My Interview With Mak Lan of Lidiana

I interviewed Mak Lan of Lidiana’s in Tanjung Bungah for the 8 March International Women’s Day exhibition.

This is the full interview which I wrote up as a feature story, well, for myself. I did journalism in USM but I never worked for any newspapers so in a way, this is my way of keeping my chops lean and working. Enjoy!

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Lidiana nasi campur Tanjung Bungah
My friend & photographer taking photos of Mak Lan

“I’ve been in this business for 36 years and I started due to poverty. Due to poverty, I will stand and work like the Chinese. And like the Chinese, I never give up.” 

The interview with Kak Lall Bee binti Ibrahim starts this way. And despite my valiant attempts to speak to her in Malay, she smiles and says she can speak English. And so the rest of the interview happens in English, a language that she’s comfortable with. 

“You know, there is this young Chinese boy who comes and talks to me every day. He is so amazed that a 60 plus year old Malay woman can speak English so well!” She laughs. Her eyes gleam impishly. 

nasi campur with ulam Penang
Nasi campur with fresh herbs and ulam

Kak Lall has come a long way from the days of being a divorcee with 3 children – 2 girls and a boy. 

“It’s a different kind of feeling when you’re a divorcee. It’s different than being a widow.” Her eyes soften as she says this. 

Today, she drives an SUV with the number plate PLA II. She cheekily remarks that the number plate spells “La ll” – her name. 

It is far removed from the days she started with a tri-wheel push cart, selling her nasi campur,  by candle light from 6am to 6pm everyday to ensure she had money for her siblings and her children. 

And she had 16 siblings to feed. These were the two simple reasons that made her start her nasi campur business. And in the early days, it wasn’t the bustling stall with workers busy frying chicken or dishing out piping hot nasi tomato. 

Malay style stir fried vegetables
Malay style stir fried vegetables at Lidiana

It was a simple push cart with some 10 dishes she’d cook with the help of her aunt. She’d set up her stall opposite the old Tanjung Bungah bus stand. She’d also sell by candle light. 

“I borrowed RM100 from a chettiar to get my business started. Every month I’d pay him RM20 in interest. Back then, RM100 was a lot of money!” she exclaims. Pointing to the fried and sambal-stuffed, plump ikan terubok (one of her bestseller dishes), she said that when she started her business 36 years ago, ikan terubok was only 10 sen each. Nowadays fresh ikan terubok costs RM60 per kilo. 

fried ikan terubok
Fried ikan terubok, a bestseller at Lidiana

Kak Lall says she managed to pay back her chettiar loan in 4 months. 

In the early 80s, it was rare to eat out. Tanjung Bungah was a quiet stretch, unlike today where it is peppered with hotels, apartments and restaurants. She often struggled to sell her dishes. Things improved considerably when the hotels started opening up, starting with the Rasa Sayang Hotel. Her customers comprised hotel employees as well as the Chinese who lived around the area. 

Later she’d move to where the now “tsunami flats” were.  

Back then, she’d open her stall from 6am to 6pm, making a meagre RM40 a day. She’d go to the wholesale market at midnight, buying fresh produce like fish and vegetables. She’d come home, sleep a few hours and wake up at 3am to prepare her dishes with her aunt’s help. 

When the food court (where she is now based) was built and opened, she decided to rent a proper space at RM100 per month. 

At this humble and nondescript Medan Selera, she recounted that her business in the first year was bad as her regular customers couldn’t find her. 

Over time, they discovered her stall and business resumed its brisk pace. Until today, the majority of her customers are Chinese who live around the Tanjung Bungah area. Each Raya, she invites all her best Chinese customers to her open house to thank them for their support. 

She has so many Chinese customers eating at her stall that many out of town people have asked if the stall was started by a Chinese. 

Kak Lall laughs and believes that her dishes are of quality and with plenty of good variety. That’s the reason why her customers return again and again. Although she isn’t hands-on in the kitchen now (her daughter Nordiana has taken over from her mom), she still visits the stall every day to check on the quality of the food. 

“My specialities are my kerabu, black chicken and fried terubok. You know, a few months ago, a TV crew from the UK came to film me making kerabu mempelam. Their chef wanted to learn how it’s done.” Kak Lall points at the black chicken, a dish of sticky, sweet and savoury chicken slow cooked for 5 hours. If the food is not cooked well, she sends the food back to the kitchen. 

“I don’t know what to do if I retire! I am so used to being here, at my stall. If I don’t work, it’s hard to pass time!” 

