Eating in Cintra Street

You know, sometimes before I fall asleep, I have a million and one ideas for my blog. And when I wake up the next day, damn. The ideas have flown.De Tai Tong Cafe decked out with lanterns during Mid-Autumn Festival

Last night was one of those nights. Had a bunch of ideas to write about.

Well, good news…I have recovered from being a total sick zombie. It took me a while but I am back in one piece. Still have a scratchy throat and a bit of a cough but hey, as long as my appetite is back – the world looks a heck of a lot better. While some friends said I wrote better while half-dead, I think I shouldn’t be too dead sometimes. LOL.

Food Tales In De Tai Tong

I was having dinner with my folks and Godmother last night at Tai Tong (these days it has renamed itself into De Tai Tong Cafe). It’s impossible not to know of this dim sum and Chinese eatery along Cintra Street. It’s an institution. Even the old ladies who serve you – see I couldn’t even bear to call them waitresses – seem to have aged with this Chinese eatery.

De Tai Tong Cafe sells mooncakes during the Mid Autumn Festival

(Have I mentioned they are grumpy and pushy as hell? If it were not for my Godma suggesting this place, I’d hot-trotted to some other Chinese zhu-zhar place on Campbell Street but she hadn’t been to Tai Tong for a while and I thought, what the heck. The auntie servers are STILL as awful as ever.)

I knew it was a heck of an old place – I just didn’t know HOW old. I thought maybe the place is 30 years old. It looks that way.

Until over dinner last night my Dad remarked that Tai Tong is more than 50 years old! My mum chipped in and said that my maternal grandpa used to “yum cha” in the cafe back in those good old days. She used to eat at this place as a child! (My mum is in her early 60s so that says a lot about this place.)

OK, now that is some history. My Godma then said that in those days, Foo Heong (that’s another famous eatery across the road diagonally from Tai Tong) and Tai Tong were the bee’s knees. Both these eateries were super happening and get this – they served wedding banquet dinners.

I almost choked on my “siew mai” when I heard this.

When You Got Married Back Then…

Tai Tong Cafe isn’t very spacious. But back in those days, people getting married didn’t have the entire village invited. Plus they didn’t need a stage or karaoke either. Best of all, my parents told me that a typical wedding banquet would be about RM45 per table of 10 diners. (OK, second choking of siew mai now.)

“That’s cheap!” I blurted.

Mum said that when she got married in 1972, most guests would give you gifts instead of ang pows. Dad remembered lots of transistor radios plus the odd glassware set or two. And then the really generous relatives or friends would give you a RM10 shopping voucher so you could go to Tong Aik Departmental Store (that was THE airconditioned supermarket of its day in Penang) and pick your own wedding gift.

Piglets in a basket - every kid's favourite biscuit

My Godma remarked that in those days, RM45 was equivalent to our RM400 today. If someone gave you a RM10 shopping voucher, you must have meant a  lot to them because in those days, “char hor fun” was a mere 30 cents per plate!

So much inflation since then! So much have changed since then.

Sometimes having dinner at an old eating establishment brings back rather a lot of poking down memory lane.

What I Truly Detest About De Tai Tong Cafe

Anyway, I still don’t like the argumentative auntie servers at Tai Tong; they make ordering such a chore because they keep bugging you about ordering their specialty dishes when all I want is just my regular stuff. According to my parents and Godma, Tai Tong Cafe’s food isn’t as spectacular now. It used to be so much better.

As for me, this place can be a hit-and-miss affair.

Sometimes the food is really good – I quite like their braised duck noodles in ginger gravy, their fried rice and “ang thor” noodles (a poor man equivalent of sharks’ fin soup) with lashings of black vinegar.

I also enjoy their “char hor fun” is it is served piping hot and the gravy has not soaked into the hor fun entirely, making it a mess to eat. Their “sang meen” is another winner but again, it must be eaten piping hot or gets very cloying after it gets cold.

From time to time, the auntie servers will recommend all sorts of things to you – deepfried spring rolls, steamed fish, fried chicken wings etc. Pay no heed to them.

If you arrive at noon when they are packing up their dim sum for the day, they will bully you into buying their leftover dim sum or pau. Do not be taken in. Pity for their incessant bugging means you will be too stuffed to the gills later on.

The aunties just want to make their lives easier by offloading the remaining pau or dim sum to you. Politely but firmly decline. They may be aunties but it is my stomach yeah?

Weekends are crazy times to eat in Tai Tong as the entire weekend crowd of hungry Penangites and outstation visitors descend on Tai Tong like ants. Even the odd Mat Salleh or two will wander into this cafe and be hoodwinked into eating whatever the auntie servers recommend.

Parking along Cintra Street is much easier on week day evenings and less maddening.  And god knows that THAT by itself can be such a relief in Penang.

One Secret Place You Must Not Miss

If you come earlier say before 6pm, you can make a quick de-tour into People’s Court behind Tai Tong and look for the long-time and supremely famous biscuit maker, Leong Chee Kei at the flats. Again, this tiny shop is an institution. My mum remembers buying his “gai dann kou” – egg sponge cakes – as a kid.

