savory soup flavored with coconut milk. It’s garnished with its signature pig’s blood pudding, de-shelled shrimps, cockles, tofu puffs and cuttlefish.

Singapore curry mee is also a blend of yellow Hokkien wheat noodles and thin rice vermicelli (“bee hoon”) in a chicken curry, garnished with poached chicken, curried potatoes, tofu puffs and slivers of fish cake.

KL curry mee is also a blend of yellow Hokkien wheat noodles and thin rice vermicelli (“bee hoon”), though one can specfiy one’s choice of noodles: only wheat noodles, or only vermicelli, or even “hor fun” noodles.
The curry gravy here is spicier than the Penang and Singapore ones, and is garnished with its trademark long beans and eggplant. Pig’s skin, poached chicken and tofu puffs can also be found in most renditions of the KL-style curry mee.

Chee Cheong Fun
Chee cheong fun is a much-beloved Cantonese breakfast dish. The name means “pig’s intestines” in Cantonese, although no part of a pig is involved - merely that the tubular form of rolled rice noodles resembled pig’s intestines in shape.

HK has its delicate "cheong fun* - filled with shrimps or “char siew” (BBQ pork) or scallops, bathed with a light, delicate savory sauce. But that’ll be told in another story altogether.

The Singapore/Malaysian chee cheong fun is a much simpler and more rustic dish.

Penang chee cheong fun has bean sauce, chili paste and its trademark, ultra-pungent, fermented shrimp sauce (“hae koh”). It comes garnished with toasted sesame seeds and, sometimes, golden-fried shallots.

Singapore chee cheong fun’s dressing is similar to Penang’s, sans the “hae koh”, which would send Singaporeans (and most non-Penangites) into death throes at a whiff.

KL chee cheong fun has a delicious, savory blend of brown bean sauce, more complex, more savory, and sweeter than the Penang/Singapore variety. One can also order a variety of “yong tau foo” morsels like tofu, crisp-fried yuba, vegetables stuffed with fish-forcemeat, spongey dried (then rehydrated) pig’s skin, etc. to be served with it.

I shall append more street foods of differing versions between the three cities in due course.

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Excellent, Peter. Really interesting and helpful. I’ll be able to better appreciate some of your reviews. Can’t wait for future instalments.

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Goodness @klyeoh — I’m stuffed from dinner but now craving all these noodles :joy:

Great writeup, thank you! Look forward to more.

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Kick-butt compendium thus far. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to Penang, Singapore, and KL (albeit that was only 1 or 2 days when we were transitting elsewhere) and while we ate well, we often felt overwhelmed.

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Laksa

Laksa is perhaps the most “abused” food term in Malaysia - quite a few of the states have their own version of laksa: many noodle dishes served in a bowl of spicy gravy would inadvertently be called a laksa.

Penang Asam Laksa is perhaps the best-known version in Malaysia - it uses thick rice vermicelli, steeped in a tamarind-sour/spicy fishy soup-gravy, replete with minced fish flakes and garnished with fresh, finely-sliced cucumber, onions and pineapple, sprigs of mint, finely-chopped torch ginger flower (“bunga kantan”) and some chopped chilis. A generous drizzle of fermented shrimp sauce (“hae koh”) is added before serving.

Singapore Katong Laksa also uses thick rice vermicelli, but in a spicy, coconut-enriched soup-gravy. Whilst Penang asam laksa’s base flavor is fish, Singapore’s Katong laksa has a dried shrimp base. The Katong laksa will be garnished with cockles, tofu puffs, shrimp, sliced fish-cake, shredded laksa leaves, better known as Vietnamese coriander. A smear of chili paste will be provided for added heat.

KL Curry Laksa - which is merely an alternate term for KL Curry Mee.

The other popular regional brand of laksas in Malaysia, which can be found in larger cities like Kuala Lumpur or Penang, included:

Malacca Nyonya Laksa - this is a forerunner of the Singapore Katong Laksa and has the same taste profile. Malaccans, however, tend to go overboard with their use of coconut milk/creme, so their version can be very rich.

Sarawak Laksa - this is perhaps the most famous noodle dish export from Borneo. Thin rice vermicelli is used, and its gravy has an intoxicating blend of slices, heavy with cumin and coriander, with a slow-burn from the dried chilis and pepper. It’s garnished with shredded chicken-meat, egg omelette and de-shelled shrimps, and topped with coriander sprouts. This is my personal fave laksa in Malaysia and Singapore. Absolutely addictive.