Lidiana has about 30 dishes and more laid out in typical nasi campur style. A good many were stir-fried vegetables and ulam (fresh basil, fresh mint, cucumbers). Her nasi campur stall now opens from 7am right till 9pm daily (except Sunday). Her employees start to prepare and cook at 4.30am in order to open for the breakfast crowd at 7am. 

Customers lining up for lunch at Lidiana Tanjung Bungah
Customers lining up for lunch at Lidiana Tanjung Bungah

What is striking is that the dishes are cooked in small batches, ensuring as Kak Lall says, quality and freshness. As we talk, her employee (and this is quite interesting – her employees are all women) scoops up a batch of fried chicken from a hot kuali. Dishes are replenished quickly. Kak Lall tells me there is a particular Australian gentleman who buys and eats 8 pieces of this fried chicken from her stall daily! 

Lidiana, the name of her business, comes from the names of her 2 daughters, Nordiana and Lidia. At the moment, the business is run by her daughter and her son-in-law. Her grandson, she says, is interested in the business. A lanky teen, he was seen discussing what to buy and how much with his grandmother, as a catering order from a Chinese customer comes in. 

“Prawns are expensive these days but my Chinese customers still want to order prawns.” When I told her that Chinese love prawns for their symbolism, she nods. 

Despite the rise in fresh ingredients, Lidiana’s has never raised its prices. 

“You know how expensive red chillis are these days? But we still make our sambal belacan every day. We may not make as much money but it’s OK, give and take some.  It’s nonsense when people say you can’t make money in the food business.” 

Many of her KL and Johor customers have no problem hopping on a flight to Penang just to eat at Lidiana. As her food prices are reasonable, many of them would even tip her employees saying that they would never be able to get such good food at such prices in their own cities. Lidiana is packed during school holidays with customers lining up beyond the gate of the food court. On Fridays, Lidiana serves a special dish – nasi tomato and dalca. 

I also note that she’s an astute business woman. As the food court gets unbearably warm during noon, Kak Lall invests in cooler fans and places these strategically at her stall so that her customers can eat comfortably.  

lidiana tanjung bungah nasi campur
Lidiana’s is open 6 days a week and is Tanjung Bungah’s best place for nasi campur

She reveals that her mother was a good cook and her sisters also have their own food business in Tanjung Tokong and in town. 

Lidiana also does catering and special side orders if advance time is given. Some dishes are not on the menu but can be ordered by special request such as crabs. 

“I am thankful to God for good health, strength and determination,” Kak Lall says. She also says that the food business is a good business to run because of the cashflow. 

She claims she had little education but upon probing, I found out that she had studied in Convent Pulau Tikus up to Form Three. Her eyes grow a bit misty as she talks about how race relations have gone badly. An elderly Chinese lady, clearly a customer, comes by and pats her back. Kak Lall seems fond of all her regulars, whispering to me that the lady was a widow of a rich towkay. She comes by regularly to eat at Lidiana. 

“You should see my business on the first day of Chinese New Year,” Kak Lall says. All the Chinese patrons who grew up with her food would come with their families. 

“Many people tell me, it’s hard and tiring running a food business. I say, how can you be tired? I was a one woman show when I started. I did the marketing and cooking and setting up stall. I had to drive to the wholesale market at midnight, and start cooking at 3am. It was like this, day in day out.”

“A woman can succeed because she has responsibilities. I’ve seen men who run food businesses. Once they get a bit of money, they tend to spend it all either on gambling or other activities. Over time they’ll spend all their money and then stop running the business.” 

“In life, one must struggle against all odds, yet you have to be honest and live up to your own expectations.” 

I ask her about travel. This feisty lady has travelled for her umrah, and happily recounted that she’s visited Israel, Turkey, Jordan and China. She thinks she wants to visit India and Syria. A moment later, she shakes her head, “Syria is too dangerous now to visit. Maybe India is better!”

As the fourth child in the family, she was considered one of the elder siblings. When her sisters were about to marry, she’d always help out with the marriage expenses, noting sensibly that a woman should never start her married life with debts! 

In retrospect, Kak Lall’s determination seems to stem from her divorce. 

At the end of our interview, she pauses a while, collecting her thoughts. Finally she says, “I want to advise divorced women that a divorce is not the end of the world. It is not the end of the world when your husband leaves you.” 