I’m not a big fan of “gai dann kou” – it’s too dry and sticks in my throat but he has a plethora of traditional style biscuits to make your trip down memory lane worthwhile. He sells pepper biscuits, pong pneah, tau sar pneah, gai dann kou – all these freshly made daily.

And Yet Another One Serving Up Smiles

Of course, you should not miss the other famous pushcart opposite Tai Tong either – there are two pushcarts really. One sells Chinese herbal teas but the other pushcart sells “harm chim peang” and “pak tong kou”, again firm favourites of mine if I happen to pass by in the evenings. I always used to buy white sugar cake (“pak tong kou”) for my grandma as it seemed to be her favourite snack.

Then again, there is Foo Heong – super duper famous for its “yin yeong” or “char hor fun”. They have a Reputation you know. Nowadays the sheen and glam is gone but the last time I heard, you had to pay for extra chili or sambal if you wanted more for your “yin yeong”.

Oh I could go on and on about the old style eateries but that is enough for today.

Kimberly Street and Campbell Street and even Kampung Malabar each hold their own eateries worthy of blog posts on their own. Makes you salivate right? Right!

(Chan Kou Loh Dim Sum comes to mind and he’s gone. Also the famous Big Rock zhu-zhar who is still there whipping up dishes like a pro each time – errr, yes, who else is not famous in Penang? And dozens more.)

Such is living in Penang!

Do you have any Penang eatery secrets to share, since we’re on this topic?

A Must Try Bread Recipe For Every Newbie Baker

By now you would’ve known that I got myself a bread machine if all those bread recipes haven’t clued you in yet.

Pullman Loaf - a soft, milky white bread

Pullman Loaf - a soft, milky white bread

Yes. It was either this or the magic thermal cooker (which I figured would help me make soups without watching the fire on the stove). In the end I chose the bread machine because I love bread!

And the best part, I didn’t have to buy the bread machine either.

I’d accumulated that many points on my credit card that I could redeem a Lebensstil Bread Machine from CIMB. I still don’t know how much the bread machine actually costs but I really don’t care. It’s a machine that helps me make bread so that’s that, right?

As I’m typing this, the smell of baking bread is wafting around. I don’t know about most people but I love the smell of baking bread. It’s so comforting and so homey. It makes me feel like some domestic goddess (not Nigella, mind you, she’s pretty much the ultimate domestic goddess) somehow. Even though I did not roll up my sleeves and knead away at the bread.

Purists will sniff at having a bread machine but I’ve made bread prior to getting a bread machine and I tell you, it was tough. Kneading bread is not exactly easy. It takes strong arms and lots of determination to make a good loaf of edible bread.

While I don’t mind eating ‘gwai lo’ bread, you know, the type that is chewy and full of mind-expanding goodness (oats, rye, barley etc), after sometime I want some soft textured bread. The kind that is similar to Gardenia and perhaps now Massimmo.

And while I do live near to a local bakery called Amei which bakes bread without preservatives, I somehow think I should be making bread. Call it an intense fascination with bread or the desire to cross one more thing off my list.

So, let’s see – how long have I had the machine? Possibly 5 months.

In that span of time, I’ve tried like 5 different types of bread recipes. You name it, I’ve tried it. Thanks to reading Flavours magazine and my bread bible, trawling King Arthur Flour’s website and a bunch of helpful blogs out there, I’ve experienced bread-making at its maniacal.

I tried the water roux method (tang zhong method which is clearly a favourite for most people who love Asian style soft breads and buns) and also the much-talked about Alex Goh’s sponge method. The sponge method is similar to tang zhong; the only difference is you don’t need to cook the flour and water mix, you just pour boiling water over the bread flour.

Both methods are good. They create breads which are soft like pillows. I even made sausage rolls. The only drawback was, the bread tasted good the day it got out of the oven. The day after, the rolls were a tad hard.

With a bread machine, it wasn’t that difficult to use either tang zhong or sponge method. I just put all the ingredients into the machine (all liquid ingredients plus tang zhong or sponge followed by the dry ingredients) and set it to the DOUGH programme. It kneads the dough and even proofs it. It does take a while though so this is not something you want to do on a day when you’re rushing around.

I finally tested a bread recipe which I really liked – the bread smells heavenly when it’s baking, it tastes soft and buttery (even without pats of butter) and fragrant and the best part, it retains its lovely softness the day after! Even Nic gave this a thumbs-up – we polished off the whole loaf in two sittings. That’s how amazing this recipe is.

And to think I almost passed it over!

I looked at the ingredients and didn’t see what made it so exceptional. And to think it is made entirely in the bread machine. All I did was eat the bread.

Pullman Loaf - a soft, milky white bread

A closer look at the sliced Pullman loaf

Here’s the recipe for the Pullman Loaf. It’s called Pullman because it’s supposed to be baked in the oven in a pullman tin (a bread tin with a sliding cover so that the bread is square shaped – like the kind of roti you get from your roti shop). I didn’t have one so I just decided to do it all in the bread machine.

Pullman Loaf

Put the ingredients in this order in your bread machine:

190 ml chilled UHT milk
330 gm bread flour
30 gm caster sugar
1 1/2 tsp instant yeast
1/2 tsp salt (do not put the salt near the yeast; salt inhibits the yeast)

Set your machine to BASIC and let it knead.

