What can I say, I am a Penang addict. I’ve been to Penang so many times that I know the historic town centre like the back of my hand. Visiting the Tropical Spice Garden in Penang has been on my list for a while now. I confess it was because I had read on the Real Singapore Expat Wives Facebook group that it was ‘the thing to do’ there. Note to self: some privileged expats wouldn’t know a good experience if it smacked them in the face.
The Tropical Spice Garden is located near Batu Ferringhi, which is the beachy part of Penang. You can either browse the gardens on your own or pay for a guided tour. I recommend having the tour – which was the highlight of our experience. The Tropical Spice Garden also offers cooking lessons. But be warned! The level of cooking experience required is very elementary and the dishes are not very spicy. Don’t forget to visit the shop on the way home!
A Fragrant Tour of the Gardens
We had a wonderful guide show us around the gardens when we visited in February 2020. She pointed out what the different plants were and gave us a mini botanical lesson on native spices in Malaysia and the ASEAN region.
I was delighted when she pointed out a Banyan tree just a little way into our walk. Banyan trees are unique to South East Asia and can be identified by their unique aerial prop roots that grow from the top down. These special roots help the tree grow grander with age.
Another whimsical delight was seeing young, pink Heliconia flowers in bloom.
The weather in Malaysia is humid and we were sticky and hot as we walked through the gardens. We were offered complimentary mosquito repellant, and fortunately, there were some ponds here and there to help bring the temperatures down.
The highlight of the tour was smelling and tasting some of the wonders of the garden. The vanilla-like aroma of long Pandan leaves was heavenly, contrasted with a ferociously spicy tang of Laksa leaves. Our noses played detective as we compared the citrusy-scents of lemongrass with citronella. What a ballet for the senses!
Towards the end of our walk, we were seated in a small alcove to poke at the pots of dried spices. Our guide wagged her finger at us, as she made us swear never to buy powdered cinnamon (because it is utter shite). We were instructed to buy only cinnamon sticks instead. Cardamom, cloves, and star anise are also grown locally in Malaysia. However, she declared it is a crying shame that these plants are being replaced by more lucrative palm oil cultivations.
We concluded our walk with a glass of complimentary ice tea. The tour took twenty minutes and definitely whetted our appetite for the cooking class that lay ahead.
A Cooking Class for White Folks
A really hate to blow my own horn. Those who know me know that I am as humble as they come. But, I am a bit of a food connoisseur. I have previously done cooking classes in Sri Lanka, Italy, and Bali, and I have a reputation for making the best lasagna in the world (ask my cats if you don’t believe me).
So, when it comes to judging cooking classes, I know what I’m talking about. The cooking class at the Tropical Spice Garden was bitterly disappointing. I should have known better given it was recommended by Real Singapore Expat Wives who probably don’t cook.
We started our cooking lesson by making coconut ladoo, which is a popular Indian-Malaysian dessert. We fried loads of ghee, coconut and coconut milk in a pan, and then rolled the mixture into oily little balls. I love coconut and this recipe helped me to moisturise my hands. But, I was disappointed we only used desiccated coconut rather than fresh coconut to complete the dish. It was obvious from the get-go, these ladoo would not be worth the calories.
Now normally when cooking in exotic locales, I expect to use a plethora of fresh ingredients. The remainder of our cooking lesson at the Tropical Spice Garden was super stingy in this regard! We literally had one plantain (which is a savoury banana, a cheap vegetable at that) and chicken, plus a few chopped onions and so forth. That’s it! They could have at least sprung for a sprig of spinach or a measly carrot to add some colour variety.
We fried up the plantain with curry leaves, onion, salt, pepper, turmeric and a splash of coconut milk in a pan.
With the chicken, we made basic coriander and mint chicken curry. The chicken was pre-marinated for us in yoghurt, so all we had to do was toss it in a clay pot, add curry leaves and some cardamom and pepper. Not much effort required and the result was a rather bland dish.
So that was our meal. Fried plantain, coriander and mint chicken curry, and coconut ladoo. The food was not in the least aromatic nor spicy. That is probably because we are white folks, so the cooking instructor decided not to waste the good spices on us since we wouldn’t know any better.
The highlight of our meal, however, was the glass of nutmeg juice we were served. Very refreshing.
Spice Up Your Life at the Shop
At the end of our visit, we stopped by the Tropical Garden Shop. They also have an e-commerce site so you can buy online! It was difficult for me to tell whether the spices and herbs on sale were from the gardens themselves – I suspect not. The price tags were also a little hefty, but everything is packaged so beautifully. I must admit, I was delighted to find chilli flakes and I promptly snapped up a few packets. You will find this crazy, but chilli flakes are dammed expensive and impossible to buy in Singapore. The locals prefer fresh chilli or chilli paste.
Visit the Tropical Spice Garden in Penang if you would like to take a fragrant wander amid the exotic plants. The guided tour is a lovely way to spend a humid afternoon. As regards their cooking lessons, if you actually like spice then ironically, you will not find it in the kitchen here. Although they grow spices, the food does not taste spicy and the cooking is best suited to expats. Don’t forget to pop in the shop on your way out!
Tropical Spice Garden
Lot 595 Mukim, 2,
Jalan Teluk Bahang, Teluk Bahang,
11050 George Town,
Pulau Pinang, Malaysia