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Lidiana is at No. 5, Arked Tanjung Bunga, 11200 Tanjung Bunga, Penang. They open everyday, Monday to Saturday, 7am till 9pm (closed on Sunday). They do catering for private events too (please call Mak Lan’s daughter, Nordiana at 016 415 8686 for enquiries). 

Of Unseen Faces, Unheard Voices

I wrote the below on 8 March but only published this today.

All photos below were taken by Hau Chern, who also took part of the photos for the Unseen Faces, Unheard Voices exhibition. I was waiting for his photos to include with this post.

Look out for Part 2 for the interview I did with Mak Lan of the famous Lidiana nasi campur in Tanjung Bungah.

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I worked on my birthday which was 2 days ago. I don’t normally do this because each year I try to give myself a break and a pampering session. After all, I work pretty much all the time even if I am nowhere near a computer.

Well, it was for a good cause.

I was preparing and revising some 100+ slides for today’s International Women’s Day celebration. Mariam had roped me and 3 others into this mini photo exhibition of hers in early January. I thought it’d be fun to try out a project. I am crazy like that. I like challenging myself. Yep, the madness of me.

A photo exhibition of 5 women food vendors of Penang
A photo exhibition of 5 women food vendors of Penang

When we first got together like a merry band that we were, we had no clue what we were going to do. We talked about it and finally settled on women food vendors.

Given that we were all working (with the exception of Mariam who is a retiree), it was crazy juggling our timelines.

We had to factor in Chinese New Year (and that all of us would be away or busy), the availability of the women hawkers we wanted to interview and photograph and of course, our team’s schedules (one team member had some major upheavals in his life while all this was happening but he was such a team player and did his best and another team member went MIA for a bit).

We did pull this off even with budget constraints. (Yay to resourcefulness!)

visitors to our unseen faces unheard voices exhibition at whiteaways arcade, beach street
People who turned up to view the slide show

What was supposed to be a super mini photo exhibition turned out to be quite an interesting project – something which we all learnt from.

We focused on women because of International Women’s Day and also at the same time, food because Penang is a food haven.

But how many times do you truly appreciate the hawker who makes and serves the food you love so much? (As an aside, you must read my curry mee vendor who died but that is a different story. Still, that incident reminds me that we should never take our food vendors for granted.)

What do you know of your favourite hawker?

What is her story?

Do you know her as much as you know her food?

Well, that is what our photo exhibition titled “Unseen Faces, Unheard Voices” tried to capture in its totality. Remember, we had limited money to print up the photos. So we turned the rest into a slideshow, to explain more of the story that these 5 women were telling us.

Everything came together excellently despite the paltry funding we had. That’s how I came to work my butt off on my birthday when I should’ve been having a facial or a pedicure or a foot massage.

Bah, the things I do.

But the reaction of today’s audience to the slideshow and the photos reinforced my belief that our work did mean something. Of course, many became utterly hungry after watching the slideshow – after seeing huge bowls of curry mee, nasi campur, Hokkien mee, vadey and more, who wouldn’t? Some told me they were going to try out the food.

post it note messages
The encouraging comments penned by the public

I think the title’s apt, thanks to Jana. These women food vendors finally had their stories told. I always believe that each one of us has an interesting story to tell. And we assisted them in telling their stories of resilience. The life of a hawker is unbearably tough but these women are stoic, accept their circumstances and do the best they can. Do they want any help from the Government? No. Do they want any perks? Not really. They do what they can with what they have.

The "unseen faces, unheard voices" team - from left: me, Jana, Hau Chern, Mariam and Sandra
The “unseen faces, unheard voices” team – from left: me, Jana, Hau Chern, Mariam and Sandra

I made sure I was at the exhibition today, mainly because I wanted to gauge the reaction of the people who visited and viewed the slideshow. Many were positive with their comments which they wrote on Post-It notes and stuck to the comment board.

One lady even told us that we should make this into a coffee table book, highlighting even more women hawkers.

Krista Goon and Nic Sim and Janarthani Arumugam
I’ve known Jana since I was in Standard 3. We’ve done school projects and debates together. This time, we did a photo exhibition.

Jeya, the vadey lady attended today’s exhibition with her daughter, Sandra. She was pleased to be the subject of an exhibition and as a thank you gesture, she brought piping hot vadey for everyone.

As an aside, I am sometimes taken aback by some people’s reactions. I spoke to a 40-something engineer about these women hawkers and he said, “Why is it always about women, women and women?”