About five minutes into the kneading, open up your machine and add 25 gm of cut up butter.

Close the lid and let the machine do its work. After 3 hours, your bread is ready!

It will have a lovely brown crust (choose MEDIUM crust setting on your machine).

You won’t be able to resist slicing into this bread the moment it comes out of the bread pan. But resist you must. At least let the bread cool for 30 minutes. It will be eaten up with relish!

This is definitely the kind of no-fail bread recipe any newbie bread enthusiast can try.

Of course you can knead this bread by hand. I haven’t tried it yet so I can’t tell you how it’s made but trust me, if you swoon over bread like me, go get a bread machine.

Calculate your credit card points and redeem one!

Or else, go buy one for yourself. 😉

Wholemeal Goodness in a Loaf

As you know, I’ve been in a bread-baking mode ever since I got  my bread machine.

Wholemeal bread made with bread machine

Wholemeal bread made with bread machine

I’ve had it for a few months now and I’ve made bread for my aunts and mom who are often surprised that homemade bread tastes rather good and yes, it is possible to make bread at home.

See? That’s one myth de-bunked and thrown out of the window.

After years and years of eating commercial breads, we think making bread is like climbing the Great Wall of China. Possible only for the mad ones. Our breads will never taste like store-bought breads.

True.

Our breads, the homemade kind, will taste even BETTER than store-bought bread. And have less preservatives.

And it tastes gobs better because at least we made it. Artisan bread – though in this case – bread machine bread can also lay its claim to fame as semi-artisan bread.

Actually truthfully, I was pretty unconvinced too about homemade bread. I had the same thoughts as my aunts and mom before I embarked on this bread-making craze. (By the way, if you’re not a fan of loaves and such, how about a cinnamon bread roll recipe? Pretty darn good.)

I always thought it would be hard to replicate commercial bread. I had tried the European types of breads and while I enjoyed a good chew, I am frankly a Malaysian at heart.

I’ve been brought up on soft bread – the softer, the better. Like pillows, you know.

Although European breads are what I go for sometimes, nothing can beat a real pillow-soft bun or bread. Top that with dabs of good butter and my breakfast is all set and done!

So it was very much a surprise that I managed to make good loaves of bread using my bread machine.

Yummy wholemeal bread sliced

Yummy wholemeal bread, sliced

The thing about commercial bread is its preservatives (yes, mentioning it for a second time!).

I somehow feel that if I could make my own breads, I can at least control a little less preservatives going into my body. I am not a super health freak but I am trying my best not to ingest too much preservatives.

With homemade bread, you can only keep them out on the kitchen counter for 2 days maximum. Otherwise, they will go moldy. I have bought and left commercial bread out for more than 5 days and still they never went moldy!

Actually this recipe preceded the cinnamon roll recipe by a long way. I started experimenting with wholemeal bread before doing all those fancier bread.

So this wholemeal bread is a sure winner – I have not made this the traditional way with lots of kneading and such. I do know that if you have a bread machine, it is easy and though not exactly fast (3 hours is what it needs), you can make start making it early in the morning (say 5am if you have a pre-set timer on the bread machine) and by 8am, you have bread for breakfast! How cool is that!

OK, onwards with the recipe which I’ve tried for a few times now. Like all homemade bread, it tastes great the moment it pops out of the bread machine. Once it cools enough to slice, you can have it with butter.

Then you need to put it into an airtight plastic container (Daiso sells bread containers for RM5 which fits the bread machine loaf just nice) and you can leave it at room temperature for a day at best. You should place the bread into the fridge the next day if you don’t want mold.

The next day, just lightly toast your bread and you will have a nice, crisp toast for breakfast. Or use the leftover bread to make bread pudding. It’s all up to you how you choose to eat or upcycle your bread.

Wholemeal Bread Recipe

Note: This is a soft textured wholemeal bread. There are 2 parts to this bread. Mix Part 1, cover and let it proof in a warm corner for 90 minutes. Then you can put the ingredients for Part 2 into your bread machine and add in Part 1 and let the machine knead and bake the bread (3 hours duration).

Part 1: Mix these ingredients to form a dough. Cover and proof for 90 minutes.

  • 120 gm wholemeal flour
  • 85 gm bread flour
  • 1 tsp instant yeast
  • 130 ml water

Into your bread machine, place ingredients for Part 2 in this particular order.

  • 50 ml water
  • 10 gm milk powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 15 gm caster sugar
  • 85 gm bread flour

Add the proofed dough from Part 1. Set your machine for “Basic” and let it knead and mix. About 5 minutes later, open up your machine and add 15 gm of softened butter.

Then let your machine do the rest.

In 3 hours’ time, you will have perfectly baked soft wholemeal bread!

Enjoy this recipe and let me know how it turns out!

(Just in case you want those European chewy bread, here’s a no-knead bread recipe from a friend. If you want to roll up your sleeves and knead some bread, here’s a rosemary raisin bread recipe. And for more bread recipes, you can check out this friend’s blog. He bakes bread. And if you like chef Michael Smith, you might want to check out one of his recipes which I managed to scribble down one night after watching his TV programme.)

Next up, I shall share with you a soft as silk, milky and buttery loaf called a Pullman Loaf.

