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All about Penang & more

Penang today is very much an amalgam of the old and the new – a bustling port, a heritage city and an industrial base. Perhaps it has more to offer per square mile than any other place in the world. For sheer variety of locales, cultures and foods, Penang is hard to beat. Here are stories about Penang and more.

Springy Nyonya Kuih Talam

Kuih Talam © Adrian Cheah

Kuih Talam, a classic Nyonya cake, is still popular in Penang today. Its two signature colours are green and white. The sweetened green base layer is perfumed with pandan (screw pine) juice while the top white layer has a rich, lemak indulgence of santan (coconut milk) that is mildly salty. It is dangerously addictive and a slice is never enough. Maybe that is why nowadays, Kuih Talam is cut and packed in two or three pieces. I also notice that the pieces are much smaller than what they used to be when I was growing up.

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The elegant Nyonya kebaya – wearable art that knows no seasons

kebays © Adrian Cheah

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is an oft-quoted maxim about the importance of adapting oneself. Whether or not this bit of wisdom was known to the early Chinese immigrants to Malaysia, some of them eventually married the local folk and adopted Malay customs while remaining quintessentially Chinese in belief and philosophy. The result of this union was the Chinese Peranakan (more commonly known as Babas and Nyonyas), a unique cultural hybrid with cosmopolitan persona that flourished for centuries throughout Malaysia.

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Tan Choon Hoe – the crusader of Penang Hokkien Dialect

Tan Choon Hoe

The Digital Age and today’s globalised world has been a boon for the spread of Popular Culture. Popular culture – Western or American, is slowly but surely seeping into our way of life. Predictably, even Asian youths are dressing and gesturing like their hip hop or boy band idols from MTV. Even the way we speak is being MTV-nised and you will find certain youths who are more at home going “Yo, dude” or "Whassup” than greet you in their native tongues.

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People of the Five Rivers

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

As one ascends the steps of George Town's magnificent Chinese clan temple of the Khoo Kongsi, it is difficult not to notice a pair of huge images meticulously carved out of granite as if welcoming visitors in.

The two tall, life-sized figures of Sikh guards (above) stand imposingly on the ornate pavilion of the century-old complex, widely considered to be the grandest clan temple in the country.

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Chine Blue – an insight into Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion © Adrian Cheah

Like a fragment from a scroll painting, an exotic indigo-blue mansion, with graceful, curved windows and a peaked, tiled roof, remains in the midst of Penang's modern high-rises. This rare survivor of old Penang, constructed in a Chinese-courtyard style with Western art-nouveau features, reflects the complex personality of its builder Cheong Fatt Tze. Called the "Rockefeller of the East", he was the most flamboyant of all Penang's multimillionaire towkays during the island's heyday of wealthy magnates.

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Never Forgetting Balik Pulau – exploring an alluring, rustic village in Penang across time

Josephine Choo
Photography, design and layout by Adrian Cheah

Never Forgetting Balik Pulau © Adrian Cheah

"Never Forgetting Balik Pulau" is part memoir, part guide. The author, after spending her entire youth in the village, accumulated a bagful of tales. Exploratory trips back gave credence to past memories but gradually, a comprehensive guide with maps to the village evolved.

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"Roti! Roti!", the lure of the bread man

Penang bread man © Adrian Cheah

The 'roti man' or bread vendor is quite a common sight in Penang. They are usually on their rounds in the mornings and from tea time, plying their stock-in-trade in a road contraption that resembles a hybrid between a motorcycle and a 'meat safe'.

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Bee Koh Moy, a healthy bowl of goodness

Bee Koh Moy © Adrian Cheah

In Penang, Bee Koh Moy (Hokkien for black glutinous rice porridge, Bubur Pulut Hitam in Malay) is often served topped with fresh coconut milk. The yin yang-looking combination of mildly sweetened black rice porridge drizzled with a slightly salty creamy white coconut milk sauce is a scrumptious treat. The rich and creamy dish, perfumed with aromatic pandan (screw pine) leaves, can be served warm or chilled. This offering is usually enjoyed for breakfast, at tea time or as a dessert after a meal; it is best savoured in small portions as it is hearty and filling.

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History of Little India

Little India, Penang © Adrian Cheah

This meticulously regimented network was among the earliest parts of George Town planned under the administration of Sir Francis Light, the English founder of Penang. The area is hence now referred to as the "Francis Light Grid" – a rectangular network bordered by Leith Street, Beach Street, Chulia Street and Pitt Street (now Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling).

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Appetising Nyonya Acar Hu (Nyonya pickled silver mullet)

Nyonya Acar Hu © Adrian Cheah

Nyonya Acar Hu is one of my favourite acar options that can truly whet one's appetite. Mum has been making this savoury delight for as long as I can remember. Its appetising flavours can be appreciated with a plate of steamed white rice.

This dish is like no other, combining a beautiful balance of sweet and sour flavours, spiced with cabai burung (bird’s eye chillies), ginger and of course, fresh turmeric. Other ingredients like shallots and garlic cloves are little preserved nuggets that complement the fish well. The deep-fried fish, given ample time to develop in the fresh turmeric vinaigrette are extremely tasty and tantalising. This is a dish that will wake up all your senses.

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The humble golden kee chang that are extraordinary

kee chang © Adrian Cheah

Preparation for kee chang (alkaline dumplings) starts a week in advance. Picking the jasmine rice grains out from a heap of glutinous rice is time consuming and requires patience. The laborious task is necessary in order to obtain a translucent finish for the dumplings. If rice grains are present, the kee chang will lose their translucent appeal. I vividly remember sorting through the grains of rice when young, or as Mum would call it, “pilih the pulut”. I failed to understand then why such a tedious undertaking was even necessary since everything would be gobbled up eventually. Mum refused to entertain our rationale and would not compromise on quality. Today, being a "product" of Mum, I too have learnt not to compromise on quality, finding it rather ironic that my daughter would utter the same arguments I once did.

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Penang Dragon Boat Festival – race of the ancients

Penang Dragon Boat © Adrian Cheah

About 100 years ago, large clans of sea-faring migrants from China settled along the foreshores of Penang island, building pier houses on the fringes of George Town.

Many of these humble coastal plank settlements, like the old Bang Liaw jetty in Weld Quay, still exist till today, housing scores of fisher-folk families just as they did many decades before.

During the early period, every year on the fifth day of the fifth moon of the lunar calendar, the settlers would push out to sea lengthy specially built boats for a passionate day of racing. It was one of the great traditions they had proudly brought along from China.

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