I replied carefully, keeping my voice even, “Because it is International Women’s Day and we’re celebrating women’s work and efforts”. This outburst was so uncalled for that I was a bit pissed. What’s wrong with celebrating women? Then again, some men have a chip on their shoulder. They may be jealous of the attention that we women get. They get upset that there’s no worldwide celebration of International Men’s Day.

Jeya, vadey seller
Jeya, second from left, in front of her photo. She came with her family to view the slideshow.

On another note, I met an 80-something gentleman who, after watching the slideshow, advised me to interview the woman who sells spices and curry paste in the Pulau Tikus market (apparently her business allowed her to send her two children overseas for their education). He also said that we should also record an interview with Jimmy Choo’s mentor, an old man who used to run a shop in Muntri Street but has now relocated to Kimberly Street. His elegant wife pulled me aside to inform me that the shoemaker’s custom shoe price is getting higher and higher each year!

The exhibition and slideshow is still going on at LUMA Gallery, Whiteaways Arcade until 31 March. On 1 April, we’ll put up the slideshow online so you can view it too.

Never mind, I’ll put it at the end of this post so you can view it. After all it’s only a couple of days before 1 April. I might forget!

whiteaways arcade, george town, penang

We’ve decided to add on a few more women food vendors plus I managed to get some photographers interested to help us with Phase 2 of the project. A foreign artist was also enamoured by the kuay teow th’ng couple – so much that she wants to paint them as a mural somewhere in George Town!

Honestly, I am satisfied that this pilot project touched so many Penangites in so many ways. It’s not just about the food we crave but also knowing the stories of hardship and toil of the common man and woman makes us appreciate our food heritage more.

unseen faces unheard voices exhibition penang
Here I am talking to people and getting their feedback on the exhibition

I don’t know where this project will lead us but I am sure we will continue recording these stories. Part of what makes Penang unique is our mixed bag of stories intertwined with our favourite food. I believe honest stories like these are far better than pretend critiques of food! (Most people don’t critique anyway – otherwise they won’t get called back for another food review!)

If you’re a storyteller or a photographer or just eager to help in any way, join us in documenting our food heritage!

Nic of Redbox Studio
Yes, I got Nic to help me out too on the exhibition day. That’s what husbands are for, right?

If you’d like to participate in this project, please write to Mariam at ufuvpenang@gmail.com

We need people who can speak the local language, ask questions, write, create slides, take photos and more.

Enjoy the slideshow below! And leave me some comments too – I’d want to hear what you think!

The Curry Mee Tragedy

I never knew how much I loved my Penang curry mee until my favourite hawker died.

Yes, she died.

Not while cooking curry mee, of course.

 

Penang curry mee in Georgetown Penang Malaysia
Yummiest Penang curry mee with some teh C on the side

You see, Nic and I have a ritual on Sundays. We potter into town and have a totally “ah pek” breakfast. I call it “ah pek” breakfast because it involves an old corner coffeeshop with loud patrons speaking Cantonese, hawker fare which are deemed typical of Penang and yes, it also involves some old-style kopi and tea.

We sit about this coffeeshop, enjoying its ambience – the sights and sounds of a regular coffeeshop can be quite comforting.

Read moreThe Curry Mee Tragedy

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. 😉

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. 😉

Nibong Tebal’s Deepfried Secret

Don and Mylene took us to this corner coffee shop last Sunday for a scrumptious lunch. They both are past retirement age but boy, do they have the energy to shame twentysomethings and thirtysomethings! As Green Crusaders for the environment, they go all over Malaysia to give free talks on recycling and composting. Yes, free. And they’re in their 60s!

Anyway, we often catch up whenever they come over to Penang island or when we go to Bukit Mertajam. And lunch or dinner always feature in our plans.

This place they took us to last Sunday was in Nibong Tebal. Called Swee Garden, it’s located just behind Maybank and when we reached about 1pm, the place was buzzing with busy lunching folks.

The specialty, says Don, is the deepfried pig’s trotters. (Don is a retired engineer. He used to work on the Hong Kong MTR project back in the late 1970s. Over lunch, we chatted about the state of traffic in Penang and he proposes that it is POSSIBLE to build an undersea subway system connecting Penang island to Seberang Jaya and beyond. He has the expertise and experience honed from his Hong Kong days. Unfortunately the powers-that-be aren’t listening. More Malaysia Bolehness, I suppose.)