Cinnamon Rolls To Die For

As you know, I got hooked on Pinterest recently. It’s been such a visual heaven that it’s hard resisting. And the fact that I can pin stuff using the iPad just makes it….errr…a lot easier to get lost in other people’s boards. It’s a bit like voyeurism. You get to sneak a peek (actually many peeks) at other people’s boards and get excited, pinning things into your own boards.

I try to limit myself to some surfing at night at Pinterest, just so, you know, I could check out what’s new out there.

Of course, like curation, unless someone takes the effort to curate new stuff, old stuff gets pinned and curated far too often and end up on everyone’s boards.

OK, enough griping.

Now what I DO like about Pinterest is that I get to check out some really new recipes.

I have two things I am quite partial to (but have very little time for) but I am hoping to change that this year. This year, I have decided that I shall spend more time doing things that feed and indulge my little Tiger soul.

I don’t know about you but I like doing things with my hands. I like making crafty stuff (here’s something I told Ai Lee just the other week – I learnt how to crochet when I was 11 because I was too penniless to buy my Sailor Barbie nicer, prettier Oscar de la Renta dresses!) and I like cooking.

Recently I’m into bread-making too thanks to my Lebensstill (god, how  do you spell that anyway?) bread machine which I didn’t even had to buy. The initial plan was to get a smallish bread machine so that I could feel like a domesticate – adding baking to my repertoire of skills. I wanted to get a Tesco branded one but Nic has this thing against Tesco products, calling them cheap and awful. So THAT idea got scrapped. Finally I decided to look at my CIMB Redemption Booklet and what do you know, a Lebensstill bread machine smiled back at me!

I had enough (actually more than enough) points to redeem for the bread machine. So that’s how I’ve been making bread.

The Lebensstill bread machine

The Lebensstill bread machine

So Pinterest with a plethora of recipes and you know how recipes just beckon when they’re so damn visually exciting right? I got this cinnamon roll recipe off someone’s board and have been wanting to try it out because I am mad about cinnamon rolls. The combination of cinnamon and sugar and butter is too heady to contemplate.

I managed to make them just last night – my first time making them anyway but what a success! I could do a little jig here because I am sure anyone who has tried a new recipe for the first time has heart palpitations. What if the recipe turned out awful? Would I have to eat the stuff still? Or throw it out? And knowing that you spent a good amount of time and money on it, you’d be like me – disappointed!

I made this using the bread machine – it is really useful because it has a Dough setting that helps you slowly but surely combine all the sticky and wet ingredients into a proper lump of dough. (I even use the Dough setting to mix up my pumpkin man-tou – saves me a lot of time and prevents me from getting sticky dough on my hands).

The downside is, the Dough setting takes 1.5 hours to complete. The good thing is, you just put all the ingredients in and let the machine beat away for 1.5 hours. You can go read, watch TV, take a nap.

Cinnamon Rolls Recipe (makes 10 rolls)

Into your bread machine bowl, add ingredients in this order:

70 ml water + 100 ml UHT milk

280gm bread flour

15 gm (1 tbsp) milk powder

60 gm castor sugar

1 tsp instant yeast

1/2 tsp salt

Program your machine to DOUGH setting.  About 5 minutes of vigorous mixing, add in 50 gm of butter.

After the dough’s nicely combined (and the machine beeps to a stop), take it out, put it into a tupperware (with a lid) and let it rest in the fridge, overnight. So you can do this around 8pm and by 10pm, your dough should be happily snug in the fridge. Remember to grease the tupperware to make the dough easier to tilt out tomorrow.

Cinnamon rolls in the making

Pardon the mess, I work like a fiend with flour!

This morning, I took it out and let it rest while I went and showered. Then I tilted out the dough, a very pillow-y soft dough, and divided it into 2 portions (easier to handle). I sprinkled more bread flour onto my rolling pin and started rolling it out like a longish sheet.

Then I dabbed pats of butter on to the flattened dough, sprinkled a good amount of brown sugar and ground cinnamon powder and of course, raisins. Then roll up the entire thing, cut them into little rolls and place them into a greased tray. At this stage, you need to let them rest and double up in size which takes about 45 minutes. (Do the same with the rest of the dough.)

Cinnamon rolls waiting to expand

Cinnamon rolls waiting to expand

About 20 minutes into this, you must start heating up your oven. I use 180C most of the time. Once the rolls have doubled, glaze them with beaten egg and pop them into the oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

Cinnamon rolls nicely risen after 45 minutes

Cinnamon rolls nicely risen after 45 minutes

If baking bread makes me swoon, then baking cinnamon rolls makes me swoon even more. The smells are delicious when they’re baking – so this is just another yummy reason to start making them now.

I’m a complete baking novice and my cinnamon rolls turned out excellent.

Nothing like your own cinnamon rolls!

Nothing like your own cinnamon rolls!

Cool them for an hour and then dig in! The rolls are soft and fluffy (and nary a bread tenderizer or bread improver in sight!).

Fresh from the oven, cinnamon rolls!

Fresh from the oven, cinnamon rolls!

Try this recipe and let me know how YOURS turned out!