Johore Laksa - this spicy, fish-based laksa from Malaysia’s Southern-most state, right across the border from Singapore, is the only one which uses Italian pasta, instead of a Chinese-based rice noodle. It’s a legacy from its Anglophile 19th-century Sultan Abu Bakar, who fell in love with spaghetti during one of his trips to Europe.
The gravy is fish-based, often with minced wolf herring, threadfin and shrimp-meat. It’ll be garnished with finely-sliced onions, long beans, Vietnamese coriander and chilis.

Of course, Malacca, Sarawak and Johore laksa will all taste inestimably better in their own home states. Malaysian regional dishes do NOT travel well at all!

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It’s 7:30/6:30 AM my time and I’m craving everything on this excellent post! Thanks for sharing :slight_smile:

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Lor Mee
Lor mee is a Fujianese noodle dish with a signature sticky, unctuous, brown gravy cloaking thick yellow noodles. Minced raw garlic and black vinegar are provided to cut through the thick gravy which would have a strong 5-spice scent and flavor. The gravy is thickened with tapioca starch and can be almost gluey in some extreme renditions.
It’s a very popular noodle dish in Fujian, and is often served as a snack to early guests to a wedding dinner, whilst awaiting the arrival of other guests and the commencement of the formal dinner.

Penang Lor Mee has a thick, unctuous gravy made from slow-boiling pork bones, scented with Chinese 5-spice (cinnamon, cloves, fennel, star anise, and Sichuan peppercorn) plus nutmeg and ginger. The sauce is darkened using dark soy sauce, thickened with tapioca starch, and streaked through with egg-white ribbons.
Blanched yellow Hokkien wheat noodles, rice vermicelli (bee hoon) and beansprouts form the base, upon which the thick, gooey gravy is slathered, garnished with slivers of pork, braised chicken feet, pig’s intestines, pig’s liver, soy-braised hard-boiled egg and crispy shallots.
Chili paste, and garlic steeped in vinegar, are provided on the side.

Singapore Lor Mee also has a sticky, unctuous gravy similar to Penang’s, including the spices used.
Its main difference from the Penang version is that the noodles are garnished with crisp, batter-fried fish fillets. No pork or braised chicken feet.
It also utilizes blanched yellow Hokkien wheat noodles and rice vermicelli (bee hoon), but no beansprouts, which is never used in Singapore street food noodle dishes. Instead, cabbage is used to deliver the crunch.
Chili paste and minced raw garlic are provided on the side.

KL Lor Mee utilizes udon-like thick, squiggly noodles, not Hokkien wheat noodles. Its unctuous gravy is lighter in color and consistency, and usually does not have the strong Chinese spice scent typical of the Penang or Singapore ones.
Garnishes are pork and shrimps, with choy sum greens.
Black vinegar, cut red chilis, light soy sauce and minced raw garlic are provided on the side.

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@klyeoh Somewhat unrelated question but as you’re being so kind as to elucidate so many dishes, can you please explain Lai Fun?

Recently came across it on a Cantonese menu as an option for stir-fried noodles, and haven’t encountered it in that context before. (I looked it up, of course.)

“Lai fun” is not common for us in Singapore and Penang, but I’d eaten that a few times in Kuala Lumpur. The noodle is Cantonese - it has the same thickness as Hokkien wheat noodles, but “lai fun” is not as toothsome as it’s rice noodle, but has a pillowy-soft, malleable quality as tapioca starch is added to the dough during the kneading.

Lai fun’s taste is blander than Hokkien wheat noodles. It’s usually covered with a heavily-flavored sauce, which complements its neutral flavor.

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Nasi Lemak is one of the most ubiquitous dishes in the Malay Archipelago - basically steamed rice flavored with coconut milk, served with various garnishes: each region’s version bore slight variances, but ones worth noting.

Nasi lemak’s close Indonesian counterpart is called nasi uduk, steamed rice in coconut milk, but which has additional herbs added during the cooking process like “daun salam” (Indonesian bay leaves), “lengkuas” (galangal) and “serai” (lemongrass).

Nasi lemak in Malaysia and Singapore is basically just steamed rice with coconut milk, scented with pandan leaves, and slightly salted. There are Malay, Chinese and Indian versions of nasi lemak in Malaysia and Singapore, and there are also overlapping influences as different cultures and regions adapt part(s) of other regions/cultures’ versions of this versatile dish into their own.

The following are the typical characteristics of nasi lemak in their native city:

Penang Nasi Lemak
The typical Penang Nyonya nasi lemak has steamed coconut-flavored rice garnished with fish and shell-on prawns which have been marinated in tamarind juice and wok-fried - giving the seafood items a “blackened” appearance, and a sharp-sour tinge.
Other garnishes included hard-boiled eggs, sweet-sour-spicy sambal udang, slivered fresh cucumbers, and the signature sambal belacan, an ultra-spicy dip of chilis blended with pungent, toasted fermented shrimp paste.

