A Tale of 2 Laksa

Went for the monthly PHT visit on Sunday to Balik Pulau. It was worth it though as PHT visits are always educational. I suppose that is why we keep being members. (If you want to be a member, call them at +604 264 2631 or email phtrust@streamyx.com)

A slower pace of life this side of Penang is found in Balik Pulau
A slower pace of life this side of Penang is found in Balik Pulau

For us, Balik Pulau is about durians when the season rolls around each May to August. It thrills us that we get to climb some hills just to partake in our favourite fruit.
This time, the 40 of us members were joined by Yusmadi Yusoff, the MP for Balik Pulau. Dressed in a grey long sleeve shirt with dark slacks, he was ready to accompany us as we walked down the main street of his little town (yes, he is a local boy, bred in Balik Pulau).
Yoke Pin started with the history of laksa (she prefers Uncle John's laksa if you want to know)
Yoke Pin started with the history of laksa (she prefers Uncle John's laksa if you want to know)

Many a time, I am left amazed at the rich history we have here in Penang. The rich narratives, the old stories, the people who used to live here are incredibly fascinating. If only students joined PHT, they wouldn’t despise history that is taught in schools by teachers who don’t know how to tell proper stories of the people and places that matter.
Anyway, besides durian, Balik Pulau (which simply means “the other side of the island”) is also famous for its asam laksa or Penang laksa.
This visit saw us stopping for asam laksa at Chuang Heong Cafe which is directly opposite the old (and no longer used) Pasar Balik Pulau. Yusmadi was coerced into treating the bunch of us for laksa so he picked this one although Yoke Pin gave us the history of the other one, the corner coffeeshop laksa stall manned by Uncle John and his wife.
Watching laksa man in action at Chuan Heong Cafe
Watching laksa man in action at Chuan Heong Cafe

Actually I would have preferred to try Uncle John’s laksa as I’ve always seen tourists spilling out of that coffeeshop each time we pass by! I was decidedly curious about the taste of Uncle John’s laksa, reputedly a recipe he bought from a Mrs Kim who had gotten it from Grandma Khoo. The Khoo family was one of the richest families in Balik Pulau and the story went that Madam Khoo was the original laksa soup supplier to all of Balik Pulau laksa stalls at one time.
You cannot leave this town without sampling its famous asam laksa
You cannot leave this town without sampling its famous asam laksa

Here’s why Balik Pulau is famed for its laksa – it is smack in the midst of fishing villages and coconut plantations. Fresh kembung fish make all the difference to the laksa gravy. Besides the traditional asam laksa, there’s also the laksa lemak version which uses coconut cream or santan. Coconuts are plentiful in this part of Penang.
The old Balik Pulau market place
The old Balik Pulau market place

Another interesting nugget of history: you cannot miss the tallest shop in this town at Number 100. It’s a Chinese shophouse once owned by the Kapitan Cina, Mr Chee, who is the great-great grandfather of the current occupant, Mr Khoo. We were supposed to visit Mr Khoo’s home to see his sprawling house but this did not materialize. Oh well. Maybe another time!
Kapitan Cina's home and also tallest shophouse in town
Kapitan Cina's home and also tallest shophouse in town

Nic and I always love chatting with people and so as we slurped up the last spoonfuls of laksa gravy, the stall owner, Mr Tan came by. I’m sure he was pleased that Yusmadi picked his shop over the competitor opposite to belanja us all.
He started to regale us with his laksa lineage. The original laksa of Balik Pulau fame actually belonged to his family. His father started selling laksa in 1968 at the old market place. When the new market was built, the stall was shifted there (the Tan family has 2 stalls in the new market, Stall Number 30 and 37).
However, business wasn’t as fantastic as they had hoped so they found a shoplot at the present Chuan Heong Cafe. So now they have 3 stalls of laksa! He mentioned that most locals don’t eat laksa, it’s the outsiders (non-Balik Pulau residents and outstation tourists) who make up the bulk of his business. He groused that the stall opposite (Uncle John, a.k.a his competitor-lah) was getting all the business as they had a website and their website popped up in all the search engines so that’s why they’ve been doing so well! (As an aside, I thought, well, Uncle Tan, you could do the same too. You could get yourself a website, right? Why don’t you?)
My verdict is that Uncle Tan’s laksa is pretty decent. It is flavourful and fragrant, packed with lots of kembung fish. The gravy is just nice, not overly spicy that it burns your tongue, nor is it so mild that you cannot taste the spice mix. Portions are also good enough. I also tried the laksa lemak version which is creamier. I cannot say which I like best, the asam or lemak version, as both have their own deliciousness factors! Try both. I think the price is about RM2.50 to RM3 per bowl.
When you are here, you must order the nutmeg and asam boi drink. Balik Pulau is famous for its nutmeg farms so you are getting the real thing here and not some nutmeg cordial (this is what happens if you order nutmeg drink in Georgetown sometimes). Some people may not like this drink as it leaves a sappy aftertaste. It’s like eating lots of nutmeg at one go and then your tongue starts feeling like someone rubbed sandpaper all over it. That’s the feeling.
This is just Part 1 of Balik Pulau. Look out for Part 2 where Yoke Pin took us on a trip down Balik Pulau lanes!

