Sin Yin Nam Cafe, Penang, Malaysia – an introduction to Malaysian hawker food

A question often asked of foodies is if we had to eat only one genre of food for the rest of our lives, which genre would we pick. In my case, the answer is relatively simple – Malaysian hawker food, the term we use for our street food. That’s not to say I don’t love my fine dining or my sushi but hawker food is what I grew up with and is what I head for first on my trips back home

Firstly, some background. Malaysia is a riotous mix of ethnicities, religions and food cultures. Hawker food has representation from each of the 3 main races – the Chinese, Malays and Indians – but it has a predominance of Chinese cuisine

Sin Yin Nam cafe is typical of what Malaysians call a coffee shop but it isn’t a coffee shop in the Starbucks sense. Malaysian coffee shops are instead a collection of hawker stalls. The owner of the coffee shop sells the drinks and yes, you can get coffee but I prefer the fresh fruit drinks, which are refreshing in the hot tropical climate. If you’re going to get a coffee, try a traditional kopi O, which is stronger and sweetened


The shop sells pitches to hawker stalls, which are independent businesses, usually serving one or at most a small number of dishes. When you arrive, grab a table and sit down – no ‘wait to be seated’ here. At busy times, you need to keep an eagle out for people about to finish their meal and hover in a passive aggressive manner in the style of a proper Malaysian!

You order food directly from the hawker stalls, usually the chef who is busy cooking. Some coffee shops have table numbers but like most, the tables at Sin Yin Nam cafe don’t. You just tell them roughly where you’re sitting. That’s one of the amazing mysteries of Malaysia to me – the hawker stall owners never write any orders down but they can queue the orders in their brains, sometimes with specific requests, cook the food and then have the food delivered to your table by a different person who took the order, who are quite often children helping with the family business. How all the hawker stalls do this is amazing. All the food is cooked to order and you pay when the food is delivered


Sin Yin Nam cafe is the closest large collection of hawker stalls close to my parents’ house and is known by the locals as ‘New Lane’. It’s next door to 2 other coffee shops and you can order food to be delivered to any shop from any of the stalls. They do serve the most popular hawker dishes


Happiness is a table top of hawker food

My favourite hawker dish is char koay teow, dry fried broad rice sticks. The perfect version should have charred edges, a deep smoky flavour and the garnish can include prawns, cockles and Chinese lab cheong sausage, which is sweet. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to recreate this at home but mum thinks it’s because our domestic stoves can’t get the wok hot enough to get that proper charring

Char koay teow


I also love curry mee. Mee is the Malaysian word for noodles and the egg noodles here come in bowl of wonderfully spiced coconut based soup. You adjust the chilli heat content by adding as much of the red chilli paste as you want


Curry mee


Chook is rice congee. Rice is cooked to watery savoury consistency and topped with meat and seafood. The best topping is deep fried intestine – it tastes like crispy chicken skin




Poh piah is a spring roll made with a lacy flour based pancake and filled with vegetables, the main component being stewed turnip, which is sweeter in Malaysia than the UK

Poh piah


Lor bak is a collection of deep fried goodies – pork sausage, prawn fritters, tofu, century egg


Lor bak


Oh chien is an oyster omelette, made with a healthy dose of starch to make it a bit chewy

Oh chien


My mum loves cuttlefish and this stall does it barbecued or braised


Braised cuttlefish


Barbecued cuttlefish


Chee cheong fun is a dish of soft broad rice  noodles served with a mix of sweet and savoury sauces

Chee cheong fun


This is by no means a comprehensive list of hawker dishes, merely my family’s favourites at Sin Yin Nam cafe. Family and food are 2 important fundamentals in Malaysia and it’s the best when good family meet for good food. Malaysians will discuss, argue and do business over food

Food is a family affair in Malaysia


People are frequently surprised at the quality and great flavours in hawker food but it makes perfect sense to me. In Malaysia, everyone’s a food critic and a vocal one at that, so your food had better be good. Also, your ability to feed your family rests on your ability to cook that one dish and you can put all your time and passion into perfecting that dish

Malaysian food is getting more popular and prevalent these days. Hope this guide helps you to choose but should you need anyone to accompany you, I may just be available 😊

Sin Yin Nam Cafe, New Lane, Georgetown, Penang, West Malaysia

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