Singapore Nasi Lemak
Singapore’s nasi lemak usually has a plethora of garnishes, including crisp, batter-fried chicken, fried fish, ikan bilis (crisp-fried anchovies), groundnuts, otah (a Singaporean variant of the Malaysian otak-otak), fried egg (not hard-boiled like Malaysian ones), and a dollop of sweet, almost caramelly, form of chili paste.

Chinese-influenced versions often include luncheon meat or Spam.

KL Nasi Lemak
KL’s nasi lemak would often have ayam goreng berempah, essentially spiced, fried chicken, beef rendang, sambal sotong (chili-spiced squid), and spiced, fried ox-parts, i.e. lung, liver, etc.

The sambal or chili sauce for KL nasi lemak is usually spicier and more liquid than the Singapore version.

Malacca Nasi Lemak
Malacca’s nasi lemak is quite similar to KL ones, except for the addition of its one signature dish: stir-fried kangkung or water spinach.

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I’m learning so much about the regional variations in Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine. The nasi lemak breakdown is really interesting - it’s cool how even a basic dish like coconut rice can take on such different flavors and toppings depending on location. Penang’s version with the seafood marinade sounds delicious. :oden: :lobster: :yum:

Kaya-butter toast is a Hainanese adaptation of British eggs & soldiers, where kaya (a custardy egg jam) and butter were sandwiched between two pieces of toasted bread, and usually served with soft-boiled eggs, with freshly-brewed coffee on the side.

The “kaya” was adapted from the Siamese “sangkaya”. The Siamese, in turn, learnt it from the Portuguese, via Maria Guyomar de Pinha, who worked in the royal kitchen of King Narai (1656 to 1688) in Ayutthaya.

The Portuguese pudim de ovos used dairy milk, which Maria substituted with coconut milk.

Penang Kaya-Butter Toast - Penangites like their butter melted into the hot toast, before being slathered with kaya. Penang friends told me that if they see any bit of unmelted butter on a toast, then it’s a fail, and they won’t eat it!

Singapore Kaya-Butter Toast - Singaporeans like slabs of cold butter on their toast, which would already be slathered with kaya.

Just like the age-old argument between the people in Cornwall and Devon regarding jam or cream first on their scone: it’s cream then jam for Devon, and jam then cream for Cornwall, we have the same situation for kaya-butter toasts here, where it’s butter then kaya for Penang, but kaya then butter for Singapore.

KL Kaya -Butter Toast - no hard and fast rule for KL-lites, but the top places I’d been to often serve cold butter on kaya already spread on toasts.

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What an outstandingly delicious comparison of the differences and similarities of the three culinary centers! I am loving this! If I still had a color printer I would be tempted to go back and print out all of your top posts, Peter, and bind them in a book form of sorts.
So much great info and the pictures are always outstanding!

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Wantan Mee
Wantan noodles is a Cantonese dish, and probably one of the most popular noodle dishes in Southern China and Southeast Asia (Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia).

But their Southeast Asian incarnations bear little resemblance to HK-style wantan noodles which place a premium on its complex, clear broth. The Southeast Asian wantan noodles are usually served sans soup or broth, but tossed in a savory dressing. Hawkers in each city are usually Cantonese, but tastes & preferences have evolved over the decades to become the typical wantan mee one finds in each of these cities today:

Penang wantan mee - dry-tossed wantan noodles which are al dente. Dressing usually consists of light- and dark soy sauces, oyster sauce, fish sauce, onion oil, garlic oil and other condiments.

Garnishes are boiled and crisp, golden-fried wantan dumplings (with pork-prawn filling), blanched kai lan greens, and Cantonese-style “char siu”. The old-fashioned “char siu” used lean pork-meat, tinted bright-red on the outside and lack the burnt, caramelly exterior of proper roasted Cantonese BBQ meat.

Singapore wantan mee is actually closer to Hakka-style noodles than actual Cantonese, i.e. dressed in lard and pale in appearance, as no dark soy sauce or other dark-colored sauces were used.

Singaporeans like their wantan noodles with a dollop of ultra-spicy chili paste - which one would never find in Malaysia.

Singaporean wantan dumplings also have a pork-prawn filling, but are only boiled, never crisp-fried like the ones in Penang.

“Char siu” are similar to the ones in Penang, i.e. red-tinted and made from lean pork-meat.

