One of the things which interest me the most about localised cuisines is the desserts which they have to offer. More often than not, the selection of sweet dishes available at a particular place reflects and mirrors the likes and preferences of the people there. The Japanese are noted for the art of 和菓子 wagashi making, which exudes a transcedental zen-like beauty in form, while in the Canton region of southeastern China as well as Hong Kong, sweet broths with an assortment of ingredients in the form of what the locals call 糖水 tong shuei are enjoyed, not only for their wonderful taste, but also the beneficial effects to health they are supposedly imbued with.
In Singapore and Malaysia, desserts take many forms, owing much to the amalgamation of cultures and heritage backgrounds of the various ethnicities living together. Likening a large melting pot, the culinary practices of various races and ethnic groups continually influence each other, creating a wide variety of dishes unique to this region. And Nyonya kuehs must surely be one of the most iconic amidst the vast repertoire of dishes in Straits cuisine. From Kueh Angku to Kueh Lapis, these peranakan sweets which bring together elements from various components like Chinese, Malay and even Thai cooking with an explosion of both colours and flavour. In Penang, apart from the standard spread available also in other parts of the region, one “kueh” variety seems to be found almost uniquely here and despite its simplicity, is much loved by the locals.
Penang Lok Bak is one of those dishes which had intrigued me for the longest time. Being in Singapore, we are more accustomed to the cuisine and cooking styles of the southern Peranakans at home and in Melaka. I practically grew up eating chap chye, kari ayam and ngoh hiang. My grandma, together with my aunts and my mother would whip up a whole table full of mouth-watering dishes whenever there is a family gathering and these three dishes would definitely make their dutiful appearance on the dining table. Sometimes one, sometimes two and if we are lucky, all three! So a large part of my growing up experience is made up of “food memories”, from eating to observing and finally to cooking.
When I first came across the term “Penang Lor Bak” a couple of years back, I had thought that it would be rather similar to the Tau Yew Bak which was frequently cooked at home as well. But prima facie, it looked no different from the ngoh hiang which I’m familiar with! Utterly confused, I took my first bite and received an even greater shock, only to realise that despite the somewhat familiar flavours, the textural profile was utterly different from ngoh hiang! And to make things “worse”, I actually liked it!
Otak Otak is one of my favorite snacks and it can be enjoyed in so many ways! It is one of the dishes I must have with my nasi lemak and I love those old school “otak buns” from neighbourhood confectioneries for breakfast or tea. They are also good on their own, eaten directly off the leaves. But one thing that has intrigued me for the longest time is its name. “Otak” literally means “brain” in Bahasa Melayu. I’d often wondered what the link between the dish and the jelly-like organ in our heads… very very “mind-boggling”, with no pun intended! It was not until I discovered Penang Otak Otak that this “mystery” is finally solved!
Penang is literally a food paradise! And for many, one of the main highlights of Penang cuisine is its street food. A walk down some of the roads and alleys in Penang and one would be easily led by the nose quite literally, to a hawker stall or two showcasing some of the finest which Penang has to offer. Many of these hawker stalls are not permanent fixtures within a certain kopitiam or kedai, but merely makeshift carts driven around by motorcycles they are attached to, as their “chefs on wheels” peddle their signature dishes from place to place. Seemingly nomadic but in fact, true Penang foodies are in the know of the precise whereabouts of some of these famous stalls, i.e. at a particular junction between a certain “Lorong” and a certain “Jalan” in the daytime, or at which corner of a particular “pasar malam” by night. It could be rojak, laksa, or hokkien mee, but one thing remains a common trait amongst these street food stalls. They rely not on media publicity to draw attention and create awareness on their existence, but solely by word of mouth, through folks who share their gastronomic experiences at these stalls to their relatives, who in turn told their friends, who in turn told their neighbours. Many of them have only one item on their menu, bearing sharp contrast to what hotel buffets and established restaurant joints boast about. But for that one thing they do, they do it best.
This month’s Malaysian Food Fest brings us to Penang! To date, MFF has brought us on a virtual culinary tour to almost all the states in Malaysia. As we come almost to an end of this long journey, it is time for us to pay a long due visit to this beautiful island found on the northern tip of the Straits of Malacca.
“Modern” history of Penang stretches back almost half a millenium ago when it was part of the Kedah Sultanate that was ruled by the Siamese overlords who named the island Koh Maak to mean “Areca nut palm Island” in Thai. Admiral 郑和 Cheng Ho from the Ming Dynasty then pinned this place as 槟榔屿 on his maps, the Chinese equivalent of its Thai name, when his entourage passed through the Malay Peninsula as they set sail for the west. This formed the basis of its name in Malay “Pulau Pinang” which was later anglicised to become “Penang” as we know it today.