Ice kacang, Penang's all-time ubiquitous but favourite dessert

ice kacang © Adrian Cheah

Ice kacang, the mother of all Malaysian desserts, is also known as ang tau s'ng (Hokkien for iced red beans) or ABC (ais batu campur in Malay). Although “kacang” means beans in Malay, this jubilant offering contains more than just ice and beans. Brimming in a bowl, the colourful concoction is made of a tower of shaved ice swirled with a mixture of red beans, leong fan (grass jelly or cincau in Malay), creamy sweet corn, chewy tapioca pearls and translucent attap chee (nipa palm fruit), smothered with at least two types of syrup and evaporated milk. You can further top it with a scoop of ice cream (especially durian, making it even more sinful).

If you are visiting Penang, this is a super-cool dessert that you have to add to your list of must-try items. It makes a rewarding icy treat especially in the tropics when the sun shows no mercy. Ice kacang is available at most food courts throughout Penang including some roadside stalls. Here are some venues where you can enjoy a bowl of good ice kacang (in no particular order):

  • Kek Seng Cafe, 382 & 384, Jalan Penang
  • Swatow Lane Ice Kacang, E, 102, 1, Jalan Burma, George Town
  • Medan Selera at Taman Free School, 75, Jalan Terengganu, Taman Free School
  • Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul, 27 & 29 Lebuh Keng Kwee, George Town
  • Presgrave Street Hawker Centre, 67D, Lebuh Presgrave, 10300 George Town

ice kacang © Adrian Cheah

The ice kacang at Kek Seng Cafe is topped with a scoop or two of its homemade durian ice cream (when available) and jelly that I relish. On the other hand, the popular stall at Swatow Lane, established in 1923, offers the addition of cut fruits such as mangoes, bananas, watermelons, papayas and ciku. To each its own I say, although I would much prefer to enjoy the fruits separately.

The  stall at Medan Selera Taman Free School with its generous portions is among my favourite ice kacang destinations in Penang. Its close proximity to my office makes it a convenient stopover. The food court here also offers savoury assam laksa, spicy curry mee and delicious lor bak. If you indulge in these scrumptious treats, you should rightfully conclude with ice kacang.

ice kacang © Adrian Cheah

Although the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendol roadside stall is another popular destination, I would often order cendol rather than ice kacang. This hidden gem has been in the same location since 1936 and through its illustrious history, it has garnered much fame and attention. Today, a few doors from the stall is a coffeeshop where you get a table to truly enjoy your dessert (if hobnobbing with the locals and tourists, standing and eating by the alleyway is not your scene).

When you are at Lorong Selamat feasting on a plate of char koay teow with huge prawns, or Hokkien mee at Presgrave Street Hawker Centre, remember to order a bowl of ice kacang as well. These satisfying combinations will make eating out more memorable.

In the 1970s when I was growing up in Ayer Itam, my house was within walking distance from the bustling wet market and the iconic Kek Lok Si Temple. There was a drink seller who peddled his wares from a push cart, right in front of my house. We called him the S’ng Oowan Uncle (“s’ng oowan” is Hokkien for ice ball). He was hard working and toiled through the day, rain or shine. He sold lychee and leong fan drinks, fresh coconut water as well as ice kacang. Being a bachelor, he rented a room and made the best of his life he possibly could. Mum was generous to him with cakes and her cooking, especially during festive seasons. Although life must have been difficult for him, he was generous and kind. He would “balas balik” (repay in kind) mum’s generosity come Chinese New Year. The traditions of "gift-giving" and "never drop by empty handed" are local cultural traits that are sadly no longer common today (especially among the younger generation).

One of the S’ng Oowan Uncle’s specialities was ice balls. Shaved ice from a hand-powered contraption was collected and compressed, shaped by hand into a ball then coated with dual-coloured syrup. My favourite was with aromatic red rose and sarsi (sarsaparilla flavoured) syrups. Sucking the delicious sweetness out of an ice ball was such a simple yet joyful experience for a little boy. Life was so much more fun and uncomplicated then.

ice ball © Adrian Cheah

Nowadays, ice balls are available along Armenian Street in the heart of George Town. Customers can enjoy the ball, held in place by a pair of chopsticks, served in an open-face takeaway plastic box. Although ice balls might not be on the menu, some ice kacang vendors would happily make an ice ball for you. Some might even encase some red beans in the middle (just as how the S’ng Oowan Uncle would).

ice kacang © Adrian Cheah

Let us take a closer look at four main ingredients in ice kacang that have not changed for as long as I can remember. Soft red beans and creamy sweet corn (from the can) are a must. Leong fan adds a different texture to the dessert. It has a mild fragrance with a smoky undertone and a translucent dark brown colour often perceived as black. My favourite ingredient in this magical wonder is attap chee (attap seeds). The sweet, translucent ovals are actually the immature fruits of the nipah palm. They are soft and gelatinous in texture.

Additional ingredients that I enjoy include ice cream, chewy tapioca pearls, jelly, longan, green cendol strands, fresh santan (coconut milk) and a little gula Melaka.

However, other ingredients that do not work for me include peanuts (whole or crushed is like adding sawdust to the mix), strands of preserved nutmeg and raisins (their textures are tough and unenjoyable), condensed milk (why?) as well as durian (enjoying it cold with so many sweet items seem wrong at so many levels). These items should never be added to a good serving of ice kacang.

ice kacang © Adrian Cheah

Now let us take a closer look at the shaved ice. The traditional hand-powered gadget that shaves the block of spinning ice produced fine quality ice flakes. At times, the ice kacang vendor would adjust the desired angle of the blade to achieve that. With the advent of technology, a motor eventually powers the machine. These machines produce soft, fluffy and fine ice shavings.

If you are at a convention or a buffet dinner at a hotel or resort locally, you might come across an action stall offering ice kacang. Take a close look at the machine that produces the shaved ice. Ice cubes are pulverised into smithereens, expelling coarse ice bits. This is the worst kind of ice you would want in your ice kacang. Thank heavens all the places I have mentioned above do not deploy such a machine.

ice kacang © Adrian Cheah

With the world becoming more of a global village and travelling made easy, it is a privilege to go on a culinary adventure at places we visit. One of the most beautiful ice desserts in the world has to be from Japan. Japanese-style parfaits and Kakigori are presented with an infinite amount of creativity. These gorgeous eye candy displays cry out to be photographed and flaunted on social media platforms. Japanese chefs constantly innovate to attract the attention of their sophisticated, style-conscious clientele.

ice kacang © Adrian Cheah

Now take a look at our beloved ice kacang that has remained practically unchanged over time. Perhaps it would be opportune to borrow some of the innovative spirits of our Japanese friends. When we pay five times the price for ice kacang at a resort, hotel or high-end dessert establishment, they could perhaps present us with something more flamboyant and take ice kacang to the next level.

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
22 July 2021