Penang is a foodie’s paradise. The island has been listed multiple times as one of Asia’s Top 10 Street Food Cities, despite technically not being a city. A large part of that focus on the gourmet goes to its durian, with street stalls selling highly rated and priced durians all over Georgetown.
But while its easy to visit only restaurants and fancy durian stalls during your stay on Penang, it’s a great experience to get back to the basics: the traditional wet market.
Jelutong Market is the largest, most chaotic and oldest market on Penang. Every morning and evening the bustling outdoor market shuts down a major throughway to
spread vegetables, fruits and durians across the tarmac. It’s a labyrinth of fresh produce, funky smelling herbal medicine, plastic trinkets and steaming trays of traditional street foods.
It’s also a great place to pick up cheap durian. If you’ve been paying through your teeth for Red Prawn, a trip to Jelutong Market may give your pockets some relief.
When I say cheap, I mean cheap. You won’t find durian for prices like this anywhere else on the island.
At Jelutong Market, you can buy fresh durians for as little as 50 Malaysian cents each. These are the unnamed, wild varieties of durian known as kampung, or village durian. They’re no Red Prawns, but they’re fun because each one tastes different. It’s like the chocolate candy box where none of the truffles are labeled – all a delicious surprise.
And while kampung durians can be bought for pennies almost anywhere in Malaysia, they’re often days old and turning to vinegar. These are fresh, Penang quality. Just look at the bright green color of the stem of the durian in the bottom left corner.
While durians are definitely not the focus of the market, at least during the season, durians have an almost uncanny presence. They can be spotted almost everywhere, propped on piles of vegetables, hidden half-opened between pots, and hanging in unlikely places.
Street food almost has a bigger presence than the fresh ingredients, with hawker carts of steaming bowls of noodles interlaced between the piles of vegetables and fruits. The market has actually become as famous for its food as it is for being a large, vibrant market place and many of the small cafes and restaurants lining the streets are popular places to grab a late breakfast and a hot cup of kopi.
Penang’s foodie culture developed from the unique blending of five
Chinese ethnic groups with Indian, Malay and Sumatran influences that
each have their own culinary styles. The melting pot was evident even to me as I wandered the narrow aisles looking for durian past restaurants boasting the best Wan Tan Mee, Hokkien noodles, or Nasi Kandar, a Muslim Indian rice dish.
When it started raining hard, we took shelter at this Indian coconut stall, and watched him expertly hack open coconuts with a knife that looked like a saber. He also sold freshly made coconut milk, a thick, slightly salty liquid that blended perfectly with the durian we bought later to make a rich sauce like alfredo.
Spread On The Ground
The hard thing about Jelutong Market is there’s interesting things to see in every direction, including down. The majority of fresh vegetables and fruits are spread on tarps on the pavement, meaning that you need to watch your feet as well as the dodging the crowds.
If you’re coming from a Western country, vegetables themselves deserve some time to gawk. You’ll see so many different forms of vegetables that we don’t have, or at least aren’t common outside of the Asian grocer. You’ll find sweet potato leaves, different kinds of bok choy, eggplants ranging in color from dark purple to lavender to pearly white, and many things that look like a strange cross between a cucumber and a gourd, intermixed with the baskets of chiles and the chilies and gingers necessary for most local cuisine.
It’s with the vegetables that you’ll find the cheapest durians, as they most likely fell from the backyard trees of the veggie vendors.
Some vendors sell packets of the higher quality durians, mostly Red Prawn and Musang King. Since by this point we were getting hungry, we decided to indulge in some Musang King.
I mean, who could really resist these wrinkles?
It was only 15 RM for a packet piled high, which really is a pretty good price for Musang King.
Which made me wonder…the funny thing about Musang King on Penang is that it tends to be fleshier, softer and more wrinkly than Musang King on the mainland. I’m not sure if it’s the special climate in Penang that changes the durian, or if the durian is actually a close relative of the real Musang King. I’ve examined the durian shell, and I have my thoughts.
But whatever it is, it was a perfectly bitter way to wait out a rainstorm with friends.
It was so good, we abandoned our plans to head up Penang Hill to go durian hunting in Georgetown instead. The rain might have influenced us a little bit. But just a little bit. Mostly it was the durian.
More about our Georgetown Durian Tour in a coming post.
Getting To Jelutong Market
The main Jelutong Market building is on Jalan Penaga, just off Jalan Jelutong, but the market now sprawls down Lorong Ipoh as well.
Jalan Jelutong is a major road that used to be the main throughway connecting Georgetown to the airport in Bayan Lepas before the Lim Chong Eu Expressway was built. A number of Rapid Penang buses pass by the market, which are mentioned on my friend Tim’s excellent Penang blog.
From Komptar, taking the bus takes about an hour. If you’re traveling with friends, a better option is to take a taxi, which cost us 20 RM and about 15 minutes of our time.
If you want to learn more about Penang’s foodie culture or just get your hands on some cheap durian, Jelutong Market is a fun morning outing. And a great place for a durian breakfast.