When we were there, he ordered the front leg which is supposedly LESS fatty than the back leg. I suppose this is true as my aunt usually buys the front leg (or what we Chinese call pig’s hand) as it is less fatty and less oily and hence, not so cholesterol-laden.

deep-fried pig's trotter
deep-fried pig's trotter

If you like crispy fatty siew yoke, you would die for this tender, melt-in-the-mouth pig trotters. The skin was to the right touch of crisp while the inside meat was soft, tasty and oily. It still makes me hungry thinking of this dish.

The other dishes we had were boiled octopus with a sprinkling of garlic oil, to be eaten with a vinegary chili sauce. I know. Cholesterol again! But hey, I don’t eat octopus everyday so it was such a treat. Sometimes the simplest things are the most yummy, in this case, fresh boiled octopus.

Boiled octopus with garlic oil
Boiled octopus with garlic oil

Another dish that went really well with our plain white rice was steamed stingray, Teochew-style which meant lots of salted vegetables with sour plums and chili padi. The dish was everything you wanted a dish to be – salty, spicy, tangy, with exceptionally fresh stingray fin. It was another winner as we kept scooping up the gravy.

steamed stingray fin teochew style
steamed stingray fin teochew style

Of course, we couldn’t do justice to ourselves if we didn’t order some greens. We opted for something with a kick of sambal – stirfried sweet potato leaves.

And to round it all up, we had our fill of vitamins with extra thick ambula juice. Imagine freshly squeezed ambula (buah kedondong) mixed with sour plums. It was a concoction made in heaven. We called for a jug of this and each of us had about 2 glasses of this vitamin-rich, green drink. It was rather apt to wash down all the fat and oil from the dishes we’d ordered.

freshly squeezed ambula juice, a local favourite
freshly squeezed ambula juice, a local favourite

I suppose Swee Garden is not a secret for most Nibong Tebal people. But I relished discovering this coffee shop (thanks to Don and Mylene) because it showed why rural Malaysia is still pretty damn good when it comes to food. It was simple fare, absolutely no frills but every morsel was incredibly hearty and filling.

A must-stop if you ever pass through Nibong Tebal town!

Talking About Penangites’ Passion

I’m a Penangite if your definition of Penangite is someone who is born in Penang. I wasn’t brought up here but I love this tiny island which is very community-minded. We live here like closeknit kampung folks.

And there’s a thread that knots us all Penangites together – food!

No one can bravely say that Penang is not built on food.

Every corner you turn, there’s bound to be something to tickle, entice, pander and flirt with your taste buds. And everyone who is a Penangite knows that we, either of the adopted-status, or born-here status or the migrated-here status, never leave a conversation without dipping into our fave topic – where to get the best food for our tummies.

That annoys some Caucasian friends because they cannot for the life of them understand why we Malaysians are nuts about stuff we put into our mouths for survival sakes.

My British friend grumbles not-so-good-naturedly that we Asians/Malaysians talk about food a bit too much. He can survive on a week of the same grub and won’t bat an eye. He can eat bread and more bread and still thinks it’s OK. (I don’t mind bread but I’m Asian/Chinese – give me some rice at some point in time!)

Actually, truth be told, Asian lives are tied up with food. Food is the culture that keeps families together, gets us back to the fold and gives us a reason to have a party/celebration. Food is also a status symbol at times, prompting lavish banquets which gives PETA people heart attacks (shark fin anyone?).

More than any other culture, we Chinese take our food seriously. Malays don’t go mad over food like us. And neither do Indians. Look at Malay weddings or Hindu weddings – food is just there as a side accompaniment, it does not overshadow the main event (Hindus are the best; they serve vegetarian food and do not kill any animals just to satisfy man’s hunger).

But look at Chinese weddings and you will suddenly have a throve of food critics who anticipate each of the 8- or 10-dishes and attack food with such vengeance we probably look like we’re some starving nation. And we tsk-tsk all the way on our way out of the wedding dinner, giving snide comments about the quality of the dishes served (and the portions too).

If you take away the Chinese yen for good food and all sorts of food, you take away some Chinese-ness too. That’s the sad truth. We do live to eat, not the other way around. And going by food blogs focusing on Penang food by Penang bloggers, well, we probably have the most number of food bloggers in this tiny state. (Thanks to Derek, here’s one Penang food blog you can peek into)

But it’s not just us Penangites. I was in KL last month and met up with friends.

And of course, our conversation turned to food too.

Yeo raved about this to-die-for butter cake and marble cake sold at the OUG morning market. Before the woman opens her stall for business, there’s a LONG LINE of people in front of the stall. People stand in line on a Saturday and Sunday morning (this is about 7-ish or so) just to buy her smooth as silk butter cake and espresso-fragrant marble cake.

