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Cooking in Penang and a Malay Recipe – Chicken Rendang


The sight and fragrance of the torch ginger flower will now forever remind me of Penang. I was struck by how beautiful this flower is and quickly realised that this is one of the definition defying fragrances that linger all over Penang.

Honestly, I don’t know where to begin about Penang and food. This has been such an amazing revelation. The most incredible thing about the food in Penang is probably the beauty with which the different types of cuisines (Malay, Indian and Chinese) mingle to arrive at myriad variations of delicious ingenious dishes. The abundance of incredible fresh produce, mind-boggling variety of types and cuts of meat and poultry make, range of spices and a whole world of herbs make cooking in Penang an experience of beauty!

Smitten by the markets, I was trigger happy with the camera and so have endless pics to share with you on the produce alone in another post but here is a bit of what it was like to walk around in the markets and pick fresh produce for the dishes of the day with two fine cooks Pearly and Nazlina.


Galangal and Lemon grass. I find that its the use of these and other aromatic plants that add the distinctive flavour to many of the malaysian dishes some of which are otherwise in structure similar to ours in India. I really miss these in India. The lemon grass for example – We always have the leaves but not so easily the stem.


The vegetables arranged by plant part. Check out the variety of tubers – 4 types of sweet potatoes alone!


Freshly squeezed coconut milk at the market. If there was just one wish I had for what we could transport to our markets, it maybe this. And psst.. everytime I look at that pic I am struck by the craving to just drink that rich creamy coconut milk straight down.


Fresh octopus at the morning market, another favourite with the locals. Watching me from the corner of his eye. Rather grotesque though I hate to be so uncharitably to the poor fellow


Black chicken. I know its kind of strange but I can’t help find it bold. And beautiful. Really. The skin is black and the features were white. Apparently used a lot for medicinal purposes.


The wet pastes are all freshly ground each morning.. everything from onions to the dry spices. You tell the guy at the stall what you plan to cook and with what sort of ingredients and he mixes the right pastes to create the paste for your dish. Hows that for fresh + instant!

The fresh sights, sounds, smells and energy in the wet bazaars in India have forever been a source of inspiration to me. While we seem to be losing a lot of that in Mumbai, Penang has a lot of that alive. If you read my last post you have gotten a hint of this but my first day in Penang was a mixed bag. Excited to be in a new space but also overwhelmed at the unfamiliar smells, it took a tour of these beautiful wet markets to help me really appreciate the depth and variety of what Penang has to offer in terms of food and its culinary heritage.

I had opted for cooking classes that as much as possible could give me a taste of variety of the unending foods and techniques that Penang-ites use in cooking. Pearly’s class was on traditional Nyonya food and Nazlina’s in Georgetown on Malay food. The two were similar in that they both started with a wet market tour but each was also defined by their own individual areas of passion – local inherited cuisine and how it affects your mind and body for Pearly; and cooking the traditional way – the slow food perspective for Nazlina.

Pearly’s class (which was the first one I did) was my first foray into food in Malaysia. We worked on 3 dishes.


All work with Pearly started with soaking the vegetables with crushed galangal who strongly believes that doing this cleanses the vegetables of dangerous germs, and parasites not visible to the naked eye.


The class was in her backyard and other attendees were all Australians. Most interesting was how spice friendly they were. Definitely more tolerant of heat than me.


All three dishes started with a spice mix with inevitably contained dried and fresh chillies, garlic, shallots and the ubiquitous prawn paste belachan. Other ingredients that make an appearance are galangal, lemongrass, fresh turmeric.


We cooked in these beautiful clay pots. And ofcourse, I got one back. Yippee! Isnt it lovely?


It’s the making of the spice paste that is slightly laborious I discovered. Once the paste is ready, cooking happens in a matter of minutes.. here is the fiery spice paste frying away in the clay pot.


Could help finding the remains of onion, fragrant lime and torch ginger almost poetic. A pretty scene – this carnage.


And that’s the fish curry.. simmering. Interestingly, minus the aromatic torch ginger, lemongrass, galangal and the garnish of mint; this recipe is surprisingly similar to the fish curries of Kerala.

At the end of about 4 hours, we had a beautiful lunch of the incredible dishes we had prepared. Mint seems to always appear as a garnish for the spicy dishes. And while we seldom do that in India (and my mom would be shocked at doing that to her beloved fish curries), that makes so much sense.. the lightness and fragrance of the mint against the spicy sauces was just right.


