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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Penang cendol, perfect ingredients; could it be the same of Malaysian politics?

A long and sweet weekend

The Penang Road cendol, the perfect coming together of delightful – and very different – ingredients. Could the same be said of our politics?

THERE’S nothing like a long weekend: somewhere out of Kuala Lumpur, a relaxed hotel, good food, things to see and do and preferably no politics.

My options were: Chiang Mai, Siem Reap and Penang. George Town won out after I realised that temperatures in northern Thailand and Cambodia at this time of year can reach the mid-40’s.

There was also another compelling reason: cendol – that sublime if wonderfully contradictory combination of five delights: shaved ice, santan, gula melaka, plus finger-length, pandan-scented rice flour noodles and red mung beans.

I’d been dreaming about having cendol for months and, to be frank, one particular variant of the shaved ice dessert: the Penang Road Famous Cendol.

This can be found in two stalls facing one another across a crowded lane in the heart of the city, near Chowrasta Market.

Yes, I know there are many other permutations. Some people insist that Indian Muslims make the best cendol.

Others demand condensed milk – how can they be so sacrilegious? Will they be insisting on rose syrup as well?

Then there are the gula melaka snobs – who believe that the sugar has to be aromatic, buttery and multi-layered with a hint of almonds.

The fact is that the choices for cendol connoisseurs are endless: with or without the mung beans, with durian, with pulut.

The Indonesians have their own versions as well but for me, and after twenty-five years of travelling, there’s only one cendol embedded in memory and it’s in Penang.

Of course, it could well be because of the days when I first started work as a junior lawyer and I was fortunate enough to be sent up to Penang for hearings.

Well, to be honest I should admit that I’d cajole and beg the firm’s Chief Clerk to be sent – anything to be able to travel out of Kuala Lumpur.

So, having completed my work at Penang’s then-musty and un-renovated High Court, I’d jump into a trishaw and head off (jacket, tie, legal files and all) for my cendol, standing alongside everyone else whilst eyeing my stack of files warily.

This time – and since I don’t like Batu Ferringhi – I stayed in town, at one of the boutique hotels, in the Unesco heritage area not too far from my favourite cendol stall.

But since man cannot live on cendol alone, I did also visit one or two other places, but invariably returned – almost religiously – for my ice-cold bowl of perfection, marvelling at the balance of the soft slipperiness of the rice-flour noodles and the firm but sticky texture of the red beans all smothered in gula melaka.

Because of its Unesco World Heritage status, Penang is one of the few places where the landscape of my memory matches what I’m still seeing and experiencing around me.

The same can’t be said of Kuala Lumpur where buildings appear and then disappear with a remarkable suddenness.

Yes, things have changed in Penang, but the fabric and feel of George Town remains, so as I wander past Carnarvon Market, Armenian Street, Beach Street and Little India, I’m reconnected and somehow recharged with a world I once knew.

Moreover, the buildings are undergoing a subtle change as new occupants and businesses arrive, changing the rhythm of life in these historic streets, shops, cafes, restaurants and small hotels.

Having said that, tradition continues unabated wherever you are in Penang. There are special prayers at Chinese temples and clan houses, funerals and activities redolent of history and the past.

Amidst all the heat and the noise it was a relief to retreat to my hotel.

I for one enjoyed the sensitive and artistic eye that had informed and accompanied the restoration of what is now one of the island’s leading boutique hotels – 23 Love Lane, tucked away behind St Xavier’s.

The hotel – more like a rambling private home – is a truly Malaysian experience, from its traditional Chinese gate (replete with ceramic Chien Nien panelling), to its Anglo-Indian bungalow and its Straits Settlements eclectic annexe: the kind of place where the hours fade away as staff bring you endless cups of coffee, roti canai, cukur udang and other local delicacies.

All of which left me in a perfect frame of mind for the opening of the George Town Festival on a balmy evening in Fort Cornwallis, followed by a more lively gathering at Narelle McMurtie’s China House.

And then just when I thought I’d escape the politics, I ended up having a three-hour breakfast with a group of friends – one from Umno and the other from DAP at the same time – proof that opposites, as with the cendol, can be reconciled, at least maybe in Penang …


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