The word ‘dessert’ takes on a whole new meaning in Southeast Asia and while Penang’s savoury dishes are a positive draw for travellers, the island’s sweet offerings are, perhaps, less so.
If you are looking for rich chocolate cakes, fruit-filled pies or puddings served with cream or custard, prepare to be disappointed: the shaved ice dessert rules here in Penang. However, give a refreshing bowl of cendol or ais kacang a try, and you will quickly understand why it has become the dessert of choice in this part of the world.
Let’s avoid sugar-coating this: cendol is not the most appetising dish you will ever behold. Indeed, it would not look out of place as the culinary centrepiece at a children’s Halloween party, and can be a bit reminiscent of green worms floating in a white gloop. In reality, the dish consists of a mound of shaved ice heaped with pandan-flavoured jelly noodles and red beans, which is then doused in a good dose of coconut milk and treacly gula melaka (palm syrup).
The sweetness of the coconut milk is offset by the slightly bitter, smoky flavour of the gula melaka, and the beans and noodles add an interesting variation in texture. This dish may not be a looker, but there’s no denying that the combination of ingredients tastes good. The catalyst that brings the whole thing together is the shaved ice, which transforms it into a far more refreshing dessert than cake could ever hope to be: it’s just perfect for cooling you down after a bowl of spicy asam laksa.
Many cafes and hawker centres around Georgetown offer the dish on their menu, but the ‘Famous Penang Road Teochew Cendol’ stall on the corner of Lebuh Keng Kwee and Jalan Penang, right outside the Joo Hooi Cafe, is considered by many to be among the best places in Georgetown to pick up a bowl of cendol. Their generous portions don’t skimp on noodles or beans, and they also pour over a good serving of gula melaka, all for a very affordable two ringgit.
Part of the experience is to stand and eat on the street. If you prefer to sit down, you can also order from the Joo Hooi Cafe, but they bring it from the rival stall — bizarrely, this is just opposite on the same road — so you may prefer to fetch your own if you want to experience the ‘famous’ version. In reality there is not much between the two however and the cafe is also a great place to try two other renowned Penang dishes, asam laksa and char kway teow (4.50 ringgit a bowl for each) without having to move from your seat, so it really just depends how energetic you’re feeling.
Back at the ‘famous’ dessert stall, you can also pick up the rebellious cousin to cendol, known as ais kacang. While cendol is fairly consistent in its make-up, ais kacang likes to mix things up a bit and can appear in a variety of similar, yet distinct, guises.
The basis of the dish is, once again, a mound of shaved ice (or ais), onto which is heaped any number of ingredients. Two of these are red beans and sweetcorn, a combination that is perhaps more readily associated with savoury Mexican cuisine, as well as agar, attap seeds and grass jelly. The sweetness comes from the coconut milk, which is drizzled liberally over the whole affair, along with pink sarsi or rose syrup.
The variations come from the other possible toppings, which can include fresh fruits such as mango, jack or durian, as well as ice creams in various flavours or chocolate syrup, just in case it isn’t sweet enough already.
The stall off Jalan Penang serves up a good standard ais kacang for three ringgit, but for a full range of toppings (for between three and five ringgit), head to the hawker centre at New World Park, a bit out of central Georgetown off Jalan Burmah. The stall is right in the centre and is easily recognisable by the queue of people waiting for their sweet, refreshing fix of the island’s most popular dessert.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 18th February, 2017.