5 Things to do in Penang – Especially if You Love Food

I love travel with a fierce passion and am always so excited to get the opportunity to visit a new destination.  Actually, even a destination I have been to before is very, very pleasing.  Penang is marketed as an island paradise and it’s rich history includes being part of the Spice Islands and home to a cultural fusion like nowhere else in the World.  Penang is romantically dubbed “The Pearl of The Orient”.

The chance to visit and experience some beautiful spicy food, stunning beaches and luxury accommodation was very exciting and I am always so grateful to receive all expenses paid travel.  We flew Singapore Airlines from Perth to Singapore and then a smaller Silk Air flight into Penang.

We stayed in the stunning Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Georgetown.  The original wing of the hotel was built during the English Colonial period by the Sarkie Brothers and opened in 1885.  Famous people who have stayed there include Rudyard Kipling, Douglas Fairbanks, Sir Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham.  It has impressively high ceilings, huge rooms and is beautifully decorated.  Our room was in the newer wing and has been constructed to keep the 1885 feel.  The huge marble bathroom included a  claw foot bath. The breakfast buffet is a mind boggling selection of cuisine from just about every planet in the galaxy – so much breakfast!!!

Infinity Pool at the E&O Hotel Penang
View from the infinity pool at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel Penang

There are a number of colonial style mansions in Georgetown which have been converted into restaurants and event spaces.  We walked about 200 metres from the Eastern & Oriental to Thirty Two at the Mansion for a cocktail party on our first night there.  The organisers had secured fancy costumes in the style of colonial times which we could dress up in and have our photographs taken.  The dresses are huge hoop skirt styles just like from the movie The King and I, which interestingly, was  filmed on Penang and not Siam at all!  My man does not do dressing up, so – no photo’s for me (hashtag sad face).  The food at Thirty Two was a lovely introduction to the flavours we would be enjoying for the next five days.  Spicy noodles, spicy prawns, spicy sate – SPICY everything!

The tour we had booked was to travel on the funicular up to Penang Hill but flooding from typhoon Damrey, which had swept past the island a few weeks prior to our arrival had damaged infrastructure so Penang Hill was closed.  Our replacement tour was a visit to the famous Spice Farm and we added Entopia Butterfly Garden and the Tropical Fruit Farm to our itinerary for the day.  We travelled by coach and enjoyed  colourful explanations from our guide about how the island was acquired by Captain Light on behalf of the English in a dodgy transaction including and unfulfilled promise of protection.  A little bit of history – Captain Light married the Siamese Princess Martina, had four children and one of these children founded Adelaide in South Australia.

Tropical Fruit Farm

The Tropical Fruit Farm is a model orchard with many varieties of tropical fruit trees and passionfruit vines which are all grown using organic farming practices.  It was fascinating to listen to the guide who took us around the terraced orchard.  Jeff and I used to own a fruit and vegetable shop back in the day so the exotic fruit were familiar to us and it was so lovely to see them growing in their own habitat.  A couple of the people on the tour  are passionate about growing organic vegetables and fruit and their questions added huge value because of the additional information the guide told us.  Here is a list of all the different plants and trees which are grown on the fruit farm .   At the end of our guided tour, we were taken to an open air cafe and served our choice of tropical juice and exotic fruit which had been grown on the orchard.  I chose a tropical mix because I couldn’t decide and Jeff had a delicious blend of pineapple and cinnamon.

Delicious tropical fruit selection from Penang
Tropical smorgasbord
platter with tropical fruit
Fruit tasting plate

Entopia

Our next stop was Entopia the Butterfly Garden which I strongly suspected would be something more suitable for kids.  This is a massive enclosure with mezzanine levels and a man made garden of waterfalls, fallen logs, caves, ponds and rocks which are home to multiple species of tropical plants.  Entopia harbours over 15,000 butterfly’s which flutter around you as you walk through the enclosure.  There are also many species of reptiles and insects on display.  The learning centre inside the main building gives kids the opportunity for some hands on learning about the life of insects – we lost one of our guys in there because – distracted by ants nests.

Large butterfly on hibiscus flower
Butterfly inside the enclosure at Entopia

Spice Farm

The Spice Farm was the highlight of the days’ tour for me.  I am a herb geek and really interested in the healing and medicinal properties of herbs and spices.   The Farm covers 8 acres and includes rain forest, children’s play areas and even a Reflexology Path.  Smooth river rocks have been fixed into the pathway so that your feet get a work out as you walk along it.  Before our guide led us through the gardens, we enjoyed a very relaxed and delicious meal in the restaurant which overlooked the ocean.

