Food & Drink

Not Just any Old Loaf

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“When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other” or so the Chinese proverb goes. Although I love lilies, I’m not sure I would go as far as that. But I would willingly spend my last sou on a good sourdough.

I’m lucky that I don’t have to go far for bread. In fact the roti man makes an early evening visit to my house, selling fresh roti bengali from the mobile mini shop attached to the back of his motorbike. All manner of baked goods, most of them sweetened up quite considerably for the local taste, dangle perilously from it. He cheerfully gets out his wooden breadboard and slices it up with a knife there and then on the roadside. Roti bengali is actually a misnomer derived from two Tamil words: roti (bread) and penggalis (sharecroppers).

Penangites in the early years of the twentieth century mistook penggalis for Bengali and the name stuck. The Ismailia Bakery, founded in 1932 by an Indian Muslim immigrant, supplies many of the local hawkers’ stalls as well as the itinerant roti man, prides itself as making bread as “soft as a baby’s bottom”.

But if you want bread with a bit more bite (and just possibly a tad more hygienically presented) you could do worse than to head to the Adventist Hospital’s Bakery in Pulau Tikus. The Hospital itself was founded by Seventh Day Adventist Missionaries from the USA who saw their role not only to help the sick but to promote health and well-being. The Bakery’s famous 7 seed sprouted wholegrain loaf (containing millets, corn, soya, oats, lentils, honey, molasses and corn oil but no preservatives or additives) reflects this philosophy. In fact it’s almost a meal in itself. Because the grains are sprouted before they are ground up, they are much easier to digest and the nutritional content of the bread is increased almost eightfold. Sprouted bread contains less gluten than ordinary bread, which means less gas and bloating for those of us who are gluten sensitive. It’s absolutely delicious and it both freezes and toasts like a dream. Ready sliced and wrapped in a retro plastic bag, it’s the ultimate convenience food which is (paradoxically) good for you.

Moving towards a little bit more luxury, the Rainforest Bakery, in Chulia Street is also concerned with the effect of additives commonly found in bread on health. “We aren’t totally organic,” explains Jesse Tan, who manages the Rainforest, with his identical twin brother Jerry, “but we import a lot of organic European flours.” Even their locally sourced flour is specially made for them, unbleached and without ADA (azodicarbonamide), an additive that’s a potentially serious health risk and is now banned in many countries but not Malaysia. The brothers were trained in London as organic bakers before they set up their artisan bakery in a George Town shop house ten years ago. Although much of their market is expat, many local people also are becoming convinced of the benefits of eating healthily. Rainforest will deliver to most areas of Penang free of charge which saves a trip to George Town.

If you like rye bread Tuesday is the day they bake their delicious dark rye sourdough with imported German rye flour. (Though the white version they have every day is pretty good I have to say). Creating sourdough is quite an art because the starter dough has to be carefully nurtured over several days before it is ready. The result is that fresh tanginess, sour but not ‘off’. Try their latest addition, croissants, made with imported French butter, moist yet crunchy, and somehow light and rich simultaneously. Be careful not to go into the Bakery feeling too hungry though, because it’s impossible not be seduced by the wonderful variety of fresh bread.

If the Rainforest is northern European in feeling, the newly opened Four Season Bakery at Straits Quay is southern Europe personified. Feminine and welcoming, it has chairs and tables and real Italian coffee. It’s a place to hang out and nibble as you chat. They bake in front of you so you can actually see and smell the process. Joshlyn Beh, the owner, explained the Four Season’s approach “as European with a Japanese twist. We use only the best and most pure ingredients. No margarine, only butter, and no added sugar.” The Sea Salt, a delicious little bun sprayed with Maldon Sea Salt from England before baking, is excellent as is the Sundried Tomato Bread. But my favourite is the ham ciabatta -the ham is actually baked into the bread, fusing both together a wonderful harmony. It seems that you don’t have to travel far in Penang to experience a whole world of bread!

Adventist Bakery
Penang Adventist Hospital,
465 Jalan Burma, Penang.
Tel: +604.222 7502

Four Season Bakery
Straits Quay, Tanjung Tokong, Penang.
Tel: +604.898 2919

Rainforest Artisan Bread
300 Lebuh Chulia, Penang.
Tel: +604.261 4641


Roti Bengali Ismailia Bakery
14 Transfer Road, George Town,
Penang and on selected streets

Source: The Expat November 2011
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