Food tour of Penang, Malaysia: Why this is one of Asia's best destinations for food

Our tour guide Cyndy barely reaches my shoulder, wears a wide-brimmed hat and looks like an animated mushroom. She's a retiree with a twinkle in her eye.

Off we go from the cruise terminal along Lebuh Pantai, past a peeling immigration office. You used to queue forever to get your papers here, but now the over-60s are fast-tracked. "Ha ha! Because maybe you could drop dead waiting!" adds Cyndy, although she's 72 herself and quite the dynamo. We have a lot to see, and Cyndy is determined we'll see it all – and taste it too.

I'm on an included shore excursion through George Town in Penang, on a just-launched cruise aboard sailing ship Panorama II through a scattering of Thai and Malaysian islands. It's Peregrine Adventures' first cruise venture in Southeast Asia, but the company's footprint-light and community-focused ethos shows. So does its experience in small-group touring, not least on this walkabout, in this city of rich flavours, with the informative and delightful Cyndy.

Food is a particular focus of this tour, unsurprisingly in a port whose Malay, Chinese, Indian and European fusion culture has produced such a glorious food scene. Local insight bursts from Cyndy as we hurry along Lebuh Pantai. Here is the best place for sambal-accompanied rice dish nasi lemak. Here is a cake truck where you can get Indonesian layer cake. Here is Ten Yee Trading Company, where we edge around unopened crates of tea and sip oolong from China.

'This Tie Guangyin tea is my favourite, because it's not too cooling, and good for your cholesterol,' says Cyndy. 'I was born in 1947 after the Japanese surrender, but nothing wrong with me! Even with these eyes I can see all the way over there!'

I like this tour. We wander through an interesting part of George Town beyond the edge of its tourist core. Old Chinese shophouses feature elaborately carved wooden doors. There in that building ornate with plasterwork, British officers once lived. And here in Ghee Hiang store, the owners have sold sesame oil and biscuits since 1856. We try tau sar stuffed with green-bean paste, still warm from the oven.

We hurry past a lottery shop ('I don't want to buy a lottery ticket, I'm very contented!') and veer down a side street near a British-era fire station, its balconies strung with firemen's washing. We plunge into a former printing factory turned hipster craft market, then hit the boardwalk of Chow Jetty on the waterfront, where old men in singlets watch even older kung-fu movies in open-fronted houses.

We have lunch at Jetty Food Court. Ceiling fans whirl frantically overhead as the heat from woks flares. Cyndy orders the food: Thai pork leg and Chinese xiaolong bao dumplings filled with explosive broth, Malay favourite popiah spring rolls stuffed with radish, and spicy curried fish head.

"And who dares try frog porridge? Oh it's very nice! If I called it water chicken then I think you'd be happy to eat it!"

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We stagger onwards, no room left except for cendol pulut from a vendor on Armenian Street. It's a pyramid of shaved ice, coconut milk, pandan noodles and red beans, odd-flavoured yet refreshing.

'And now go! Now you must explore by yourself!' says Cyndy. 'You'll see something wonderful, all kinds of temples and clan houses. Oh, goodbye!'

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/malaysia

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malaysia.travel

FLY

Malaysia Airlines flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, with onward connections to Penang. Phone 13 26 27, see malaysiaairlines.com

CRUISE

Peregrine Adventures offers several cruises in the Thai and Malaysian islands, round trip from Phuket or between Phuket and Penang. The writer was on an eight-day cruise on Panorama II between Phuket and Penang. Prices from $2,586pp twin share including transport, half-board, most activities and a George Town tour. Phone 1300 765 896. See peregrineadventures.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Peregrine Adventures.

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