Plate of food with lemon grass skewers and a pink flower
Fragrant lunch overlooking the ocean

Fine Dining

There are a number of beautiful, fine dining restaurants in George Town.  We did our best to dine at  as many as we could during our stay – you know, in the interest of good research.  The options include Indigo at the Blue Mansion, Farquhar Mansion, 1885, McAlister Mansion, Chin’s and many more.  Lots of different cuisine’s are available including Asian, French, Italian, European and Contemporary.

We enjoyed a traditional High Tea at 1885, the restaurant is in the original section of the Eastern & Oriental, named obviously because of it’s date of establishment.  Farquhar Mansion, with it’s contemporary French and Italian cuisine, was our choice for dinner.  We had a table of 12 in the upstairs private dining room – so stunning.  The walls and ceiling of our dining room were covered with a quirky mix of art.   Other dining rooms were decorated in completely different styles, from minimalist white to chandelier lit.   Each room has it’s own unique character and atmosphere.

Quirky collection of art works on the wall of the dining room of Farquhar Mansion Penang
Private Dining Room at Farquhar Mansion Penang
The chef's Tasting Menu at Farquhar Mansion Penang
The Tasting Menu we selected from
Scallop Carpaccio at Farquhar Mansion Penang
Hokkaido Scallop Carpaccio
Mushroom Terroir bowl at Farquhar Mansion Penang
Mushroom Terroir
Pina Colada Cheese Desert plate at Farquhar Mansion Penang
Pina Colada Cheese for dessert
We enjoyed a delicious meal with a varied menu choice.  The Chef also  caters  beautifully for Coeliac’s too.  I was trying to remember to get a photo of each course but I zealously tucked into my mains and “Pre dessert” (what?) without taking a picture first – doh!!

Cooking School

My friend Trish had arranged a Cooking Lesson for us with Nyonya Cook Pearly Kee.  Nyonya Cooks learned to cook from their mothers and grandmothers.  Secret recipe’s get passed down through  generations of the family.  Nyonya’s are highly regarded in Penang for their fastidious cooking, they grind their own spices, chillies and roots and create new recipe’s.  Nyonya’s cook with a fusion of Chinese influences and Malay cuisine.  Their dishes are full of flavour and Nyonya’s have a wide knowledge of the medicinal properties and nutrient values of the foods they use.
Pearly Kee and cooking class group outside the entrance of the E&O Penang
Leaving the E&O with Nyonya Cook Pearly Kee
Our experience with Pearly was wonderful.  Pearly and her husband Chandra picked us up from our hotel and drove us to the Pasar Chowrasta Markets. The markets are a bustling hub where all the fresh produce was available.  Pearly took us through and explained the nutritional value of  vegetables, roots and herbs which she uses in her cooking.
limes for sale at the markets
Fresh produce at the markets
tray of fresh turmeric at the markets in Penang
Fresh Turmeric – One of Pearly’s favourite ingredients
Pearly & Chandra took us to their home where the cooking school was set up. It was such a fun day – I  even got my hand smacked for turning on the gas burner incorrectly.  Blast from the past to my Catholic Girls school education!  Nyonya’s are strict!  Pearly coached us through making several dishes and then we all enjoyed eating our delicious self made lunch.  We learned lots about beautiful flavours to add to our foods.  I hope our Asian Homestay girls will enjoy the fruits of this cooking upgrade!  We bought Pearly’s books home with us for further experimenting.
Man eating Nyonya Cook Pearly Kee's cooking lesson lunch in Penang
Tucking into our delicious lunch in Pearly Kee’s dining room

Here are my 5 suggestions for the best things to do in Penang (especially if you are a food lover!):

  1.  Book in with Pearly Kee for a Nyonya Cooking experience.  This is her website .  We paid a $10US deposit to book via paypal and the balance on the day.   We also bought her two books on the day.
  2. Visit the Spice Farm and enjoy lunch at the Restaurant there.  It’s worth getting a guided tour because you can learn so much about the history of the island and how to use the spices.
  3. Book into one of the Mansions for dinner.  We heard lovely reports about McAlister, Indigo and we completely savoured every mouthful at Farquhar Mansion.
  4. Do High Tea.  We loved the old world High Tea at 1885 and most of the Mansions have their own versions.
  5. Get some Reflexology Massage.  We went on word of mouth recommendation from a few people we spoke to at the E&O and there were several great reports.  After 90 minutes of foot massage we floated out.

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