Penang, a land of myriad charms

It all started as a challenge.

My dear friend Cindy was ranting about how Penang has not impressed her at all despite having visited a couple of times.

So I connected with some culinary and cultural experts in Penang to organise a weekend trip with my Singaporean pal some months back.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by food expert Baba Jerry, a proud Penangite. He has brought many visitors, both locals and foreigners, to the many nooks and crannies on the island for delicious food. Many of them were off the beaten "touristy" path.

Once, Baba Jerry took two foreign women, one Australian Vietnamese and the other a German, for a round-the-island food tour - they savoured a total of 12 different dishes in 10 hours! The women were overwhelmed but truly pleased to be able to discover Penang this way. They vowed to return for more.

On this trip, we discovered new food favourites which we never knew existed in Penang.

For one, there was the salt and pepper chicken wings from one of the very few Cantonese restaurants in Penang which immediately become one of our favourites - Yee Heong Restaurant at 12 & 14, Lebuh Campbell.

We were also introduced to one of the best beef tripe noodles in Penang. The helping of beef was generous. (2828 Cafe at 56K Perak Plaza, Jalan Perak).

Baby Jerry knew what was going on in our minds after all the pigging out sessions so he sent us off to meet Baba CY whom, we believe, has probably hiked up most of the hills on the island.

It was a fine Sunday morning when Baba CY took us to Penang Hill. We took the trail less travelled to see the fascinating flora and fauna, not to mention the view of Penang Bridge midway.

Along the way, we stumbled upon some golden stupas. The three-hour hike was bearable for novices like us but there were stretches where the gradient was a steep 80 degrees and we almost gave up, but Baba CY gave us a reason to finish our hike - icy cold ais batu campur (ABC) at the peak! We probably left a trail of smoke at our last 500m running up to the peak but we heard the ABC calling.

The grand finale of our trip was the fine Nyonya cuisine dinner that Baba Jerry got his Nyonya chef wife to cook.

Nyonya Su Pei is an award-winning chef who has appeared as guest chef in Japan's NHK Channel in one of their top cooking travel shows. She recently won a silver medal in the international Battle Of The Chefs, beating other contestants who were culinary lecturers at international colleges and professional chefs.

One of the outstanding dishes was Su Pei's signature - the thick and aromatic Gulai Bak which was taken with fresh mint leaves. The balance of the tastes was just perfect.

The other taste that still lingers in our minds is the Tang Kua Masak Titek, a soup of winter melon with dried shrimps and belacan (dried shrimp paste) with freshly crushed peppercorns. The soup was a real comfort food and brought back fond memories for the other guests.

During the dinner, it was fun seeing Cindy learning the correct way to dress up a Pie Tee.

Not only is Su Pei an excellent cook, she is also a maestro in kebaya embroidery and Nyonya kasut manek beading craft. She now conducts private dining events when she isn't busy with her craft classes.

In fact, the evening was more than just about awesome food and great company.

We learned the stories behind each of the dishes and, as part of the dinner programme, we were fortunate to have Nyonya Chin See, who specialises in Nyonya wedding ceremonies teach us how to wear a kebaya and match it with the right coloured sarong. It was such a pretty sight to see everyone dressed up in colourful kebaya at the dinner.

At the end of the meal, Cindy revealed to us that her perspective of Penang has changed 180 degrees, and promised to return to the island again.

Aah... mission accomplished!

Come back soon, Cindy. Penang will be waiting for you!