The DNA of Durian Pleasures

I’m a durian fan. A huge one. I could not pass up the chance when Nigel invited Nic and me to a true Balik Pulau durian experience. There’s nothing like the king of fruits to bring strangers together.
On our way to Gertak Sanggul
The Sunday morning drive was pleasant – we took the road to Gertak Sanggul tailing Nigel’s Corolla while anticipating luscious, bitter durian. Would we get our hands on premium stuff?
Halfway, we stopped to wait for 3 other cars – this was going to be a group affair. The durian orchard owner, Pao Lun, rode his Honda though. Later we’d know why.
Much weaving about the hilly areas later, we turned off onto a steep road going up uphill. We parked our cars, got on with the introductions and hiked some more. Now you know why Pao Lun was on his trusty Honda bike. He could just ride up to the top of the hill.
I didn’t exactly pant while climbing the hill but it was strenuous on my calves and thighs. This was truly working up an appetite.
A cardio workout for the heart
Finally we reached the house on the top of the hill. The view was spectacular. I could see a promontory; this very promontory saved the lives of those living on this side of the shore during the 2004 tsunami which hit parts of southern Penang island.
What a view from the top of the hill
All around us were durian trees, rambutan trees and papaya trees. Netting was strung across the trees for 2 reasons – to collect the falling durians and to protect people from getting concussions while walking underneath these tall trees. (Durians were falling with dull thuds on the ground when we were there so yes, they do fall and they don’t care who they hit. They’re durians, remember? Thorny and heavy.)
But the moment Pao Lun started opening his stash of durians, everyone went into a revered silence, watching his methodical movements.
We watch eagerly as Pao Lun opens durians
It was ecstatic just looking at him opening durians, and showing us the creamy yellow flesh; some were pale yellow, others were rich sunshine yellow. Some looked moist, others dry.
Each one had its own name, its own DNA of taste. Bitter yet aromatic, soft with a delicate aftertaste. Or creamy sweet, sweet lingering till the end. Or wonderfully intense aroma heightened by thick custard-like flesh with small seeds.
Not that I recognised their names. But each durian Pao Lun presented us was like heaven in a seed of flesh. From the youngest to the oldest, we were all quiet as we licked our fingers clean, looking forward to the next durian taste.
Caught on camera tucking into durians
Soon the basket of durian shells were filling up. After gorging for almost 30 minutes, we were all truly sated, our breathing a tad laboured as we struggled to say no to yet another bounty.
Part of the durian eating gang!
I picked up an empty durian shell section and went in search of a tap to rinse my mouth and wash my hands. The tap brought forth fresh spring water (or so someone said) and I drank our Malaysian-Balik Pulau Evian water. It tasted OK.
Drinking water from the durian shell, according to local folklore, prevents heatiness after eating durian. Drinking water with a pinch of salt is also good as a prevention technique. Washing one’s hands underneath the running tap (the water must run off the durian shell first) also gets rid of the durian smell from one’s fingers. Believe it or not, it works.
This is perhaps my first of many durian outings – I am so glad I live in Penang. It’s the durian season and you can find durians on every street corner but nothing is as hedonistic as enjoying durians on top of a hill in Balik Pulau while drinking in a view of the southern tip of the island.
Thanks to Nigel and Fee for this great introduction to Pao Lun’s durian orchard! Fee promises more durians to come. Yum!
More great photos over here.
UPDATE: Here is Pao Lun’s mobile number in case you want to call him and make a date to visit the farm and have some durians – 016 436 4640