Underground Dining in Penang

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Frances Wilks road tests the latest cafes and shops and explores a cool new phenomenon – underground dining……


Ming Xiang Tai, 26 Armenian Street Ghaut, 1200 Penang.

If you’re in George Town and like pastry so light that it might fly off the plate you have simply go totry Ming Xiang Tai (subtitled The Secret of Irresistible Pastry) at the corner of Armenian Street and Victoria Street. Step inside and you’re in an old Chinese Tea House with authentic chairs and stools.

The round tables are delightfully made out of upturned Chinese flower pots. I watched as one baker rejected a tray of steaming pastries as he brought them out of the oven. ‘Not quite right,’ he murmured. They looked fine to me.

As well as home-made pastries they serve fresh dim sum and green tea. My all time favourite is the Trishaw Tart. Think Portuguese egg tarts without the lemon.The ancestors of the owners of the shop came from China to work in the tin mining industry in the early twentieth century. Their daughter developed her baking skills and taught them to her son who converted a trishaw into a mobile pastry cart and sold his products at hawker markets. His son, Aug Ming Kit, now owns the shop and he named the confection Trishaw egg tarts in honour of his parents.

Au Ming Kit loves Penang because ‘Penang people are so friendly and enthusiastic.’ But when I asked him what the secret of irresistible pastry really was he smiled and declined to reply!


The Soap Cellar, 22 Lebuh Lembah Permai 4. Tanjung Bunga, Penang 11200. Tel +60 4-899 2980



There must be something in the air of a particular part of Tanjong Bunga known as Lembah Permai,or by its rather more poetic name of the Vale of Tempe, that fosters the practice of soap making.

There must be something in the air of a particular part of Tanjong Bunga known as Lembah Permai,or by its rather more poetic name of the Vale of Tempe, that fosters the practice of soap making.

Intriguingly, two artisan soap makers have set up there – Indochine and The Soap Cellar. But whereas Indochine manufactures most of its products for export or for high end hotels, The Soap Cellar actually has a gorgeous shop front with a dazzling array of soaps, shampoos, pet soaps and cleansers.Their multi-coloured soaps are shaped like lollypops, cupcakes and sweets. They are all so beautifully presented that any bathroom dodger would be tempted to get lathered up immediately.

The Soap Cellar is run by a mother and son duo – Belinda Nash-smith and her son Jason. ‘All our products are made from natural ingredients – we know this because we make them upstairs,’ says Belinda proudly. Although she is a Penangite by birth, she has lived for much of her life in England and she travels the World sourcing ingredients for her products. She turns away to give advice to a mother who has a young child with eczema. ‘Use this soap with oatmeal,’ she says. ‘And you also can take some raw oatmeal and grind it in your blender. Put the powder in a little linen bag and tie it to the tap so that the oatmeal will flow into your child’s bathwater – and her skin will be soothed.’


Pearly’s Nyonya Feasts

If you want to experience authentic home-cooked nyonya food then head for one of Pearly Kee’s monthly dinners. Served informally in her Pulau Tikus home, Pearly produces a sumptuous array of delicious dishes such as Roti Jakan (the bread of the road), Kari Kay (curried chicken with potatoes),Achat Awai (cooked vegetables), Otak-otak wrapped in banana leaves, Five-spice pork wrapped in bean curd, Mango Salad and all sorts of rice dishes.

Pearly has retired from her day job as a factory manager and started a new career based on a skill she learnt at her grandmother’s knee. ‘It humbles me to eat the old way,’ she says. Her spices include nutmeg, lemon grass, fennel, coriander, star anise, cumin and turmeric as well as popular Asian ingredients like ginger, chilli, lime and coconut milk. The flavours are well-blended and subtle and the whole effect just mouth-watering.

Nyonya food, like the Baba Nyonyas themselves, is a wonderful mix of Chinese, Indian, Siamese, and Malay cuisines. Pearly and her husband, Chandra, make wonderful hosts and this is a great way to taste authentic cooking. Pearly’s once-a-month dinners only cost RM50 but you will need to book in advance. Pearly even has classes in Nonya cooking so you can learn to replicate those wonderful flavours at home and she has recently published a cookery book.

For more details of Pearly’s Dinners, her cooking school and her book go to: http://www.my-islandpenang.com/Dine-with-Pearly.html.



Eric’s Laksa (and other delights)

Eric’s Laksa is one of the best kept secrets in Penang. He doesn’t just make laksa nowadays, though that is completely delicious. ‘I bought the house as a retirement home but I just couldn’t stop working so I thought I would dress up as a traditional laksa person and sell to passersby during the durian season. One thing led to another and I now do a main dish and a dessert as well as the laksa.’

Eric only opens on Sundays and you have to call him to get in as he only cooks a limited number of covers. Trained originally as a chef, he worked for many years as an interior designer. He has combined both these careers at Eric’s Laksa as he also has an antique shop next to the kitchen and is designing some beautiful, rustic rooms for a homestay.

The day I went lamb chops with café de Paris butter was on the menu with Potatoes Steomp – his own creation of mashed potatoes sautéed with celery and onions and a delectable side salad of pumpkin (both flesh and seeds) , mushrooms, tomatoes, grapefruit and lettuce. It was very good.

There was only one pudding on the menu – crème brulee – but as that’s my favourite dessert, it was what I would have chosen anyway. As Eric doesn’t have a licence, alcohol isn’t served. My companion had the laska, which is a meal in itself.

It’s out in the middle of nowhere on the road between Teluk Bahang and Balik Pulau. But make sureyou book your place and get directions by calling Eric on 012 401 0101.


Underground Dining

Underground dining – a cross between a cafe and a dinner party – are a great way to sample home cooking in a convivial atmosphere. You cook and invite people to your home who pay you. Here we sample two popular ‘guestaurants’ in Penang. If you know of others, please send an email to [email protected] and we will check it out.


Source: Penang International Aug 2013 – Sept 2013

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