Every day expats, visitors and long long time residents alike are faced with a quandary. What do I eat in Penang? You can live here for a very long time and you still will not be able to sample all of the various renditions of Penang's ethnic variety of food. Penang has Malay food, Indian food and Chinese food, with many different styles of cooking, within those choices. Penang has what the locals call "Western Food", which is no where near true American, European or South American food, but a Malaysian version of what they think it is like. There are also a number of restaurants, some being a chain restaurant, serving European or American style food, somewhat reminiscent of "back home".
How do you know what is good and what isn't? That's a very good question for many of us expats living here. I think the best answer is for the best local food, whether it be Malay, Indian or Chinese, ask a local person, where the best food is served. They have lived here all of their lives and can distinguish good from bad or mediocre. Don't ask fellow expats to recommend food, especially if they don't ever eat in local food courts and coffee shops. Many local restaurants tone down their food in order to please the sometimes boring palates of expats, especially when it comes to Thai or other spicy foods. Locals know the best places to eat and the most reasonably priced places to eat. Never judge a book by it's cover either. By this I mean that just because a place is immaculate and beautifully decorated it doesn't necessarily follow that the food is good. Don't expect to be eating at "The Tavern on the Green" in New York City or " L'Astrance" in Paris and sampling local cuisine.
When you are eating Western food and I mean food as it is served in the West, don't ask the locals, ask expats from the West or Australia. When the locals here in Malaysia eat French, German, American (especially Tex-Mex or Cajun) and Italian food, they have nothing to compare the food with, so they don't really know how it is supposed to taste. I grew up and lived in Italian neighborhoods and had many Italian friends and relatives, so I think I know what good Italian food is like. Unfortunately there are only a couple of good Italian restaurants in Penang. Good Italian sausage and types of hams are an integral part of Italian cooking, so replacing it with chicken just doesn't cut it. The same for German restaurants here. There are only one or two German restaurants which have food like "back home". Restaurants that tout authentic BBQ food have no idea what BBQ meat is all about. Generally they grill the meat and once it is done they pour Heinz BBQ sauce over the meat and call it barbecue. I once had so called authentic "Buffalo Wings"at a BBQ restaurant where they deep fried the wings and poured cold Heinz BBQ sauce over the wings. As far from real Buffalo wings as you can get. These BBQ restaurants are an insult to any Texan or Aussie BBQ aficionado.
When you are checking out the food blogs about Penang food, pay attention to who's reviewing the restaurants. Some of the reviewers receive free meals and feel obligated to write a flattering review. If a local blogger recommends local food, then you can be reasonably sure that the food is worth trying. If expats are recommending the restaurant, seek a second opinion, from a local. If a local is recommending Western food as authentic, remember that they most likely have never had the "real thing" and thus cannot make a comparison. Many times when I read a restaurant review I wonder if the reviewer has actually eaten there.
Actually I feel that the best way to figure out which is the best food, is not to follow the food blogs, not to listen to me, and not to listen to the locals. Since everyone of us has his or her own tastes when it comes to food, and we live here with plenty of time on our hands, why not try every single restaurant, coffee shop, food court and hawker stand that we can find. Then we can decide what to eat in Penang.