The Kechara Salad

I came across this recipe in my Flavours magazine sometime ago.

easy Asian style salad from Kechara

easy Asian style salad from Kechara

It sounded like a really great way to use purple (or is it called red) cabbage – I love purple coloured fruits and vegetables but I’ve never ever entertained the idea of stirfrying purple cabbage. It would certainly look quite weird!

So this Kechara salad was superbly simple and needed just a few ingredients – most of these you can find in your kitchen.

It’s not the heavy sort of Western salad (with creamy dressing). In fact this dressing will pique your taste buds. I figured it could be served as an appetizer or even with your heavier meat and sausage dishes as it cuts down the “jelak” factor due to its tangy-ness.

First, you need a cup of all these three vegetables:

  • shredded purple cabbage
  • shredded carrot
  • shredded lettuce or romaine

Put all of these into a large stainless steel mixing bowl.

Into another bowl, mix 2 tablespoons of Lee Kum Kee Plum Sauce, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of caster sugar. Combine well.  Pour this dressing over your gorgeous tri-coloured vegetables.

Just before serving, toss in a handful of roasted peanuts.

Top with roasted seaweed (the kind you find as a snack in supermarkets) – use scissors to cut into smaller pieces.

Serve immediately.

It’s the perfect salad for days when you’re sick and tired of those mayo-thousand-island salads but want something refreshing to tickle and uplift your palate. The plum sauce and lemon juice just give the salad this amazing Asian taste which goes very well with heavier stuff like pork sausages or roast chicken.

If you are wondering why it’s called the Kechara salad, this recipe originated from the kind folks over at Kechara, a Buddhist organization in KL, which is run superbly like a good business. They own a vegetarian restaurant called Kechara Oasis too. They do a host of interesting things from publishing to dining.

No Brand But Just As Good

I’m not a big fan of tau sar pneah although Nic is. He loves them to bits and can eat a few at one go, especially if they’re going with brewed coffee.

Soh Peng’s little adventure with finding tau sar pneah the last time she visited was enlightening, especially for me. I was a little intrigued about the best tau sar pneah in town, or at least the best type you could cart home to friends and family.

Anyway, Nic actually liked Chuan Hoe brand of tau sar pneah. This brand was recommended by the lady at a stall in Chowrasta market. He said it was moist and redolent of fried onions. Sometimes the no-brand stuff can be rather lovely.

But he also liked Ah Leong’s freshly baked tau sar pneah too. Ah Leong is a little nickname we gave to this nondescript, hidden gem of a biscuit maker located behind De Tai Tong dim sum restaurant on Cintra Street. Ah Leong is actually Leong Chee Kei – the name of this tiny biscuit shop on the ground floor of the very Hong Kong-style, 1970s People’s Flats.

Leong Chee Kei (not sure if that’s his name or the name of the shop but hey, it does not matter) sells freshly baked traditional style cakes and biscuits. It opens every day from 10am to 6pm (except Sunday because the baker does need a rest).

I was introduced to this pastry shop by Jo, a Singaporean no less, one day after we’d had a filling lunch at De Tai Tong. She said she wanted to show me a superb little shop behind this dim sum place.

Leong Chee Kei is famous for their freshly baked coconut tarts which tend to sell out fast.

Coconut tarts Penang style

Chinese style coconut tarts...best eaten lightly reheated

Their pepper biscuits are also crunchy and famous (come to think of it, which biscuit is not famous in this shop?) and so are their traditional style egg cakes – you know, the soft and spongy cake in the 80s before we all got caught up in crepe de mille or cheesecake or macarons. (You can read more and salivate over this quirky Chinese bakery goodies over at CK Lam’s blog.)

They sell all sorts of traditional biscuits so the best time to come is in the morning, 10-ish or so when the baked goods are just cooling off under their furious fans, ready to be packed and bought by tourists. Yes, tourists have also discovered that the best stuff is just plain un-branded and needs a bit of a curious nose to find. Oh and they do quite a good walnut cookie (“hup tow soh”) too – the size of a large American cookie but tastes very crumbly and rich.

Despite being famous, this shop has retained local prices (at least they seem quite local to me).

This shop sells pretty good tau sar pneah and possibly good enough to rival the big boys. In fact if you ask me, theirs could be lots better ‘coz it’s handmade, made the day or even the day before (it’s not sitting in some shop for yonks) and you’re supporting one of the few local bakeries – possibly the last of its kind because I doubt the owner’s kids will be doing this manual biscuit baking any time soon.

Which reminded me of another food-nostalgia-reflection story of a Ban Chang Kuih seller we spoke to at one of the street corners near Cintra Street. It’s the story of how there is no wrong or right, but of how circumstances change.

And that is another story for another day. Do remind me. 😉

That Quest For Tau Sar Pneah!

Living in Penang for the past decade and more makes me quite Penangite in the sense that I do not truly appreciate the little things Penang are famous for.

Lor bak, Singapore style.  From Food Republic, Vivo City.

Lor bak, Singapore style. From Food Republic, Vivo City.

If you ask me when was the last time I had a plate of sinfully oily char kueh teow, I’d have to think a bit. I cannot recall. I don’t normally eat char kueh teow. It’s more like I don’t crave it that much. That goes for quite a number of Penang hawker food like chee cheong fun, Hokkien mee, laksa (assam laksa to you KL people) and curry mee.

