Penang’s traditional trades are fast biting the dust, but Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay— the city’s last traditional nyonya desserts shop—has reinvented herself, the strictly-family run business determined to keep its roots alive.
In one bite, the robust flavours of a tiny pulot taitai kueh explode in sweet and salty harmony, leaving us wanting for more. Watching the unceasing throngs of foodies who frequent Moh Teng Pheow, we are later astonished to realise the dessert we’d just relished in seconds requires over 17 hours of labour.
We follow towkay (colloquial for boss) Mook Hian Beng into his homely kitchen, walking past tray after tray of brightly hued kueh—desserts of the Peranakans; Straits Chinese who adopt a unique culture that blends Chinese and Malay customs.
Many of these early immigrants from China settled in Penang, later marrying locals, after which their descendants’ beliefs and practices derived a unique Peranakan culture, that’s quite different even from their Malaccan counterparts. He explains that compressing glutinous rice in pulot taitai is a tedious business. After five hours of cooking then colouring, rice is covered with a wooden lid, stomped repeatedly on top, and 50kg stone weights stacked overnight because otherwise, the kueh disintegrates immediately upon cutting.
Mr Mook’s father landed in Penang when he was 10, and after tutelage from a local nyonya kueh master, opened the shop with three friends, though the quartet eventually split ways.
From four competitor stalls about 40 years ago, Moh Teng Pheow is the last business standing. “We almost closed down five years ago; trade was slowing and we were barely surviving. Then my sister thought of incorporating a café and in six months, the situation turned. Now guests get to dine comfortably, and we continue showcasing the nyonya kueh making tradition,” shares Moh Teng Pheow’s 3rd generation owner, Cavin Mook. “This place supported my education, so I’m giving back. It’ll be best if my kids can take over, like I did.”
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