KL wantan mee are the tastiest I’d found in Southeast Asia - not a surprise since KL has a majority Cantonese populace amongst its Chinese population (whereas Penang and Singapore are both predominantly Hokkien, with the Teochews being the second largest Chinese community), and wantan noodles is a Cantonese dish.

KL wantan noodles are not al dente like Penang ones, nor stretchy/supple like Singapore ones.

KL wantan mee dressing have a dark dressing, similar to Penang’s, but with a different taste profile: slightly sweeter and tastier, with the addition of drippings from “char siu” roasts added.

KL does the best “char siu” (Cantonese-style BBQ pork) in the region: pork belly with generous layers of fat are expertly roasted, yielding burnt, caramelly bits that are to-die for. No bright-red pseudo-roasts here, as in Penang and Singapore. Best-ever.

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OMG, I’m so hungry right now :smiley: Thanks for this.

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Fried carrot cake is a misnomer of a term, since no carrots are used. It’s actually radish cake as the dish is composed of grated radish, worked into rice flour and water, then steamed into a supple pudding which is then cut up and pan-fried with pickled radish, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, and other condiments.

Its English name is actually a translation from its Chinese name: as this dish originated from Fujian. In Fujianese or Hokkien language, carrots are called “ang chai tow” (meaning “red carrot”) and radish is “pek chai tow” (“white carrot”). The steamed pudding is simply called “chai tow kway” (meaning “carrot pudding”), with no reference to the color. And it’s always made using radish, never carrot.

The Hokkiens are prolific emigrants to Southeast Asia, and formed the largest Chinese communities in Singapore, Penang, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. In Thailand, the Hokkiens are the second-largest Chinese community behind the Teochew/Chaozhou (called “Taechiu” in Thai).

Fried carrot cake is called char koay kak in Penang. The dish contains beansprouts, which are not used in its Singapore counterpart. All other ingredients are pretty much similar.

Fried carrot cake is known as fried chai tow kway in Singapore. 30-40 years ago, its appearance was quite similar to the Penang version, except for the absence of beansprouts. But Singaporean fried chai tow kway has evolved in the past three decades, where more eggs were used, and it began to take the shape of an egg fritatta.

Fried carrot cake is not part of KL food culture, and the rare ones I’d seen there, e.g. at Wai Sek Kai in Pudu, are actually transplants from Penang. No native KL version of the dish exists.

I’d come across fried carrot cake in Bangkok (Thailand) and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), sold by members of the Hokkien diaspora there.

The Thai one, called khanom pak kard is almost indistinguishable from its Penang counterpart, though its texture is much denser, and the condiments used there did not fare favorably when compared to the Penang version. The Thais use beansprouts, but like them almost raw, like for pad Thai.

The Vietnamese bột chiên is almost identical to its Thai counterpart in terms of texture. No beansprouts for the Vietnamese version.
But Saigonites would pile copious amounts of shredded green papaya on top of the dish, then ladle over spoonfuls of sweet soy sauce-based dressing over the whole concoction, transforming it into something unrecognizable for fried carrot cake fans like me. The photo of the bột chiên shown below was taken before my Vietnamese colleague “helpfully” desecrate my dish with the shredded papaya and sauce before I could stop him. I could only look on askance in shock & dismay. :scream: :sweat_smile:

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“Koay chiap” is a popular Teochew breakfast dish of thick, wide rice noodles in a deeply savory pork-duck broth, flavored with garlic, soy sauce, star-anise, cloves and other Chinese herbs.

It’s called “kway chap” in Singapore and “guay jap” in Bangkok, which have large Teochew-Chinese populations.

Penang’s “koay chiap” is predominantly duck-meat-based, although the garnishes included soy-braised pork, pig’s intestines and pig’s blood. Soy-braised hard-boiled eggs is also a common garnish. It’s served as an all-in-one dish.

Singapore’s “kway chap” is never served with all the garnishes and the noodles (called “kway”) together in one bowl like Penang’s. Instead, the “kway” is always served separately in a bowl of broth, whilst the garnishes are served in a separate side-platter, all neatly chopped up. Singapore “kway chap” is only pork-based, no duck.
Pickled mustard leaves and stems is a common garnish for “kway chap” in Singapore, but does not exist for the Penang version.

KL’s “kueh chap” is almost similar to Penang’s: both pork and duck-meat used. During my last trip to KL a fortnight ago, I tried the “kueh chap” at Teochew Lao Er, where its garnish included soy-braised tofu - common in Singapore, but not for Penang.

The common features in all three cities’ rendition: the thick, wide, rice noodles, and the soy sauce-based broth.

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