Bringing the Cendol to the World


Tan Chong Kim.

Penang’s street food is top notch – no arguing about that. But the work that goes into making these delightful dishes is often backbreaking: it is a labour of blood, sweat and – if you’re in the business of frying stuff, tears as well.

“It’s physically and mentally exhausting, it really is,” says Tan Chong Kim, owner of Penang’s most famous cendol stall, the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul. Early mornings are common for hawkers everywhere, and Tan is no exception. He typically wakes up at around 4am, and shortly after having breakfast, begins the long and tedious process of preparing the cendol to be sold that day.

First, he cuts fresh pandan (screwpine) leaves into tiny strips and grinds them. The juice is retrieved to be added to rice flour, which is then cooked at low heat to get a thick, green paste from which cendol is made.

“Preparing cendol is comparatively easier now,” says Tan. “Back in the day, we had to rely on manpower to stir the mixture for hours on end. These days, we just use a machine.”

Just as drawn-out a process as making cendol is cooking the red beans. It takes up about six long hours, stretching from the start of his preparation work to the moment he opens his stall for business. On top of that, he also prepares the coconut milk from fresh coconuts, which adds to the creamy flavour of the dessert.

Tan presently has around 20 workers who help keep the stall running like a well-oiled machine.

Tan puts emphasis on the quality of his ingredients, making it a point to ensure that his suppliers provide him with top-grade coconuts, red beans, pandan leaves and other ingredients.

At around 10am, once he is done preparing all the ingredients, Tan opens his stall for business.

Past, Present and Future

“I still have memories of helping to push the stall out to the street before I went to school every morning, and coming back to the stall after school to help my dad,” recalls Tan, who began helping his father at seven years old. After completing high school, he officially took over the business in 1977 at age 20.

Presently he has around 20 workers, both locals and foreigners, who rotate between the daily morning and afternoon shifts. Everyone has a specific task – namely serving the customers, collecting payment and washing the bowls and spoons – which makes operations seamless. Business is brisk, but the workers still manage to serve customers with a warmth and friendliness that is not lost on the people.

One of the perks of running the stall is that Tan gets to interact with and befriend customers of diverse backgrounds, from Germans to Guatemalans. Some of these friendships have lasted for decades. “Never in a million years did I think that running a hawker stall that sells humble bowls of cendol would amount to the amazing friendships I have forged with people,” says Tan. “I am really humbled by the unconditional support from all of my customers, both local and international.”

Tan has dedicated his entire life to the business, and perhaps most heart-warming to him is the fact that he has the full support of his family. Recognising how unfair it can be on family members to be burdened by long business hours, he appreciates their understanding and support all the more.

“My children, even when they were still young, already understood the nature of my work. They have always been very independent and disciplined. I could devote my attention entirely to the business without worrying about them.”

When they graduated from university in Australia, Tan’s children were initially hesitant about returning and getting on board the family business, thinking they would be working under similar harsh conditions at the roadside every day.

Tan, however, had other plans in mind. Ever since opening the first branch of his cendol stall in Super Komtar back in 1989, he already had a clear vision for the direction of his business: to franchise it to other states in the country.

The stall is a hit among locals and foreigners alike.

“I never wanted them to work the way I did, enduring long hours on a daily basis as well as in unpleasant weather conditions. We have our own brand as an authentic local dessert seller – why not make the most of it?”

Thankfully, after explaining his vision and discussing it with them, his children agreed to join him. Today, all three of his children, along with two children-in-law, help manage the ever-increasing scale of the business. Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul is now a nationally renowned brand with over 30 branches in places like Penang, KL, East Malaysia and even Singapore, among others. Plans are currently underway to expand to Australia and Indonesia.

Never in a million years did I think that running a hawker stall that sells humble bowls of cendol would amount to the amazing friendships I have forged with people.

Tan is very optimistic about the future: “My children are eager to continue expanding the business. I’m more than happy to support them in any way I can.”

In the meantime, he is very pleased with what they have achieved, and is content with continuing to run the stall daily, serving customers and witnessing their satisfaction upon tasting his cendol.

Tan ends his business at 7pm. Cleaning up and packing everything away takes about an hour. He reaches home at around 8.30pm, and after having dinner and watching the evening news, he calls it a day at 9pm.

One may think, and rightfully so, that running a hawker stall that is hugely popular among locals and tourists for long hours on a daily basis is a tough, daunting and tiring job. Tan concurs, yet as one of the hawkers in Penang who have achieved rousing success, he would not have it any other way. “I have everything and more: a great business, a supportive family and loyal customers who appreciate my food. Not everyone can proclaim that. I truly am blessed.”

Ernest Mah is a final year English for Professionals major at Universiti Sains Malaysia. A member of the varsity debating team, he loves singing, enjoys speaking, and dreams of becoming the Malaysian Ryan Seacrest.

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