Food & Drink

Cafe Society: From the Great White to the Darkest Noir

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Coffee chains are great aren’t they? You can get the same cup of coffee in Sotogrande or Seattle with much the same décor and ambience. But if you live in a place, you want to taste its soul from time to time. What better way to enjoy the spirit of Penang than in some of its under-the-radar coffee shops? In fact, coffee is such a way of life on this island that it even boasts its own blend of Penang White Coffee. Not to everybody’s taste, of course, perhaps a little too heavy on the sugar and light on the depth of flavour for my taste but as much part of the place as the characteristic shophouses of George Town.

I started my café pilgrimage at the Straits Quay where a speciality importer, Full of Beans, has created a small artisan coffee house on the upper floor. The Manager, Thor, explained that coffee must above all be fresh. Then the ground beans will rise up in a beautiful dome on contact with the water. Otherwise they will be what he discreetly called ‘quiet’. I tasted two distinct coffees: an Ethiopian Sidamo, an estate ground coffee (how grand!) and an even grander Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee. Ethiopia, of course, is the home of coffee. Some goatherds discovered that their flocks were decidedly invigorated by eating from a particular bush so they took the coffee berries to the local priest (who threw them on the fire hastily to destroy them and then poured water on to put out the fire) which led to the innovation of roasted beans. Or so the legend rather colourfully goes.

The Sidamo, a hearty robusta, was made by the syphon method. Thor lit a gas burner under the water which was in a spherical glass chamber. It bubbled up and made contact with the coffee in the retort above. So far, so percolated. But the surprise came when he suddenly chilled the coffee a little by placing a cold towel round it ‘to keep the flavour fresh’. Then he stirred it gently and it was ready. I enjoyed it but loved the Jamaican Blue Mountain, a more delicate Arabica, even more. Normally I take milk in coffee but this cup of Joe was so smooth it didn’t need it. Thor made it by hand-dripping the hot water from an antique copper ‘Aladdin’s lamp’ pot onto the ground coffee which was then filtered. He also explained that stainless steel jugs are no good for this kind of procedure because they don’t distribute the heat evenly. The result was perfection.

Buzzing with caffeine, I decided to hit the streets of George Town in search of Penang White. Ali’s hawker stall, on the corner of Queen Street and Market Street in the depths of Little India, serves a Cameron Highland coffee, locally roasted with butter and sugar to create a caramelised buttery taste. Ali uses a large aluminium vat to make the coffee and then adds condensed milk to make it even sweeter. The final touch is ‘pulling’ it (tarik means pulled, or stretched) by pouring it from one flask to another to improve the taste. The same principle as decanting wine, I suppose. A very different kind of drink but it was delightfully refreshing all the same. He will also make it with local fresh ‘cow’s milk’ if you prefer.

My final port of call was Amelie’s in Armenian Street. You can’t miss the cafe; it has a beautiful cool ‘living wall’ of plants on the street side. Inside, it’s tiny and quirky, with hand painted stools and recycled tables. The owner, Loh Choon Kueng, is an artist and the rough shabby chic walls of the cafe are adorned with some of his paintings and objets trouvés on driftwood. The espresso he serves is the purest Mediterranean, as you would expect with the huge red coffee machine on the counter and the Italian- imported beans. The result was as fine as anything to be tasted in Venice or Verona. Well, I suppose Penang has always been known for its welcoming of foreigners and foreign things while subtly adapting them for its own purposes.

Full of Beans
Unit 30-1-6 Block A, Straits Quay, Penang 04.899 0621
Ali’s Coffee Tarik
Pavement Cafe corner of Market Street and Queen Street, George Town, Penang
6 Armenian Street, George Town, Penang (next to the Cheah Kongsi)

Source: The Expat October 2011 Issue

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