In fact, eating out can be quite a chore.

Nic and I have to really think hard if we want to eat out.

Most times, we eat in because I much prefer to cook (yes, for some strange reason, I like cooking and I like knowing what I put into my food).

It helps that Nic is always the eager guinea pig – I think he secretly enjoys my little kitchen adventures! But he won’t admit it. Oh men are like that. They’d rather have a tooth extracted than heap praise on their wives. But then again, I shan’t be judgemental. I’ve only seen this hesitance to praise of the men in my family – my uncles, my dad and of course, my husband.

So the only time we ever go out is when friends from abroad or out of state come for a visit. Then we have to figure out the hawker food for them as non-Penangites are very focused when they come to Penang – like Soh Peng said, “Give me hawker food. I don’t care for any Western cuisine.”

Penangites are the opposite. We’d rather tuck into Western/Italian/Japanese/Korean than plain old hawker fare. Maybe we have had too much of the same thing.

While on a flight to Penang sometime ago, another friend told me that she spied a Singaporean woman seated in front of her checking a long list of must-eat food in Penang! But that is really what Singaporeans come here for. Our lipsmacking food. (Which really, does taste much better than any old Singaporean fare. No wonder they go mad here over our Penang food. And they go “cheap, cheap”!)

Over the Hari Raya Haji weekend, Soh Peng came to stay. On the last day, hours before she took her flight home to Singapore, we went in search of Penang’s famous snack – tau sar pneah. These round little biscuit snacks are usually bought by visitors to Penang. Most locals I know never touch this biscuit. We’re that bored of our famous little biscuit.

You see, we didn’t want to buy the biscuits on Friday when she arrived. We figured the biscuits would be fresher if she bought them on the day she left. Funnily we forgot that the rest of the world (KL and Singapore people) were on the island for the three-day weekend too.

We thought we’d buy at Him Heang on Burmah Road. Wrong move! The shop was packed with tourists that Monday morning. I had this feeling that we were a bit too late. There was no more tau sar pneah! People were buying biscuits like there was no tomorrow. The next batch of tau sar pneah was arriving at 3pm but who wants to wait till then?

(Him Heang has its tale of notoriety. In the good old days, they will never entertain walk-ins for their biscuits if you did not pre-order. Yup, they were that snooty. But snootiness attracts more customers because it must mean very tasty biscuits or else why would they be so snooty? Just as we would patronize a restaurant if we see it full of people. You never want to go into an empty restaurant would you? Reminds me of that super famous, super fine butter cake sold in the morning market at OUG. My KL friend lined up patiently for this cake (so we could get a taste of it) and yes, it was superb. The things we do for food!)

Singapore famous chui kuih snack

Singapore famous chui kuih snack

With dejection on our faces, we went in search of Ghee Hiang. At least Ghee Hiang has 2 outlets nearby. I am sure we could get at least something! I thought I was being smart. We tumbled into the car and zoomed off before any tourist could figure out why.

The Ghee Hiang bungalow on Anson Road is normally very quiet. Their compound is spacious and most times, only one or two cars are parked. That day, it was full of cars. All with outstation number plates. Errgh. Not a good sign. On regular days, you can park leisurely, walk out of your car and get into the shop, pay for your bisucits and get out in less than 10 minutes.

That day, we eyeballed a long line of people! The compound was maxed out with cars and even one or two bulky tourist vans. Soh Peng decided to line up.

Ahead of her were about 7 people. She said that a riot almost broke out when the first woman in the line asked the Ghee Hiang staff for 30 boxes of tau sar pneah! The person behind this lady wasn’t too happy because he might not get any the way she was ordering.

We didn’t stay on to hear the bickering as I told Soh Peng that we could try our luck at the drive-by outlet of Ghee Hiang’s on Burmah Road. Ghee Hiang is smart in that way – they opened an outlet just a few hundred yards BEFORE you reached Him Heang. No doubt this was to waylay unsuspecting tourists to buy from THEM before they could buy at Him Heang. Damn sneaky! After all, it was a one-way traffic road and you would see their shop first.

So we went around to this Ghee Hiang outlet.

Oooh, no one at all! No line, no busy people (it was just a window counter where you walked up and made your order).

Unfortunately, no line meant that they too had sold out their tau sar pneah!

Dang!

I was at this point rather clueless on what we could do next. All the island’s tau sar pneah were bought up by crazy car-loads of tourists. Who eats 30 boxes of tau sar pneah anyway?

Soh Peng finally decided that we could try Chowrasta market.

This was getting to be quite strange.

(Earlier, we crossed the road to Apom Guan on Burmah Road near Union Primary School because she had a craving for apom with bananas. We stood to wait at Ah Guan’s stall as he was busy making lots of apom. A well-dressed lady stood nearby too. So did a man. Ah, 2 people before us. Still manageable! Luckily I asked Ah Guan because he said that he was just at 100 pieces of apom and the lady had ordered 200 pieces of apom! OHMYGOD. What the heck would she need 200 pieces of apom for? With that, we just turned tail and left.)

