Sungai Ara Food Court

Yesterday a non-Malaysian asked me: What’s a food court?

Fortunately, I seem to have developed some precognition powers, because a couple weeks ago I was in one, and I somehow felt like snapping some photos. So food court it is today.

A food court is… well…

You know we have loads of street food in Malaysia right? Actually the entire Southeast Asia and some parts of the rest of Asia too. A food court is basically a place set up to house many street food vendors (or what we call hawkers) under one roof. Usually the food court is owned by one person/party. The owner would set up many booths (we call them stalls) and then rent those stalls out to prospective hawker tenants for a price. The owner would typically keep the beverages business for himself because selling drinks is infinitely more lucrative than selling food. Ironic, but it’s true.

Food courts come in various forms and sizes. Some smaller ones operate out of a shop lot, housing only a few different types of food. But the bigger ones are typically standalone structures constructed out of steel bars and aluminum roofs. Like this one:

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This one’s called Sungai Ara Food Court. Sungai Ara is the name of a place in Penang. It is also quite close to where I am currently staying in.

I actually didn’t know this place has become a food court. It used to be a dim sum place many many years ago. I guess I have not been to this place for at least 3 years, so I’m not sure when this food court started operations.

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Anyway, back to explaining food courts…

You know how most visitors come to Penang/Malaysia/Asia spend most of their time hunting down the best street food A/best street food B/bla bla bla? Thing is, usually the best char kway teow is located in one corner of the city and the best laksa is in the opposite corner of the city and sometimes the best seafood is located in the outskirts of town. Sometimes it can be a pain in the arse to hunt them all down, especially if you have limited time and stamina.

You see, I always tell the tourists, especially if they are not from Malaysia or Singapore: You don’t need to have the best char kway teow or laksa. You probably wouldn’t know why they are best anyway. Just like I wouldn’t know the differences between steaks from Applebee’s and Chili’s. What you need are just decent versions of these local delights that at least taste authentic.

This is where food courts come into the picture. Usually, food courts are places where the locals really eat. You think we have time to brave an hour of traffic jams to hunt down a bowl of laksa and eat it beside a smelly drain on a frequent basis? No… we’re not idiots. We’ll just look for a food court near where we live/work that sells a decent version of it. This means more often than not, you WILL get authentic tasting local delights in a food court that tastes decent enough.

And you get to dine in a relatively comfortable environment, with proper tables and chairs and ventilation. Ventilation is very important in a country like Malaysia, because it is freaking hot and humid here, 365 days a year!

Examples examples… let me show you what you can get in Sungai Ara Food Court. There are more than 20 different stalls here selling different food items, so these are just the tip of an iceberg.

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Char Kway Teow

Char Kway Teow 炒粿条, fried rice noodles, probably the most famous Penang delight of all times. This one’s plenty good. Look at the prawn!

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Fish Fillet Beehoon

Sour and Spicy Fish Fillet Beehoon 酸辣米粉汤, this one used to operate in another shack just down the road. It is pretty famous among the factory workers here. Ask any engineers in Penang about Sungai Ara Spicy and Sour Beehoon and they will most likely know what you’re talking about. Yeah, they have moved here. Bihun means vermicelli, in Hokkien language.

No… wait a minute. I think my char kway teow picture is kind of misleading. Looks pretty huge portion, isn’t it? Here, let me zoom out. Compare with the glass of iced coffee.

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Penang is famous for serving street food in tiny portions at a slightly cheaper price compared to KL. They claim the tiny portions is so that we can sample more variety, but I think that’s bullshit. I think they’re just trying to justify being kiam siap (stingy). You get 40% less food at 20% lower price, so in the long run, you spend more money…

By the way, this is really a decent plate of char kway teow. After zooming out, let me now zoom in instead.

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See that piece of brownish thing in the middle, sitting above the prawn and beansprout? That’s a piece of pork lard. You will only get pieces of these in a Chinese char kway teow. The Malays and Indians don’t eat this thing (factual statement, not racist statement), their versions of kway teow have different things to make the dish tick.

It’s bad for your health. Pork lard is also sometimes called the cancer booster among the hearty char kway teow eating fraternity (boosts your chance of getting cancer). But it has got absolutely wonderful fragrance. It is what makes a plate of good char kway teow become great. Actually, pork lard makes almost everything great.

And hey, if we talk about cancer boosters, the same can be said for fast food. If we have been eating McRonald’s for ages, a few more pieces of lard would not hurt much more. Right?


  1. I like the food courts that are sprouting everywhere now as they are more spacious and airy with the high ceilings and many stalls.
    Look at the pork lard! I wanted to scream!! I love that and often ordered an extra saucer full of these bites when I feast at the Fried Hokkien Noodles in Uptown.

