Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Penang Cooking Schools

When you visit Penang, everyone will tell you that you absolutely must consume as much street food as humanly possible. Watch Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations if you want to hear him wax poetic over the gastronomical delights. Check out CNN Travel for a more specific guide of where to eat. The Penang Street Food iPhone app is fantastic for explaining the dishes listed without any descriptions on a stall's signboard and pinpointing a food court near your current location. You can even pick up a handy Food Trail Map at the airport.

But what will you do when you return home? How can you get your fix? Go to cooking school. I've tried the Tropical Spice Garden, Nazlina Spice Station, and Penang Homecooking Class to add a few traditional Penang favorites to my repertoire.

Tropical Spice Garden
Head out of crowded, historic George Town, drive past the beaches of Batu Feringhi, and arrive at the idyllic spot of nature that is The Tropical Spice Garden. Before our cooking class, a knowledgeable guide took us through the gardens explaining the culinary or dastardly uses of plants. Even though I had taken this same tour a year earlier without a cooking class, different plants were highlighted, so I didn't feel bored.

On the tour, we learned how to pick out the best star anise (which I didn't write down and, hence, forgot).

The Tropical Spice Garden Cooking School is very hands-on. Ten workstations are set up in an air-conditioned kitchen with recipes and ingredients laid out mise en place.

Every student gets a chance to cook the dish.

We gathered around Chef Sugu as he explained how to cook Char Kwoay Teow (flat rice noodles with prawns, sliced fish cakes and bean sprouts) and Satay (grilled beef or chicken skewers). He demonstrated some steps himself while allowing students to take over for the easier parts like turning on the blender. As we each started cooking, he walked around examining our progress, making comments and giving tips.

Chef Sugu shows us how to roast peanuts just right.

One funny cross-culture moment came when we couldn't find the ketchup he told us to add and then realized that he was saying "kicap" (pronounce kee-chap) which is a type of soy sauce. And before some wise guy adds it in the comments, early European explorers took Asian kicap back home where it eventually morphed into tomato-based ketchup.

A small bowl of peanut dipping sauce that I wanted to eat by the spoonful, Cucar Udong prawn fritters, chicken and beef satay, and Char Kwoay Teow Noodles.

By the end of the session, I really felt that I could go home and replicate each dish. We plated our food and dined al fresco in the gazebo overlooking the beautiful gardens. Afterwards, we stocked up on spices and other Penang souvenirs at the gift shop. The Tropical Spice Garden also has a tasty and scenic Thai restaurant called Tree Monkey if you're not in the mood to cook your own meal.

The Tropical Spice Garden cooking school offers a variety of classes by different instructors. Check their schedule to figure out which one best appeals to you.

Nazlina Spice Station
When I first arrived in Penang, I found shopping at wet markets intimidating. The wet market tour is one of the main reasons I was attracted to Nazlina's class. She led us past stalls, explaining what the various mystery vegetables were and how to pick the best specimens. It was also the first time I bought meat that wasn't in a styrofoam tray, wrapped in plastic, and sitting in a refrigerated case.

Freshly butchered meat

Back at the hotel where our cooking class was held, we set up the newly purchased ingredients in the outdoor, makeshift kitchen with a few, portable gas stoves. She explained the culinary history of each ingredient such as the "four sisters" typically found in Malay food — star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, and clove. Nazlina is an advocate of the Slow Cooking Method and focused on the traditional methods of preparing each dish such as grinding spices by hand. No quick and easy blenders or food processors here!

Nazlina softens banana leaves for wrapping Nasi Lemak while Beef Rendang simmers on the left burner.

Everyone worked on a different part of the recipe. The assistant toasted coconut in a wok until it turned from bright white to a dark brown. After she poured it into the rough granite mortar, I took over pounding it with the pestle for at least 15 minutes until it resembled melted chocolate. I was amazed that 3 cups of freshly shredded raw coconut shrank down to only 2 tablespoons of paste for the beef rendang, a spicy, robust stew redolent with the exotic flavors of Malaysia. While I was working on the coconut, others ground shallots, chopped vegetables or tended the wok.

Traditional method for making toasted coconut paste

It was a true communal effort and took hours. This is the type of cooking perfect for multiple generations of women in a household or, barring that, delegating to 2-4 maids. Nazlina passed the recipe on to us orally as a mother would have done for her daughter in the olden days instead of handing out printed copies. Being a modern woman, I whipped out my iPhone, googled the recipe on her website, and followed along.

Working together to prepare Beef Rendang

When the one gigantic pot was done, she ladled some onto each plate and had us each assemble a traditional pyramid of Nasi Lemak (pandan-flavored coconut rice with sambal, toasted peanuts, fried anchovies and boiled egg on top and wrapped in a banana leaf). We sat around a table and enjoyed the feast that we had all worked on together.

Spicy and pungent Nasi Lemak

Penang Homecooking Class by Pearly Kee
In addition to street food, this class can include the Nyonya cuisine of the Straits Chinese or spicy Indian food. Pearly teaches at both the Tropical Spice Garden and at her home near the Gurney area. The class I took at her home included a tour of a nearby wet market which is one of the best one the island, and each student had their own workstation during class. As we cooked and ate, Pearly regaled us with stories about growing up and living in Penang. The food and conversation made it delightful way to spend 4 hours. Read my more in-depth review here.


If you're living in Penang or just passing through, taking a cooking class is a great way to learn about the local culture through its food. All three of these schools accept children, too, if you want to make it a family activity. They're spread out across the island and have different "personalities", so pick the one that best suits you.

Penang Cooking Schools
Tropical Spice Garden between Batu Ferringhi and Teluk Bahang; RM220 for 3-4 hours plus garden tour

Nazlina Spice Station in George Town at the E&O Hotel, Straits Quay, or her store near Little India; RM180 for 3.5 hours plus wet market and Little India tour

Penang Homecooking Class by Pearly Kee in Pilau Tikus near Gurney Drive; RM250 for 3-4 hours

Makers Shakers Bakers offering weekly classes to teach children to cook

Related Post:
Penang Homecooking Class with Pearly Kee
Kids Cooking School in Penang
Spice Girls
Dine with Pearly: Homecooked Nyonya Meal

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox. Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. Fantastic! I would love to do this. . .what a great experience!

  2. How wonderful to be able to recreate the dishes enjoyed on holidays in exotic places. Whenever you wanted to return you could just whip the dish up at home and dream a little.

  3. Wow, I'm impressed that street food has an app.
    I'm ready to take the cooking class. Looks like a great experience!

  4. I love going to cooking schools whenever I travel. You certainly do learn so much about the food and culture and often there's a few good restaurant hints as well. These two schools look fun!

  5. I haven't tried taking cooking classes when I travel, but I think it's a great idea. This one looks like a great one.

  6. Cooking local food would be a great experience! I would especially like learning about the different spices and how to use them. What do you do with star anise?

  7. That looks like so much fun! We went to a pizza-making class in Sorrento, Italy - best pizza that I have ever had!!

  8. Nice breakdown. I enjoyed the one at Tropical Spice Garden. It's a great activity for a weekend.

  9. This makes me wish I was visiting Penang soon to try out these cooking schools. What great and educational fun! I love the idea that kids can be there too for a family activity. One of these days I will need to schedule some sort of cooking class in between busy itineraries. These all look delicious, Michele!

  10. I love cooking classes, and am wondering why I never made it to one of these when I was in Penang. Great reason to go back!

  11. I do like Malaysian food. Not too keen on cooking though, so I'll just eat it :)

  12. It looks like I need to get up to Penang to try some of these out.


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