Friday, July 10, 2009

Penang's famous mung bean cookies

One of Penang's most popular delicacies is the tau sar piah, or Tambun biscuit. They are available in KL and elsewhere of course, and may originate from the nearby town of Tambun, but they are undoubtedly a Penang specialty. Any box of tau sar piah you find in Malaysia is almost certain to be made in Penang, and they are one of the most sought-after souvenirs brought back from the island city.

So why the fuss? Well, to Western tastebuds, the enthusiasm for tau sar piah might seem overblown and hard to fathom. This particular combination of sweet and savoury is typically Asian but is quite foreign to Western cuisine. Its ingredients are mostly standard for a Chinese sweet snack - mashed mung beans and sugar in a pastry made of flour and oil (or sometimes lard). Yet the filling also gets a unique twist from fried onions. The onions are fried long enough to develop a somewhat sweet caramelised flavour, but they are still onions, and you don't expect onions in sweet cookies. It is a bit of a mindf*** for anyone unfamiliar with Asian tastes, but forget all that and just enjoy. They are highly addictive and go well with coffee or tea.

There are a number of outlets in Penang that produce tau sar piah. The most famous is Him Heang (162A Jalan Burma, Penang), which is where this batch came from. However Penangites will tell you that the most famous not necessarily the best - everyone has their personal favourites. Him Heang is unpopular with some since they send the bulk of their produce out of town and seem less willing to cater to locals.

So its worth checking out the competition, which I didn't have time or stomach space for - next time no doubt. Ghee Hiang is the oldest manufacturer, having been in operations since 1856 (Him Heang's founder was apparently a former employee of Ghee Hiang). You can find them at No 95, Lebuh Pantai or 216 Jalan Macalister - they call them tau sar pneah. The numerous other companies around town make their own varieties, and you can find yam, red bean and even prawn sambal fillings if you look around.

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