Singapore rojak...somehow tastes different

Singapore rojak...somehow tastes different

And so we got to Chowrasta. For sure they will have Him Heang or Ghee Hiang. The first stall we came to did have Him Heang but in a box of 16 pieces, not 32 pieces. The woman who manned the stall convinced us to try out a non-branded tau sar pneah called Chuan Toe. Eventually Soh Peng decided to buy the non-branded tau sar pneah because she had no choice. She was flying back in less than 3 hours and she had to have her tau sar pneah!

I have not seen such madness over a snack like this for a long time. It amazes me the lengths people go to for their food.

Many people also feel that Him Heang and Ghee Hiang are over-rated and commercialized. That maybe so but these are old-time brands people associate with. It’s tough for people to switch brands especially if nostalgia and good memories are woven into this association.

In my next post, I’d tell you about one non-branded tau sar pneah biscuit which we found – made fresh and tastes just as good, if not better (according to my tau sar pneah fan of a husband).

Singapore style fried prawn noodles

Singapore style fried prawn noodles

PS: Why show photos of food from Singapore? It just shows that I don’t have photos of food in Penang. LOL. Just in case you’re wondering if the photos are wrong. They’re not. They showcase hawker food. Just not hawker food in Penang. 😉

Cinema, Coffee & Sinful Desserts

Over the past few years (and way before Georgetown was declared a UNESCO Heritage site), many people have been intrigued and more than fascinated with old Georgetown.

There’s a wealth of history and nostalgia in every crack and pore of these crusty, musty buildings we call pre-war shophouses. Many have a link to their past when they come across these buildings. Many love the quaintness, the charm and the memories which have somehow brought them to Penang. Some aren’t even Penangites.

We got to know Kopi Cine from a friend.

Ann had come from Langkawi but she was gushing about these row of shophouses in Stewart Lane and Armenian Street which had been turned into retail shops, guest house and cafe. It helped that she knew the owner of these business ventures. It helped too that Nic and I too have met the highly successful yet no-nonsense lady proprietor some time ago on one of our trips to Langkawi.

We decided to check Kopi Cine out one night.

It’s not Kopi Cine as kopi orang cina. It’s Cine of Cinema. Its Chinese name says, Kah Fei Dian Ying which means Coffee and Cinema. A mouthful and one that will certainly cause little ego fights about its pronunciation.

Kopi Cine is owned by the same people who own Bon Ton in Langkawi. Bon Ton is classy, elegant and sophisticated, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of dining or staying there.

Kopi Cine is also a bit of hunt for people who’ve never ventured down the funky-smelling lanes and alleys of old Penang (for want of a better word, funky means anything that smells awkwardly disturbing but you just cannot place yourself to describe the vulgarity).

It’s on Stewart Lane, a narrow strip of road that’s more residential than touristy. This is the road just before the Goddess of Mercy Temple and certainly it is not your backpacker Chulia Street pub-drinking place.

The night we were there, we overheard a young girl asking, “Where’s the aircond dining section?”

If there’s any indication of what place you might step into, be forewarned – there’s no aircond dining section in Kopi Cine. It’s pure hot cond – it’s au naturel air which we call breeze. It’s open to the street and with its bright lights, it’s a beacon on a dark, silent street devoid of tourists.

The cafe is narrow with a dark wood bar running down on side and a few tables down the other side. It’s like those European cafes where its appeal lies in its cosiness. You get to doodle on the table too with Buncho crayons as you wait for your meals. You may also take home the white mahjong paper with your doodles if you so please.

Kopi Cine opens from 9am till 11pm and serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, desserts and lots of alcohol. (If you so please and have the budget for a bottle of bubbly, yes, you can get that here too! In fact their wine list is extensive, considering it’s in Stewart Lane. The wine list looks like something out of E&O’s wine menu!)

Food selections are limited but whatever we ordered that night, we actually loved it.

I ordered a Middle Eastern platter of Mezze which is good for vegetarians (not that I am one but sometimes I like to think I’m eating healthy!). The Mezze came with a good 8 quarters of soft pita, hummus, eggplant dip, dukka and salsa. If you like comfort food, you’ll find the hummus and eggplant dip highly satisfactory.

Nic’s order of BBQ Chicken Tikka was tender and juicy and he also had enough pita to mop up the side of cucumber salad, raita and spicy dip. Ann’s lamb sausages with mashed potato was a hearty meal.

We couldn’t leave without attempting dessert, stuffed as we were. Bon Ton is famous for its desserts and who could pass up a chance to try its homemade gula melaka ice cream? Plus, as Ann revealed, the desserts were less pricey compared to Langkawi.

My apple and guave crumble came in a tiny Chinese tea cup with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream on the side. It didn’t look like a lot but it was sweet and filling. Ann’s steamed apple pudding with gula melaka ice cream was a delight. I especially loved the intense sweetness of the gula melaka resonating in the mouth. As its ice creams are homemade, it was also sheer pleasure digging into Nic’s layered ice cream cake smothered in chocolate sauce.

Of course don’t expect Kopi Cine to be your regular cheap eat.

It’s not.

It’s not when it has champagne on its menu.

It’s not when you realize it’s really like 32 The Mansion but tricked down to look rickety and rundown. I guess shabby chic is the order of the day. (And to recreate this look, here’s a hint: you can get most of the decor featured from SSF in Anson Road.)

