The Common Ice Cream Goes Upmarket


Frozen desserts are so popular and so mainstream that they often go unnoticed. Penang Monthly takes a look at some of the ice cream joints in Penang and at the cool factor they carry.

Penang may be famous for its hot food, but let us not forget its fabulous desserts. Its ice kacang and cendol are often included in top ten lists of all sorts. But most interestingly, the dear old ice cream is being rediscovered – and definitely evolving.

Kek Seng Cafe: A Taste that Remains the Same

Kek Seng Cafe owner Cheow Sow Lei, 50, at the coffee shop on Jalan Penang.

Established in 1906 and still sporting the sturdy wooden booths and tiles of its inception, Kek Seng Cafe started welcoming hawkers into its premises from the mid-1960s, eventually becoming one of the best and most well-known spots for hawker fare in town.

“I’m not exactly sure when the coffee shop started making ice cream, but during my grandfather-in-law’s time here in the 1950s, they were already selling it,” says cafe owner Cheow Sow Lei. “During that time, there were no hawker stalls in the shop. They were just offering ice cream, cake and maybe ais kacang, so people would come at tea time. We had durian ice cream, corn, chocolate and rose. These are the four flavours we still have today,” Cheow adds.

The ice cream was first made by hand, and then with an electrical contraption that was a mess of gears and motors. “That machine was used here for more than 30 years. It was only two years ago that I bought the current modern machine,” she says. The RM20,000 contraption now cranks out a sevenlitre tub of the creamy dessert in just 25 minutes, after which the ice cream sets in the freezer for at least two hours.

Set atop of a dish of ais kacang or ordered a la carte at RM3.20 for two scoops, the smooth texture and taste of its ice cream has made Kek Seng Cafe renowned beyond Penang’s borders. “My recipe comes from my moyang (forefathers); perhaps it’s different from other recipes. It may be the temperature; it’s important for it to be very cool when the ice cream spins. We use only natural ingredients – no chemicals except for the rose essence in our rose ice cream. We don’t store the ice cream for long because that can make the texture very rough,” she says.

Kek Seng Cafe's famous durian ice cream goes hand-in-hand with its homemade jelly and ais kacang.

Cheow goes on to say that the coffee shop sells 50 to 60 bowls of ais kacang on good days – impressive by current standards but a far cry from the cafe’s heydays in the 1980s when over 100 bowls were served daily. Facing stiff competition from the other eateries in George Town nowadays, Cheow says the future of Kek Seng Cafe is unclear. One of her daughters, who recently started university, has learned the ropes (and the durian ice cream secrets) and the choice of taking over the business in the future is hers to make.

As for Cheow, the long hours at the coffee shop (Kek Seng Cafe is open from 8.30am to 5.30pm daily) have become an established routine and she finds joy in being able to carry on her family’s tradition. “People come for the ice cream and after tasting it, say it is just like how they remember it 20 years ago. That’s what makes me very happy – to do things as well as my ancestors did.”

Maxim’s Cake: Making the Grade

Just over a decade ago, Maxim Yaw Ming Keng, who is now 63 years old, and his eldest son took a study tour to Italy. The cake business in Penang was proving competitive and the head of Maxim’s Cakes knew he needed something different in order to maintain an edge over his competitors.

Maxim, who once sold safes to goldsmiths, pawn shops and hotels all across Penang and Taiping, has never been one to shy away from change. After observing coffee houses in hotels while attending companysponsored courses and seminars, Maxim dove head first into the cake business in 1979 after sales in the security line could no longer pay the bills.

Maxim Yaw (right) and his eldest son Jason at Maxim's Cake's Upper Penang Road branch.

His wife and two sons gradually joined him in the business, investing in ice cream machines and making their own products. “There were a lot of mistakes. We were eating the same ice cream every day! We had no broad knowledge about our own product. On top of that, we could hardly get the ingredients we needed in Penang, so we had to search in KL and Singapore. We finally found one supplier who could offer us ice cream flavours from Italy and he connected us with a factory in Bologna,” Maxim says.

His son, Jason Yaw Terng Hoe, 34, says the main purpose of their two-week trip was to confirm that their methods were correct. “We started trying to make ice cream around 2003 and in 2005, we went to Italy to make sure we were doing everything right. What we learned was that we were doing everything wrong!” he says with a good-natured laugh.

The duo learned the A-to-Z of ice cream making, tweaked the recipes to suit local flavours and rolled out new products. “We started very, very slowly and the first thing we did was to change all the ice cream in our cakes to gelato,” Jason says.

Maxim's Cakes also offers a line of handmade Gelato Stecco.

The idea worked and with hard work and constant experimentation with bold flavours like After Eight mint chocolates, Snickers, Kit Kat, Milo and D24 durians along with an array of fruit, Maxim’s cake gelato has become a household name in Penang. Now, each of the cake house’s three outlets at Jalan Penang, Upper Penang Road and Jalan Van Praagh boasts at least 15 different gelato flavours along with a selection of Gelato Stecco.

“Anybody can make ice cream, but to maintain it is the hardest part and that was the secret we learned in Italy,” Maxim says.

'sor-bət\: Thirst-quenching Indulgences

The recent renewal of George Town has opened up bright new possibilities for young entrepreneurs. One of them is 32-year-old William Gooi, who stumbled across the idea of a sorbet business while planning a dinner party at home: “One of our guests was lactose intolerant and we thought that sorbet would be pretty nice as a dessert. One thing led to another and we made the decision to turn it into a full-fledged business,” William says.

