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Discovering Siew Pau and Coconut Tarts in Penang

My memories of Penang are hazy. Literally. When I first spotted the coastline, taking photos was already difficult as everything looked gray.

We disembarked, it started drizzling but we were still hellbent on making the most of our day. I wanted to go around Georgetown and I wanted to visit Kek Lok Si-Temple of Supreme Bliss. Georgetown, the capital of Penang, is an excellent example of a city where the architecture exemplifies East meets West. Kek Lok Si-Temple of Supreme Bliss is a shutterbug’s dream destination.

Swettenham Pier Penang, Malaysia
Swettenham Pier Penang, Malaysia

From the Swettenham Pier, we hired a taxi to go around Penang. The taxi driver was chatty, he was knowledgeable about tourist destinations and although we already set an itinerary, he nevertheless suggested some spots that he thought we might be interested in.

As we passed by The Chocolate Boutique, he slowed down and asked if we wanted to go inside. Good thing he asked. When I was reading up on Penang a few weeks before the cruise, I had already put The Chocolate Boutique in my “must visit” list but, in the flurry of excitement, totally forgot about.

The Chocolate Boutique, Penang
The Chocolate Boutique, Penang

The Chocolate Boutique is a chocolate store. Free taste of everything they sell but no pictures allowed inside. I bought two packages, one containing chocolate coated fresh blueberries and another with chocolate coated strawberries. I meant to take photos of them when we got back to the ship but, alas! They were consumed before I had a chance. They were delicious. And so were everything I sampled at the store. And I sampled a lot.

As we proceeded to Kek Lok Si-Temple of Supreme Bliss, the drizzle had turned into a light rain. Considering the time constraints, we decided to stop at the foot of the temple just so I could take photos.

Kek Lok Si-Temple of Supreme Bliss in Penang
Kek Lok Si-Temple of Supreme Bliss in Penang

That was as far as we could manage. As disappointed as I was, the leisurely drive back to Swettenham Pier enabled us to make several stops along to way for some shopping and food tasting.

We stopped at a food store and, out front, on display were newly baked breads. One of them was called siew pau.

Siew Pau in Penang
Siew Pau

I bought a few pieces and we ate them in the taxi on the way back to the pier. Delicious. The curious thing is how much siew pau sounds like siopao. Yet, the siew pau is baked and the bread is flaky (like puff pastry but more substantial which makes it similar to flaky hopia), unlike the siopao which is steamed and the bread is soft.

But the similarity between the siew pau and the siopao does not end there. The siew pau’s filling is char siu pork or what we know in the Philippines as Chinese asado, one of the most popular siopao filling.

I have no doubt that both the siew pau and the siopao are local versions of the Chinese char siu bau which, interestingly, comes in two varieties — steamed and baked. Why the Malaysians adopted the baked version while the Filipinos opted for the steamed version is a puzzle to me.

Coconut tarts in Penang
Coconut tarts

Just about anywhere that the coconut plant thrives, one finds the coconut as an important part of the cuisine. Coconut milk and cream, for instance, are found in dishes native to the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, India, some parts of Africa and the Caribbean. And the similarities of some dishes are really uncanny. We have coconut macaroons, the Malays and the Africans have their coconut tarts.

In the same stall where I bought the siew pau, I also bought some coconut tarts. Apparently, coconut tarts come in more than one form in Malaysia. Apart from the more traditional type that I enjoyed in Penang, there are round coconut tarts too — balls of coconut and winter melon seeds wrapped in puff pastry. Kinda like the siew pau but with coconut instead of meat filling.

I wasn’t all that unhappy when we got back to Swettenham Pier. I had bags of chocolate from The Chocolate Boutique, I did manage to see Kek Lok Si-Temple of Supreme Bliss even if only from a distance and I did enjoy the coconut tarts and siew pau.

Written By

I travel to eat, drink and learn new cuisines. Between trips, I write travel stories and share travel-inspired recipes. That is my idea of retirement with purpose.

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