    • Damn! I have been craving for fried hokkien noodles KL style! Maybe I should have that instead of pork noodles next time I go back!

  2. So excited to eat at the hawker malls in Malaysia! I’ve never heard that about pork lard. In fact, I’ve always been under the impression that using pork lard to cook is better than using veggie or soybean oil.

    And yes, you probably won’t know the difference between Applebee or Chili’s steak, but you definitely will know the difference between Applebee and Mastro’s. 😛

    • Mastro’s looks like a super expensive place to have steak LOL! The price would probably affect my brain to think and feel differently! 😀

      Pork lard is one of the highest cholesterol concentrate of all times! It is better only because it makes the food more delicious LOL! 😀

  3. Lots of food courts here in Melbourne – the air-conditioned kind in shopping malls. They are not considered “atas” here, but more the opposite :/ Til this day, I still think of the food court you talked about in this post as kopitiams…and each time I go to one of these, I come out hot, sticky and sweaty 😀

    • Well, the food courts that operate out of shop lots are called kopitiams, that is correct.

      Try eating by the road side under the hot sun. Eating inside a food court is relatively more “comfortable”. 😀

      • Well, now you got me there. Even with the fans blowing in the food court, the air there can be suffocating. But eating under the hot sun, now who in their right mind would do that. Even kopitiams will put their tables and chairs under the shade along the walkway 😀

        • I’ll show you what it is like to have real street food under the hot sun if you come to Penang next time. 😀

  4. We also have food courts in China! But here they are usually in the basement of big malls, and are a cheaper alternative to the restaurants in the upper floors.

  5. No la….Food Court is a place where food critics go to judge the food sold by various vendors la …lol..*loyar buruk mode*

    I love CKT with lard. Now not many have it . Only found the brickfield fella have that

    • Wei, really got one, those “atas” food courts, like the ones in Pavilion and Queensbay Mall, when they did the grand opening they really invited food critics and bloggers to go for some food sampling leh! 😀

  6. I agree with you – food courts are a great way to discover a city’s dishes without having to run all of the place. My favourite one in KL area is Asia Cafe. Have you been?

    • Nope, that one’s near where those colleges are, right? Not where I usually hangout when I was active in KL..

  7. I’m with you on pork lard makes everything great! 😉 I think you purposely placed the pork lard in plain sight when snapping the photo coz I didn’t see it in the other pics of the char kway teow…lol! 😀

  8. I am going to talk about food courts in Penang soon. I have been to quite a number during my recent trip to your adopted state. I like the small portion of food in penang as I am a small eater. Suits my appetite.

    • Don’t call it my adopted state. I’m not even feeling that deep affinity to here. It is just the place where I work in! 🙄

      • Ok ok. How about the state that adopted you? Since you have been living there for almost 8 years now and 8 years is a long time.

        • Not true also. Technically, I am the one who chose to come here. Actually there’s no adoption going on. It is strictly a professional relationship. This is just the state that I work in. 🙄

          • Aiyo, dunno why so many people are charmed by Penang but not you. You seemed to have a love-hate relationship with Penang. You love it because after all you chose to work there but you hate it because you refused to feel any bonding with Penang.

            I have a soft spot for Penang because I studied and stayed there for 4 years, just half your current time.

            • You are spot on! I absolutely refuse to feel any bonding with Penang. Sometimes I think I am just being stupid. Deep down, I still feel the pride of being from KL, but nowadays when I go back to KL, I sometimes feel like a fish out of water. 🙁

              But never mind. I will persevere! 😀

  9. this is the first time i heard of Sg Ara, looks like there are lots of good food there under one roof.. the CKT is definitely tempting me, so the portion is actually not big huh?? good to add on a bowl of fish fillet beehoon then.. and oh, i miss a glass of icy cold nutmeg juice too, hehehe~~ :p

    • Hahaha it is just a food court in locals perspective. I guess any food court will have lots of good food under one roof 🙄 …

      Oh no, only CKT was mine, the beehoon is my friend’s. I’ve become a small eater because that’s the trend lately. 😀

  10. haha…that plate of CKT is jst the tip of iceberg? it should be the ‘gem’ among all the foods in the foodcourt. Usually there will be long queue for CKT especially in food court. I have gave up many times ordering CKT due to long waits and opted for something else. Anyway, I like lard not only in CKT but in other Chinese noodles as well.

    • Hahaha, not in Penang. CKT here is so common, I guess the novelty is not there. LOL different people got different preferences. I actually think chicken rice is more popular here.. 😛

  11. I think I haven’t try the food here in Sg Ara.. there is one called Sungai Dua? Maybe I have been to that.. a lot of choices too.. I am very hopeless in names.. been to many but cannot remember which is which… but I know Maxim in Sg Dua… nice dim sum there too!

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