That was how 'sor-bət\ was born. This was in the middle of last year. “One of the challenges we had in the beginning was setting up the foundations for the business itself; for example, getting the suppliers and distributors. Luckily, we have great friends and family who helped us connect with some key contacts and we were able to grow from there,” the former advisory services manager says.

The team behind 'sor-bət\: (From left) Melissa Gooi, William Gooi and Heng Charng Yee.

'sor-bət\ now supplies its tangy sweet treats to a small handful of cafes in Penang and KL, and caters to individual orders and events through their website “We have two ranges: Quench and Indulge. The first is generally fruit-based while the second is infused with alcohol in addition to the fruit base. We try to put a Malaysian twist to the flavours we create and go through a fair bit of experimentation in creating our recipes. For example, our most popular flavour so far is Asian Lemonade, which is made with barley and lime,” William says.

'sor-bət\ is essentially a family business, with William’s sister Melissa Gooi and his partner Heng Charng Yee making up the rest of the team. Melissa is the creative brain taking care of most of the promotional material, logos and designs. Heng, who works full-time in the semiconductor industry, is the business heart and taste tester-in-chief while William does the bulk of production work, handling much of the finances and pretty much “everything else”.

“What’s great about starting something of our own is that we have a free hand in most, if not all, of the decisions surrounding the business. There is an immense sense of satisfaction from building a brand of our own,” William says.

The Safe Room: Sub-zero Delights

On Lebuh Campbell, inside a goldsmith shop that once served locals and visitors, there is a small room with a thick reinforced door where jewelled ornaments and gilded masterpieces were once kept secure.

Syed Aidid bin Datuk Syed Mohamad expounds on the heritage value of the site where he now operates a unique dessert cafe. “Our premises used to be those of a proud goldsmith for a century before we converted it into a cafe. The name “The Safe Room” derives from an actual safe room used to store jewellery in the premise. It would have been a pity to destroy such a remarkable heritage space; therefore, we left the safe room intact – including its original armoured door – and decided to design the cafe around it,” says Syed Aidid, who co-owns the space with his partner Candy Ang Pei Shan.

What makes The Safe Room stand out is its nitrogen ice cream. Be it dragonfruit, jackfruit, kiwi or the other fresh, seasonal flavours on offer, patrons delight in the preparation of the freezing treats almost as much as in their consumption.

“As liquid nitrogen is -196 degrees Celsius, any liquid that comes in contact with it will instantly freeze. The uniqueness is that the ice cream does not crystallise. This is what delivers the right consistency and preserves the natural vitamins of the fruits in the ice cream.

“We also wanted to harness the abundance of fresh fruits that we could source from the local fruit wholesaler located a few doorsteps away. Every one of our fruit ice creams is cut and blended to order and even the coffee and chocolate ones are freshly blended or brewed right before being made into ice cream. We wanted to market the Safe Room as the freshest ice cream that you can find,” Syed Aidid says.

New flavours and products are introduced roughly every two months, but the cafe’s bedrock of coconut ice cream remains Syed Aidid’s personal favourite. “We try to capture the spirit of Penang with this ice cream by serving it in its original coconut shell. This ice cream is truly Penang – rough around the edges, but fresh and wholesome,” he says.

Mulgogi Dessert: A Korean-Inspired Creation

The Safe Room's coconut ice cream.

Mulgogi Dessert's creations are an interesting twist on Japanese-inspired soft serve desserts.

In Seberang Jaya, Shirlyn and Su, the dynamic duo behind Mulgogi Dessert, have staked their claim in the busy Sunway Carnival Mall. “There are a lot of ice cream choices in George Town. Perai is less competitive and we wanted to give people on the mainland something that is not available anywhere else in Penang,” says the duo.

They explain that the idea of the distinct fish-  The Safe Room's coconut ice cream.  Each of The Safe Room's cool offerings are made to order.  Mulgogi Dessert's creations are an interesting twist on Japanese-inspired soft serve desserts. The Safe Room Mulgogi Dessert shaped delights came after a trip to South Korea. “We were amazed by the variety of desserts available there. Bungeoppang, one of the most popular desserts in Korea, caught our attention. The conventional bungeoppang is a crispy waffle-like snack in a fish shape, with sweet red bean filling. Bungeoppang then evolved into fish-shaped waffles stuffed with ice cream and a variety of fillings,” Su and Shirlyn say.

Each of The Safe Room's cool offerings are made to order.

After talking to several dessert houses in Korea, the pair learned the basic skills of how to make the treats. With an arsenal of secret ingredients and up-to-date ideas, Mulgogi Dessert opened for business just before the start of the year.

“‘Mulgogi’ means fish in Korea. Since we specialise in making fish-shaped desserts, this name was definitely the best choice and it is easy for Malaysians to pronounce,” the pair say. They add that soft serve, which is generally made by introducing air during the freezing process, is smoother and lighter than traditional ice cream.

Mulgogi Dessert’s menu seems clear cut with three main offerings, though each contains quite a list of added treasures. “Mulgogi Ice Cream”, for example, is soft serve in a hot and crispy fish-shaped waffle but also contains a sweet filling, a Pepero cookie stick and either a popcorn or cream cookie topping.

As for flavours, this kiosk goes back to basics with just two choices. “We have chocolate and green tea. Green tea is good for the health and you can hardly find green tea soft serve ice cream in Penang. Chocolate increases the production of ‘happy’ hormones in our body much like laughing does,” say Shirlyn and Su.

If the blossoming ice cream scene in Penang is anything to go by, there’s a lot for everyone to be happy about.

Andrea Filmer is a freelance journalist who has lived in the US and Australia but, for reasons unknown to herself, finds it impossible to call anywhere but Penang home.

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