I try to be an open-minded eater — it’s my job, after all. Barbecued goat udder? Delicious! Crocodile curry? Bring it on. Yet when it comes to desserts, I’ve always harbored largely unshakeable prejudices: In my boring Western rulebook, fruits, buttery pastry and even cheese and eggs spell end-of-repast bliss, while the occasional run-in with a bean-based Asian dessert is deemed better forgotten.
I’d grown comfortable demurring at desserts I found too weird, concluding that what a person prefers as a meal-ender is largely cultural. However, when I found myself in Penang, Malaysia recently, I didn’t realize it but I was about to have these notions challenged.
It all started at a street stall where a wiry man with blue eyes and an asymmetrical bald spot was busily frying the miniature banana pancakes called apoh. The smell of sizzling dough and sweet fruit proved irresistible as I walked by, and some laminated magazine clippings taped to the counter confirmed his were sought-after delicacies. While I watched, the vendor energetically poured batter onto a special griddle, deftly added slices of banana, then reached for…an ordinary aluminum can of corn kernels, adding a few spoonfuls to each fritter. Ding, ding, ding rang my internal weird-dessert alarm.
Luckily, just then the other customer at the stall, a friendly middle-aged man, struck up a conversation. He was living in Singapore with his wife and kids, he said, but had grown up near to where we were standing and was back in town for Chinese New Year. I told him my main reason for visiting Penang was to consume everything I could get my jaws around, and on hearing this he grew extremely animated. Like many Penangites, he was obsessed with food, and if I had a few hours he’d be happy to show me some highlights.
Which is how, and hour or so later, with a bowl of assam laksa and a plate of maybe the best stir-fried noodles I’ve ever had under my (straining) belt, I found myself with Yuen in his brother-in-law’s car in search of his favorite Malaysian desserts: fruit rojak and ice kacang. We parked near an open-air mall that abutted the harbor and walked inside to the food court, then straight to a stand decorated with a vibrant melange of tropical fruits, a place Yuen visits every time he’s home. I knew what I was getting into: My new friend had explained it on the way. So it was no surprise when he presented a plate arrayed with a variety of fruits smothered in a thick, dark brown sauce of shrimp paste, chilies, lime juice, and sugar, the whole shebang sprinkled with peanut dust. Those corn kernels from earlier now seemed positively mundane.
There was no backing out without being rude, so I grabbed a wooden skewer and daringly propelled a bite of guava into my mouth. It wasn’t terrible, and since I’ve managed to acquire the grown-up skill of choking down foods I don’t love, I kept eating, chomping bites of cucumber, rose apple, fried tofu (blargh), and finally something that tasted pretty good: pineapple, the sweetness of which offset the funky, salty quality of the sauce. After downing the last bite, a piece of guava Yuen insisted was rightly mine, I could now check crustacean-flavored fruit salads off my list of life experiences.
Next up: Oh no, were those beans? As Yuen set down the snow-cone-hued piece de resistance I detected, beneath a layer of — what else? — corn, a bed of the dreaded burgundy legumes, plus grass jelly and other wiggly bits (the contents of this dish vary widely and sometimes involve ice cream). Yet underneath this mishmash lay the saving grace, shaved ice smothered in a delicious rose-flavored syrup. I concentrated on this taste as I spooned the stuff down, noting that, although the beans and corn brought to mind a Midwestern salad bar, the ice was refreshing in the heat and even seemed to relieve some of my uncomfortable fullness.
Though I wasn’t sure whether I should eat it at a carnival or next to a plate of barbecued ribs, I had to admit this ice kacang stuff wasn’t terrible. Yuen dropped me at my hostel with recommendations: To continue my education in Malay desserts, I had to try some cendol, which I would recognize by its wormlike green noodles. I told him I could hardly wait.
A day later, following the suggestion of a Twitter pal, I hoofed it in the afternoon heat over to Fort Cornwallis in the Georgetown neighborhood, an attraction that didn’t interest me so much for its historical significance as for the excellent cendol cart rumored to park outside its walls. When I finally found this wagon of sorts, which proffered glass jars of bright beverages swimming with jellylike bits, I was informed they’d sold out of cendol. Asked where I might locate a backup, the vendor gestured vaguely off in the direction I’d come from.
A hundred yards beyond sat a food court, surprisingly unpopulated given its seaside views. I selected the most promising-looking cendol stall, ordered, and a few minutes later received a soupy bowl swimming with green strands and my now-familiar foe, red beans. The “broth” turned out to be sweet coconut milk, a favorite treat, and the green noodles (whose traffic-light color is derived from the pandan leaf) weren’t so bad. Crushed ice made the dish icy cold, and even the beans didn’t seem quite as awful this time. In fact, I kind of liked this stuff! Like the ice kacang, which this stall also advertised, it offered a welcome cool-down in a relentlessly sticky climate.
Yuen emailed, inquiring whether I’d tried cendol. When I announced I had, and where, he insisted I must go to another stall, the famous one just off Penang Road. I attempted to visit it, I really did, but every time I passed by the line seemed interminable, or I had a belly too full of noodles, naan or candied bacon to confront anything gelatinous and green, even if it was smothered in coconut milk. I did some of the best eating of my life that week in Penang, reveling in the city’s mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay offerings, but I never tried another dessert. Some feelings about beans are just hard to change.
Fruit rojak and ice kacang stall
New World Park Food Court, No. 1, Jalan Burma, 10350, George Town, Pulau Pinang, 10350, Malaysia
Din Ais Kacang, Padang Kota Lama food court, Jalan Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah, George Town, Penang 10200, Malaysia