By Helen Ong
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear that someone’s coming to Penang for the weekend? Probably the words, “Lucky so-and-so, he’s going to be tucking into some great assam laksa/Hokkien prawn mee/nasi kandar,” or some other hawker delight that we are so justifiably famous for. However, the next thought might well be, “I hope he brings me back some Tau Sar P’neah!”
And there is no doubt about it. Our Tambun Biscuits, aka Dragon Balls, are synonymous with “gifts from Penang”, and we really do it well here. No wonder it’s been declared one of the 12 must-buy products by the state government.
Just as other things have evolved, so has this humble little round of light, flaky pastry filled with salty-sweet mashed tau sar(green beans). It now comes in myriad flavours and, indeed, coloured, fillings. Of course, it all boils down to individual preference, but to diehard traditionalists, of which I have no problem admitting to being one, the fact that it now comes with nutmeg, pandan, coffee, sambal prawns, sweet corn, orange, durian and even chicken floss fillings, to name but a few, is nothing short of sacrilegious.
According to Ch’ng Huck Theng, scion of Ghee Hiang company, the oldest tau sar p’neah producer in Penang and probably the country, the other flavours haven’t really worked well. “Some companies introduced a few new flavours about 12 or 13 years ago,” he said, “but they weren’t very popular.”
However, other manufacturers might disagree. Tommy Loh, managing director of Beng Heong Sdn Bhd in New Lane, tells me that his sambal heybee (dried prawns) filling is one of his most popular.
And why tambun? This term was apparently coined by another of our iconic biscuit manufacturers, Him Heang, which had created the smaller pastry, as opposed to the larger traditional round, to give people a tam che (taste). The word eventually evolved to become tambun and no, it has nothing to do with Ipoh!
With so many brands on the market, which ones do you go for? In general, you’ll be able to find some fairly palatable unbranded offerings in markets and street stalls, but here are a few places to consider during your next trip here. Apart from tau sar p’neah, they also sell other biscuits like Beh Teh Sor and P’hong P’neah as well as nutmeg and its byproducts, belacan, coffee and other well-known Penang produce.
Popular stop-off places for tour buses are Tean Ean at the Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (Northam Road) end of Gurney Drive (Tel: +604 229 8130) and Wah Thai in Gottlieb Road (+604-228 1063), who also offer one with a unique chilli flavour.
Cheong Kim Chuan, aka CKC, (Tel: +604 226 6577) with its famous golden bell logo, has been operating since 1937, in Air Itam, where it still maintains a stronghold. It has since expanded with many Penang products and several outlets including a distribution office in KL.
Beng Heong Sdn Bhd (46 New Lane, 10400 Penang +604 226 5524) has been around for over 30 years. They produce the traditional as well as other flavours, as does Sheng Hiang (19, Kimberley Street, 10100 Penang Tel: +604 261 9928) which has several branches in Penang. They are famous for their “fruit” flavours although apparently their “sambal udang” is also popular.
At 200 Macalister Road, Ban Heang Biscuits (+604 229 5018) are also available by mail order, and round the back is Loong Nam, another of our established biscuit companies which used to be in Penang Road but has now relocated to 213 Hutton Lane, 10050 Penang Tel: +604 227 7163.
However, our most popular spots must be reserved for the last two: Him Heang, established in 1948 and now at 162A Burmah Road. A personal favourite, this place is always packed, particularly during school holidays. Tel: +604 228 6130.
Finally, the aforementioned Ghee Hiang company (+604 228 1077), famous not just for its biscuits but also its sesame oil. Established in 1865, it is not just the oldest – it must also be one of the most well-known, with several outlets including one in KL. At their Beach Street branch you can still see the workers painstakingly creating the pastries by hand. Their products are available also by mail order. The chief minister himself proclaimed the company an “exemplary model of a Malaysian Living Heritage Brand.”