The Reading Room is next door but the books aren’t for sale. A 60s Chinese movie plays silently, projected on the uneven walls at the back. Upstairs is the Stewart Lane Residences where you get to stay and experience the ambience of the forgotten Penang. Like some arthouse movie where nostalgia rings deep.

Yup, returning to your roots is in vogue again.

My Life in France

I just finished reading Julia Child’s highly delicious memoir called “My Life in France”. It is a delightful, enticing read and one you must not miss if you are interested in cooking and all things French.

I picked this book on my first trip to Book Excess in PJ not too long ago. It was either this or Agatha Christie’s memoirs.

Meryl Streep as Julia Child in the movie "Julie & Julia"

Image courtesy of Amazon

I decided to buy and read Julia Child first as I had watched the movie “Julie and Julia” last year, thanks to Vern. In the movie though, it was only Julie’s perspective on Julia so I believed that delving into Julia’s life would be a better way to know the American who had practically revolutionized French cuisine in America, teaching American women how to cook French food without being intimidated or scorned by the snooty, artisanal French.

You must watch the movie if only to marvel at what Julie threw herself into.

Based on a true story, Julie gave herself a challenge of cooking 1 recipe a day from Julia Child’s French cookery book, Mastering The Art of French Cooking and blogging about it – her success, her failure and her life/work as she struggles to do what she believes is the impossible.

Along the way, she learns about who she really is (aren’t all journeys like that? We think we are going on a journey but it is the growth that we are craving). While the movie was superb, I felt there wasn’t much closure in the end as Julia Child did not wish to meet Julie at all. I felt disgruntled by the grand old dame of French cookery. Surely she cannot be so snobbish?!

Anyway, that is possibly the second reason I bought this book. If only to satisfy my curiosity about what sort of woman Julia Child was!

You would think that a woman of such calibre must be quite a force in the kitchen in her early days.

Surprisingly no.

When Julia landed in Paris in 1948 with her utterly charming husband, Paul, she did not speak French and knew nothing about the cuisine. What struck her was her first meal off the ship, at a Michelin-starred restaurant called Restaurant La Couronne where she was introduced to her first French meal of the day, a Sole Meuniere, “a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top”. She called it the most exciting meal of her life.

As this book was written together with her grand-nephew, Alex Prud’homme, it sings with Child’s exuberance and love for all things La Belle France.

I was ultimately transported to France from her lively description about food, food preparation, living in Paris and then other places in Europe, learning at L’Ecole du Cordon Bleu, moving from apartment to apartment, collaborating with Simca for 10 years on a 750-page French cookery book, and becoming a TV personality on French cooking when she arrives back in the US in the 1960s… all these are perfectly captured. It helped that Paul, her husband, was an avid photographer and this memoir is filled with beautiful black and white images of Paris and Julia Child of the 1950s.

At times serious (when she realizes she isn’t ever going to be a mother or when she realizes her father never really liked her marrying a non-Republican) and at times playful and irreverently funny, the memoir sings with her personality. (The movie captured rather well too – Julia Child is played by Meryl Streep who really does an incredible job of portraying her to her most eccentric!).

Perhaps what made Julia the queen of French cooking in America is her ability to be honest with herself and adapt to changes as they arrive and take things with a twinkle in her eye and a practical no-nonsense approach to life. Her collaborative effort with Simca, her French counterpart, ran to 750-pages which was of course rejected by her American publisher. Although it was a 10-year effort (in those days, there was no email so she and Simca wrote each other via post to write their book, testing the recipes again and again, figuring out if the ingredients can be found in the US and etc. – I cannot image the detail of the tome), Julia decided she would be practical and trim it down without missing a beat.

When she passed on in 2004, Julia had published 3 books in her lifetime – Volumes 1 and 2 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and From Julia Child’s Kitchen. She did not succumb to the idea of opening her own restaurant although she could’ve because her first love was cooking and sharing this with her audience on TV.

I believe her success was partly due to her husband. Paul supported and indulged his wife’s passion, and his wine hobby spurred her on to pair cuisine with wine. Paul was her confidante and photographer, critic and artistic collaborator. Without him, Julia would have crumbled. With every move, he’d help her set up her kitchen properly so she could quietly test and re-test the recipes she’d learnt.

Reading a memoir is like slipping into someone’s life and home, if only for the briefest moments to experience a world so utterly fascinating and downright pleasing that it leaves me a little breathless. It is a real fantasy (oh what an oxymoron!) that enthralls. I have never been to Paris or even tried my hand at French cooking. But through Julia, I get to see what Paris was like in the years after the war, how inquisitive they are, how madly possessive they are about their cuisine and what lengths they go to for their food.

I leave you with a beautiful quote from the memoir:

“In Paris in the 1950s, I had the supreme good fortune to study with a remarkably able group of chefs. From them I learned why good French food is an art, and why it makes such sublime eating: nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care. If one doesn’t use the freshest ingredients or read the whole recipe before starting, and if one rushes through the cooking, the result will be an inferior taste and texture…But a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience. Such was the case with the sole meuniere I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany.” (p. 332)

As Julia says at the end of her cooking shows, Bon appetit!