Bringing World Cuisine to Penang

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There’s no need to go to Germany or the Middle East for some authentic sauerkraut or fattoush. Penang is very well served by international restaurants.

Much of Penang’s appeal lies in the myriad types of cuisine available there. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Syrian, Lebanese, Italian, American, German and French – this multitude of defined styles are all available in the state.

Penang has definitely become an attractive location for restauranteurs specialising in international food. With a growing middle-class and all the advantages that development brings, there is plenty of market pull for restaurants to satiate the Penang knack for trying out new spots, experiencing new foods and doing it all in the name of social interaction.

A Cornucopia of Taste

Chinese cuisine, like the traditional Cantonese dishes served at Maple Palace on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, is a de facto style that seamlessly connects with Penang’s majority Chinese demographic: doubleboiled black chicken, Ee Fu noodles, roasted sucking piglet, steamed Soon Hock fish, dong gui seasoning and so on. These dishes and flavours are immediately recognisable, in one way or another, and pander to generational taste buds.

Other East Asian specialities tick the flavour profiles of Penang’s population, but come with completely different traditions that make them novel and fun for all – such as Korean BBQ, which provides customers with a choice of sliced and marinated meats, kimchi and other pickled sides, noodles, and gochujang dipping sauces to keep diners busy for hours at their table grills.

The precision, craftsmanship and mastery in the making of Japanese cuisine relate well to the appreciation of food in Penang. The nuances of having different chefs, different cuts of salmon, different creations and different seasonings that make up Japanese sushi and sashimi dishes are up for the same discerning scrutiny that hawkers and cafes face all over Penang. Word on the street is that Enoshima Japanese Restaurant, located in the lobby of Cititel Express on Lebuh Noordin, is the new place to go.

Middle Eastern cuisine also corners a market in Penang, and the taste for falafel and hummus is growing. Levantine food packs a flavour punch, is best described as rustic and is in large part cooked under naked flame. “Actually most of our customers are Arab tourists,” says Nour Al Deen, the owner of Suriana Restaurant at Precinct 10, “and only 10% are local. But they like our food when they try it.” Slowly but surely, Arabian food gains palatable traction.

European cuisine is a staple in Penang – thanks to its entrepot history, no doubt. Italian food is best known for its pizzas and pastas, and discounting the pizza chains, the availability of stone-baked dough topped with quality parmesan and mozzarella cheese, fresh green leaves and high-grade cured meats has changed the game.

At Il Bacaro, located within Campbell House on Lebuh Campbell, pizza is done properly – as is homemade pastas, traditional antipasti and a host of Italian dishes. Roberto Dreon, the owner, says: “We noticed a gap in the market. There were no other authentic Italian restaurants in Penang.” His wife and business partner, Nardya Wray, adds, “Sometimes people forget Italy has 23 regions which all offer a huge variety of dishes using an array of ingredients.”

Kibbeh, deep fried lamb mince balls, are available at Suriana Restaurant.

Japanese cuisine requires precision, craftsmanship and mastery.

French cuisine is also to be found – at That Little Wine Bar on Jalan Chow Thye. Its French-inspired menu changes biannually following the influx of new ideas from France, and on special occasions, dishes are stripped from the fine dining circuit and instilled with touches of molecular cooking.

Lastly, there is the cuisine that runs parallel to international pop culture – apple pies, bagels, roadside diners. Naturally, it is American food: ribs, burgers, barbeque, omelettes and pancakes – all served at Let’s Meat in Lembah Permai, Tanjung Bungah.

Italian meats selection at Il Bacaro.

Maintaining the Standards

The international restaurant scene has undoubtedly improved. Out of the outlets already mentioned, nearly all have owners that are the same nationality as the cuisine of their restaurant.

In the past, they struggled with adding an authentic flavour to their cuisines. At the most basic level, a tomato grown in Malaysia is not the same as one grown elsewhere, for instance, in a country where tomatoes are a staple of the national cuisine. It may not appear a valid criticism, but any chef with the relevant experience will wax lyrical, if given the chance, on the stunting differences in produce quality and how it affects the authenticity of any dish.

Luckily, this has changed over time with Malaysia opening its borders to new products for distributors. If specific ingredients can’t be found in Penang, then easy contact with KL usually leads to the desired result. “When we started it was difficult to obtain Italian products,” says Dreon of Il Bacaro. “Now we can get almost all Italian produce, and with that, we can cater for our international visitors, while the local market has now learned to appreciate the difference between authentic Italian and otherwise.”

Of course, by demanding dishes of authentic quality and with traditional ingredients, international restaurants compromise their popularity by inevitably having to charge their customers more – or so it seems. Yet this depends on the comparisons made. Trying to convince Penangites 10 years ago – or even now – that spending RM50 on a dish opposed to RM5 would make most baulk, but when compared to restaurants in their host countries, the price of dishes in international restaurants in Penang hardly differs; it is sometimes cheaper! Where international restaurants in Penang save on rental, running and staff costs, they make up for in the cost of ingredients.

This, however, is only one hurdle for international restaurants. Another, with as much effect on the quality, authenticity and ultimate success of an international restaurant, is the availability of skilled and reliable staff. Staffing is a problem that affects restaurants across the board in Penang.

With six years’ experience in Penang and 40 years’ experience in the restaurant trade abroad, including at The Ritz, Les Ambassadeurs Club and The Criterion in London, Dreon sees it as a unique challenge. “Staffing is problem number one. In Malaysia, food and beverage is regarded by and large as something you do if you don’t have qualifications – and not as a reputable profession requiring skill and dedication,” he says. “Invariably, if we manage to employ a local person interested in learning authentic Italian cooking, they will leave employment within three months, and we have to start from the beginning again.”

Ingolf Sossna, owner of Ingolf’s Kneipe in Tanjung Bungah, a German restaurant that has been open since 1998, reverts to Malaysia’s growing economy for the lack of competent staff: “In the early years, there was no shortage of college students asking for work. It seems today they get so much pocket money from their parents that they are not interested to do any job to earn extra money.”

Normal wait and kitchen staff is one thing; trained industry professionals are quite another. The pool is small in Malaysia – even locals with careers as head chefs, headwaiters, sommeliers and general managers do not constitute a notably recognised employment group. Instead, international restaurants must invest in bringing in professionals from their home countries – a costly necessity that only adds to the customer’s final bill.

However, it is improving. Access to essential ingredients has already progressed by leaps and bounds. Schools in Penang – like INTI International College – offering comprehensive hospitality courses will expand the pool of employees ready to embark on a restaurant career, and they will eventually be familiar with international cuisine.

How long will it take? Years. But, for Penang, which rests so heavily on its food culture, the market of international cuisine needs to progress, and it will. “Hopefully somebody will spend the time and money to build a proper Michelin star-quality restaurant, with international staff training our local staff in a no-nonsense way so that the overall quality of hospitality in Penang can improve further,” says Chef Tommes from That Little Wine Bar.

Anyone committing to a life of restaurant work today is in for an interesting time.

James Springer is a free-lance writer who concentrates on cultural and political situations around the world. He has contributed to Penang Monthly, The Edge and The Expat, and will release his first book, Malaysia's Canvas, in the beginning of 2018. He is also a trained Sommelier and co-editor of the Penang Free Sheet.



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