From fishy noodles to spicy crepes, breakfast need never be boring in Penang.

Penang, a small island off Malaysia’s north-west coast, could quite well be one of the most multicultural places on earth. Established as a British colonial port in 1786, it became an important trading post, attracting many ethnicities.

Many stayed, creating a rich melange of culture dominated by Malays but with generous sprinklings of Hokkien, Cantonese, Tamils and Nyonya – the descendants of 15th- and 16th-century Chinese migrants who came to south-east Asia and assimilated with the local cultures.

The best way to experience Penang’s multiple faces is through its food, particularly its breakfast snacks.

Malay: nasi lemak

Literally meaning “rice and cream” in Bahasa Malay language, this seemingly unassuming dish of rice cooked with coconut cream is served with an array of condiments – a boiled egg, peanuts, dried anchovies, sliced cucumber and a generous dollop of tongue-tingling sambal-rich (chilli) sauce. Pile the ingredients so they mingle and coalesce; the silkiness of the egg offsets the tart, pungent fish with crunch from the peanut, zing from the sambal and the creamy bulk of the rice.

Try it: The teh tarik stall in front of the Standard Chartered building, Beach Street, George Town; breakfast for two, 6 ringgit ($2).

Hokkien Chinese: Hokkien mee

Egg noodles swimming in a thick prawn-and-chicken broth teamed with any number of accompaniments – greens, spare ribs, fish cake, spring onion, a sprinkling of crispy fried shallots – is what kick-starts the day for many of Penang’s sizeable Hokkien population. Hokkien is the name given to migrants from China’s Fujian Province. The food has a strong emphasis on gluten and stews and broths and tends to be a little bland when compared with Malay or Indian cuisines, making Hokkien mee ideal for a gentle morning digestion.

Try it: Swee Kee stall on Burma Road, in front of Pulau Tikus market; breakfast for two, 9 ringgit.

Cantonese Chinese: dim sum

There may only be a handful of ethnic Cantonese in Penang but there is no shortage of dim sum. The best place to indulge is at Aik Hoe, an old-style Chinese cafe with blue-and-white chequered floors, whirling ceiling fans and plenty of chatter, where plates of dim sum are shuffled around by the friendly waitresses. There are impressive specialties, such as the age-old recipe of yoke aun kuen filled with pork fat and liver, alongside common treats including fun cheong kuen, rice paper filled with pork, black fungus, ginger and Chinese water chestnut; and baozi, steamed buns with barbecue pork.

Try it: Aik Hoe, 6 Carnarvon Street, George Town; breakfast for two, 20 ringgit.

Tamil: thosai

Transliterated as thosai in Malaysia and Singapore but better known as dosa, this is South India’s answer to the French crepe. Made from a thick paste of rice and lentils that has been left to ferment overnight then cooked to a crisp on a cast-iron tava, like crepe, the variations of dosa are endless. They include popular masala thosai, with spiced potatoes, and the rava thosai, made from semolina. Whet your palate with a paper thosai, a gigantic roll served on a banana leaf with bowls of creamy coconut sambal and aromatic curry chutney.

Try it: Rajammah Restaurant, 38 China Street, George Town; breakfast for two, 6.50 ringgit.

Nyonya: assam laksa

Sour, spicy and fishy, with thick rice noodles and a pithy, fragrant sweetness drawn from tamarind and lemongrass, Penang’s assam laksa derives its taste from a number of culinary traditions. The noodles are from China, the sourness from neighbouring Thailand and the spice from Malaysia. Penang’s true fusion food is unlike its creamy, coconut-based cousin in Singapore. Instead, it is doused with finely chopped raw fruit and vegetables such as lettuce, onion, cucumber and pineapple – then garnished with a sprinkling of feisty green chillies and diced torch ginger flower. It has plenty of punch, though, and may be a bit too much for the untrained palate. But if you dare, it’s healthy, light, fresh and oh so good.

Try it: Assam Laksa, stall 24, Swatow Lane, New World Park. Breakfast for two, 13 ringgit.

This article appeared in a special lift-out on Asian food in the January 29, 2011 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers.