How to eat at the hawker stalls

How to eat at the hawker stalls

One of the best places to experience Penang, especially Penang food, is to visit the hawker stalls.  The locals also call them food courts.  One popular one on the north side of the island is Long Beach Food Court in Batu Ferringhi.

If it is your first time to one of these places, the noise, lights and chaos can be a little daunting.  Here I offer you a step by step script to help you navigate the hawker stalls.

Step 1: Get a table

The sellers start setting up around 6:30pm and will start selling sometime before 7:00.  Typically, the first thing you would do is settle yourself at a table.  At a larger place like Long Beach, you might find a number engraved on the table.  This is useful for you to know, so you can tell the food servers where you are sitting.  If there isn’t a number, you can wave in a general direction towards your seat, and they are really good and remembering you and your order.

Step 2: Get a drink ordered

If it isn’t too busy, a drink seller will already be hovering near you as you sit down.  Juices, coffee, tea and beer are available.  The server can tell you what is available and what is not.

Before you leave Penang, you should try a teh tarik.  This is tea with milk and sugar.  Americans tend to find Malaysian teh tarik to be too sweet so if you want it half as sweet ask for teh tarik kurang manis (literally: less sweet).     If you want it completely without milk, ask for teh o.  Tea without sugar is teh kosong.  Tea without milk or sugar is teh oh kosong.  If you want it cold, you can ask for teh ais (ice in Bahasa Melayu), or teh ping (ice in Hokkien).  These words all apply to coffee, or kopi, as well.  Being an American, I have “my drink” (probably a product of marketing from a certain Seattle coffee company).  My drink is a kopi ais kurang manis.

Step 3: Get up and browse the stalls.

Each stall around the tables will serve their own specialty.  There is hardly ever any overlap.  There will be a guy selling char kwai teow.  Another guy will sell kwai teow t’eng.  Sometimes you have to look carefully because there might be variations in spelling.  I’ve seen kwei tiow, kwey tiaw, and kway tiaou. 

If you are watching out for heat, you can often ask for things to be no spicy or half spicy depending on your taste.  Full heat can sometimes be quite painful for those not used to the Southeast Asian chili peppers.

Prices are clearly posted and pretty standard.  There is no need to haggle.  They might negotiate with you anyway, but that is usually just to up-sell you.  For example I was at a place where 2 chicken wings were posted at RM 4.  The seller offered me 3 for RM 5.

Step 4: Pay when served

When the food is ready it will be brought to your table.  Have cash ready.  The server will make change.  And there is no need to leave a tip.  In fact, it is inadvisable.

Step 5: Eat

Enjoy.

Step 6: Leave

There is staff who will come and bus your table.  Don’t worry about that.  If you found the food to be especially excellent, be sure to swing by the seller and rave about it to them.  That is worth much more than a gratuity.