PENANG SPICE GARDEN AND COOKING CLASS: A REVIEW
When I stepped under the verdant threshold into Penang Spice Garden, I was quickly greeted by their cheerful, welcoming staff, who were smiling and inviting guests to the check-in counter. Along with the friendly greeting a warm, relaxing feeling washed over me from the lush tropical foliage that suddenly surrounded me inside the garden gates.
Before setting off on our garden tour, we were each presented with a giant spray bottle of natural citronella mosquito spray to ward off pesky bites while wandering through the jungly, humid forest. I was immensely grateful for that. I hate being chomped by mossies!
Freshly sprayed down, we were introduced to our energetic guide, Danny, and we set off down the garden path. We didn’t get far before Danny stopped to tell us about ginger plants. He was impressively knowledgeable about ginger and every other plant’s medicinal and culinary uses.
He also entertained us with great local tales and myths surrounding each species. No matter which plant we came upon, even the common pineapple, Danny could tell us something little-known about it. In the case of the pineapple, we learned that it’s used to induce abortions and ward off venereal diseases!
Danny continued intriguing us as we strolled through the lush rain forest. We passed a gorgeous tropical pond, meandered along forest paths, and glided up charming stone stairs. Wherever we went, we were greeted by bright tropical plants used as herbs, spices, incense, and medicines.
Danny knew all of them well. In addition to his vast knowledge, he entertained us with light jokes, little anecdotes, and teasing. We all had an enjoyable, educational tour.
Our tour ended one hour later at the upper end of the Spice Garden, where Danny left us to explore further on our own. The British family I had joined did just that.
Throughout the forest and gardens, many plants are labeled with informative placards. In addition, several interesting displays are set around the steamy gardens. Visitors can elect to wander through the gardens on their own and can learn quite a bit from the signs. But of course nothing beats a lively, guided tour by a knowledgeable local guide like Danny.
When our tour ended I headed directly to the Spice Garden cafe. There I discovered a gorgeous, expansive wooden deck high up on the hillside, overlooking a lovely beach on Penang’s north coast.
I further discovered, to my delight, that the cafe is actually a Thai restaurant run by several Thai women who’ve migrated down to Penang to cook their delicious authentic Thai cuisine for guests at Spice Garden. I immensely enjoyed their Green Curry Chicken with white rice while gazing out over the sea.
Unfortunately, I was in a bit of a hurry. I was joining a cooking class at Spice Garden, and I was running behind. I would have loved sitting longer out on the shady, breezy open deck. But I made myself a great bargain: attend the cooking class then return to the cafe for a leisurely Thai coffee later.
Promise in hand, I marched back up the jungle-clad hill to the Spice Garden kitchen to learn how to make a gourmet Indian meal.
The chef and assistant were patiently awaiting my arrival and were impressively well-prepared for class. All the ingredients were set out in their own bowls and plates, one set each for the chef and myself. All the utensils, pots, pans, and burners were all ready to roll too.
Cheerful, friendly Chef Azimah Osman and her assistant greeted me warmly then introduced themselves and the day’s menu. We’d be making Chicken Tikka, Fish Vegetable Kebabs, and Biryani Rice. Yum! After I took a few photos and slipped on my apron, we got underway.
Chef Azimah patiently and thoroughly explained each step of the dishes, while demonstrating exactly what to do. I followed her lead, using my own ingredients, placed conveniently on hand.
We eagerly mixed together fresh tropical spices from the gardens, marinated fish and chicken, set the basmati rice to boil and added a bunch of veggies and spices to the brew as it began simmering. Finally we assembled the fish-veggie kabobs.
As we cooked, we chatted away about our lives, travels, and food interests. I have to confess that between our friendly chats, trying to snap photos, and take notes for my review, I had trouble following instructions quickly enough.
Chef Azimah had to step in several times to cover up my incompetence, lest I ruin the meal. Tee hee. Luckily for me, she was super patient and adaptable. :) Thanks, Chef Azimah!
Time flew by and before I knew it we were putting fish kebabs and chicken tikka into the oven. Then we had more chat time- about 20 minutes for the food to bake. Wonderful fragrances wafted from the oven and the big bubbling pot of spiced rice. I could hardly wait to eat, even after my recent Thai green curry.
Soon enough, Chef Azimah carefully pulled the chicken and kebabs out of the oven then transferred them onto platters. We piled the steamy basmati rice into a bowl. Ready. We carried it all outside to eat on another hillside pavilion, surrounded by more jungle and herbal plants.
Mmmm, the meal was delicious! But, it was way too much food for just the 3 of us. I ended up taking a huge ‘doggy bag’ home with me. By the time we’d cooked together, chatted about our personal lives, and eaten a meal, I felt like we’d become fast friends. That made my afternoon cooking class all the more memorable and special.
Eventually, I dragged myself and my bulging belly away, back down the hill. I fulfilled my pledge to sip Thai iced coffee at Spice Garden Cafe, once again over-looking the lovely powdery beach down below. That time, I got to stay as long as I wanted.
By the time I left Spice Garden, it was 5 pm! I’d spent an entire day there, thoroughly enjoying myself in the lush gardens. I’d happily found another wonderful place on Penang Island.
The cooking school offers different menus on different days of the week. Choose between Nyonya, Chinese, Malaysia, or Indian menus. Each is taught by a local chef, expert in that particular cuisine. You can look up each week’s options online and choose which meal you’d like to learn.
And that brings me to my only disappointment with the Spice Garden. My selected menu was changed on me. I had specifically selected that day’s menu (and arranged my week’s schedule) because it promised palak paneer and naan bread. Palak paneer is my all-time Indian dish and I’d always wanted to learn how to make naan.
So I was highly disappointed that I didn’t learn either that day. If I had been a paying customer, I probably would have canceled the class and requested a refund.
So, if you’re choosy about what dishes you’re going to learn in your cooking class, I’d recommend that you re-confirm the day’s menu before heading all the way out there.
Otherwise, my trip to Penang Tropical Spice Garden was a great discovery for me. I’ll be sure to visit again next time I’m on Penang.
Opening hours: 9 am-6 pm, daily.
Entry with self-guided tour: 15 RM / $5 US
Entry with professionally-guided tour: 25 RM / $8 US
Cooking course: 200 Rm / $65 US
* cooking course includes morning guided tour and coffee/tea at school before class starts *
Location: west of Ferringhi Beach on Penang’s north coast.
Access: via bus #101 from Georgetown, taxi, car, or motorbike. 30-60 minutes
Have you ever taken a cooking class overseas? If so, where and what did you learn to make?
If not, where in the world would you like to learn cooking?