The finished curry fish Tumis. I love how they garnish their dishes with Mint.


The Sambal Goreng that in reality has no Sambal! This one was probably one of my favourites. Sambal Goreng. The fried chillies, crisp shallots and roasted nuts against a creamy yet fragrant curry with prawns was absolutely gorgeous.

Pearly made us a lovely dessert of rice flavoured with pandan, cooked with palm sugar and longan berries, drizzled with fresh coconut cream.


The rice dessert. I am so wishing now that I had eaten more of this while I had the chance. The only consolation is that this is super easy to put together.

Nazlina’s class was all about the prep. My favourite dish here was the chicken rendang. This gravy is unbelievable. Everything you want – sweet and sour, spicy and aromatic from the kaffir lime and lemon grass.  It took us about half an hour.. yep, I kid you not, to crush a million chillies into a paste. And then garlic, ginger, shallots among other things. But it was oh so worth it. Crushing chillies releases and retains flavour best vs whizzing it in a blender which incorporates air and cause oxidation of the ingredients.


Crushing the red chillies and candlenuts into a paste


The pastes ready to go into the Rendang. Along with shallots prepped for the rice.

The rice was flavoured with pandan leaves which to be honest I am not sure what I feel about. I sometimes love the fragrance of pandan and sometimes find it sort of overwhelmingly basmati-ish. It does seem to work beautifully in the sweet dishes though. The palm sugar is another interesting constant in all the dishes counterbalancing the tamarind. This probably comes from the chinese idea of balance – the yin and the yang.


The pandan leaves along with other ingredients waiting to go into the wok.


The heady kaffir lime fragrance in the chicken comes from adding these at the very end. D I V I N E.

Here is Nazlina’s recipe for the Rendang. Do try it out. Except for the time for the prep, the dish is really easy to make. Especially if you choose to take the heretic route of the mixie. But you will love this. And  I promise, I won’t tell anyone.

Chicken Rendang

  • 1/2 chicken (cut into 6 pieces)
  • 6 fresh large red chilies; (The malaysian chillies are large, with thick skin and no spice. I would probably replace this with any mild thick versions found here in India (maybe even the green but not the capsicum) and add some roasted deseeded dried red ones
  •  2 cloves, 1 star anise, I cardamom, 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 inch fresh turmeric (or ¼ tsp turmeric powder)
  • 4 cili padi (birds eye chilies – optional) – if you wish it to be more spicy
  • 2 pieces tamarind apples (“asam keeping” in Malay) OR 2 thick tbs of tamarind juice
  • 200ml thick coconut milk
  • 2 tbs kerisik (coconut paste) Detailed description how to make kerisik can be seen here:
  • 2 young turmeric leaves (shredded) – If u can find them
  • 4 kaffir lime leaves (shredded finely. I so love these that I am determined to hoard and freeze any I can find)
  • 1-2 lemon grass (bruised)
  • 5 candlenuts – replace with double the number of almonds if required
  • 1 inch ginger
  • 1 inch galangal
  • 10 shallots or 4 purple onions
  • 1/2 head of garlic
  • 1 tbs dark brown sugar or palm sugar, chopped small
  • 1 cup water
  • Salt to taste
  1. Boil chicken with slow fire with 3 cups water. Remove some water till only the chicken pieces are half merged in the water.
  2. In another wok or saucepan, heat up ¼ cup cooking oil then add in all ground spices—fresh chilies, ginger, garlic, galangal, turmeric, onion and candle nut with whole spices (cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, star anise and cloves). Wait until the oil separates, then add in chicken pieces with some of the broth.
  3. Add tamarind apple or tamarind juice together with bruised lemongrass .
  4.  When the sauce is reduced, add in thick coconut milk, salt, brown sugar (or palm sugar), turmeric leaves and kaffir lime leaves.

3. When the mixture bubbles gently, put in kerisik, let simmer slowly for about 20 minutes then serve.

Note: if you make in a larger quantity, it takes longer to cook.

teaching me  that though it started the other way round, now I eat to cook.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Anonymous #

    that’s not a squid, that’s an octopus.


    June 10, 2013

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  1. Asia gave me wings. And Banh Xeo. | Bombay Chowparty
  2. Asia gave me wings. And Banh Xeo.
  3. Eating in Penang. Pigging ,more like. | Bombay Chow-party
  4. Asia gave me wings. And Banh Xeo. | Bombay Chow-party

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