Yeo even said that most people were skeptical about the cake – were the cakes really so damn fantastic that people woke up early on weekends just to buy them in large quantities? Yeo said he was intrigued and so he lined up too, only to realize, damn, the cakes were THAT good. And the lady only sells on weekend mornings.

Just as he was a bit unconvinced, so was I.

I mean, how great can a butter cake be?

Fortunately for me, Yeo did wake up early on Sunday morning, lined up and bought us the cakes so we could bring home to Penang to try.

The butter cake was so fine and rich. The marble cake was full of flavour. They were quite incomparable to any other butter or marble cakes which I’ve tasted. Now I know why it’s worth waking up early for!

So if there’s one unifying factor for Malaysians, it’s got to be food. We will do mad things for food. Another friend is willing to drive miles and miles (even out of Penang) just to discover some snack/food that’s not available on the island. We’re willing to brave traffic for our favourite fruit.

I myself have done it too once – all the way to Taiping to get some popiah and Hainanese chicken chop based on the recommendation in my Flavours magazine. I didn’t get any popiah or good Hainanese chicken chop but I did find a smashing place for kopi and toast!

Even when I get to Kuching, food is the first thing on my mind and they’re pretty damn good. It’s a good thing that I can still eat and NOT have the food show up on my waistline (though my waistline is enlarging….I try to exercise like gila and hula-hooping to get rid of the jelly belly!)

But then again I can tell you, I eat practically everything. I have no problem with chicken feet, chicken intestines, sweetbread, liver, pig brains, duck blood, pig blood, duck tongues, crocodile tails and what-not. I’m not easily frightened of strange animal parts and when I say I can eat anything, I am inherently proud of my Cantonese upbringing.

When I was in HK many years ago, I tried but could not find stinky tofu. I would’ve loved to try that. Also, when I was in Bangkok, I was looking out for fried insects to munch. Unfortunately, I could not seem to find any!

I would like to try some Sarawak sago worms though. I heard they taste like prawns!

Pure Organic Munching

I realize it’s been suddenly a deluge of food posts.

I don’t know why. Maybe too many projects are happening. I just got a blog consulting project running for the next few months so that’s one more to-do in my long list of to-do’s (I kind of thrive on work and like I said to Vern, the more one has to juggle, the better one juggles!).

Anyway, back to food.

I love my ladies group. Well for one, we always aim to meet each other for lunch and talk about business.

Last Friday, Jo and I ended up at SEED Cafe (again) on Nagore Road which is just around the corner from Jo’s shop on Lorong Selamat. Jo and I often meet to talk about our activities and events for WomenBizSense, and we do our best planning over lunch!

SEED Cafe is one place which makes me feel good about myself. It’s a pure organic vegetarian cafe that’s quite a hit with health-conscious Penang people. I’ve been there 3 times already and each time it is packed with customers (even though parking is horrendous. Parking in Penang is mostly horrendous but don’t even think about finding a parking spot on Nagore Road unless you double park.) They also sell organic stuff – organic miso, organic sauces etc.

SEED can seat customers upstairs too so we opted to go the first floor (where it’s quieter). I usually order this drink, Vitamin King, a blend of vegetables and fruits. It’s a green concoction with a hint of tartness. I believe my body is absorbing chlorophyll when I slurp this down.

My favourite dish seems to be the spaghetti with pine nuts with a creamy pesto made from vegetables. The pesto is rich with the fragrance of Thai basil (you will either love this herb or hate it to bits…it’s pungent and it’s definitely a taste to be reckoned with). Jo enjoys this dish too. But I always get hungry almost immediately – perhaps due to its meatlessness! I wanted to try the vege ham burger but the cafe had run out of this the day we were there.

Their salad is not bad – a simple mix of vegetables (turnip, carrot, purple cabbage) with raisins and a creamy dressing. Again it comes with Thai basil so be forewarned.

I’ve also tried their pumpkin soup (available on certain days) which is really robust and filling.

This is a place I can be quite happy eating in. I always get a burst of satisfaction if I eat right. I know I’m nutty like that.

Expect to pay an average of RM 20 per person if you dine here. Not exactly cheap but hey, at least you’re not stuffing your face with greasy, fried stuff. This is organic and this is healthy. And you feel absolutely light unlike those heavy, sleep-inducing lunches (read: heavy on rice and meat).