Ananda Bahwan Restaurant,
66, Penang Street
George Town, Penang.
Tel: (04) 263 3841 or 016-595 4758
Business hours: Opens daily, 7.00am-11.00pm
Mixed reviews of meatless meal in Penang.
I WAS more than a little put out in Penang. We were there, the Lord Restrain (struggling to find order in the chaos and crowds) and I, in a notoriously busy week. It was Chinese New Year, but there was no Chinese food to be had.
“It’ll have to be Indian,” he cajoled, pulling me into a restaurant, mainly to escape the maelstrom of colour and cacophony that is Little India.
It was just before noon, so we found Restaurant Sri Ananda Bahwan (Vegetarian) relatively quiet which was in contrast to its non-veg sister restaurant just down the street, well on its way to competing with the blaring Bollywood hits and the sizzling heat of the bustling island.
Staying true to my roots, I settled for a South India thali. Greedily, and falsely prompted by this column, I ordered three side dishes, Veg Chicken Varuval, Stir-fried Ladies’ Fingers and Stir-fried Snake Gourd. Which I shouldn’t have, because when the thali arrived, it came with more than I had bargained for.
The briyani rice was soft, tenderly cooked and tasty, without too many of the overpowering spices. However, most of the accompaniments to my thali didn’t really shine on their own – but when mixed with the rice, dhall and chicken curries, each mouthful was delectable.
All the flavours of robust spices and fresh ingredients made it a meal to return for. Especially the spicy bottle gourd with chickpeas. This requires a mention, as does the cabbage and dhall combo. It wasn’t mushy, but retained the taste of both its components rather wonderfully. As did the potato perratal with spicy green peas. The buttermilk helped cool some of the heat, while the pappadam offered its usual crispy crunch.
The Gulab Jamun is not my kind of dessert, so I left mine alone and ordered a Payasam. That’s another tricky dessert. This one looked nothing like my mum’s, and tasted even less like hers. This was a sago-semia version, and it was vile. The rasam, too, was insipid, lacking the required punch.
But the snake gourd side dish was incredibly fresh, offering crunchy bites of flavour. Not in the slightest bit overcooked, but stir-fried with just enough masala mix and egg to take the edge off this natural coolant’s bitter taste. On the other hand, the ladies’ fingers were slightly overcooked. Which was a pity, as the dried chillies and curry leaves added perfect piquancy to the moist, sliced pieces.
The Lord, probably in deference to his Aryan heritage and preference for North Indian cuisine, was well into his North Indian thali. It came with Cucumber and Onion Raita, Veg Chicken Curry, Pumpkin, Yellow Dhall, Veg Chicken Masala, Aloo Gobi, Mixed Vegetables and Manchurian Vegetables, with Gulab Jamun for dessert. He had opted for white rice and had a chappati to contend with as well.
“These yellow lentils are soft and yielding,” he raved, and on an aside to no one in particular added, “unlike my wife!” He was especially taken by the chappati, as it is one of his staples at our local banana leaf.
“This one is full of ghee, not elasticky, tasty – and unburnt.”
Along with the particularly tender and tasty Aloo Gobi and the tangy raita, he was well satisfied.
He thoroughly enjoyed his meal, taking time to pontificate over the goodness of each vegetable as I chewed on the Chicken Varuval hoping, in vain, for a taste of what it should, or could, be. As a veg dish it was marvellous – succulent “would-be-chicken” pieces wrapped in an intoxicating medley of masala mix. I just wish they would name it for what it was, instead of dressing up fermented tofu and passing it off as meat. Surely even true vegetarians would not have a taste for pretend-meat?
“Everything is so light and not overpowering,” The Lord summed up his meal experience. And that included the fresh and tantalising Mango and Sweet Lassi that helped wash down the enormously satisfying, if not sizeable, meal.
In less than half an hour the restaurant was buzzing with hungry people. Office workers, traders; couples, families; Indians, Chinese, Malays and tourists – a melange of modern Malaysia. What with the full-scale Chinese New Year decorations – Good Luck mobiles, red bunting and flowing dragons on the ceiling – it was muhibah at its best. In a laid-back way, which goes for the prices, too. The ones on the menu did not match the ones on our receipt, and the receipt was just a list of figures, with no description. The meal cost us RM41.90, including a teh tarik halia and black coffee.
However, dissatisfied with the deserts and against the Lord’s advice, I went and picked a few to taste from the overflowing counter at the front of the restaurant.
The Rava Kesari is one of my favourite Indian desserts. And it did not disappoint here – the semolina pudding was beautifully moist and generously sprinkled with raisins and sliced almonds. There was no answer to the Lord’s question: “Why is it in this garish orange?”
Yet that did not stop him from wolfing down the kuih dadar, freshly-made pancakes wrapped around molasses and grated coconut.
“Although visually unappealing …” He did not finish his sentence as another piece was summoned.
Then there was the plate of warm, fragrant, oozing glutinous rice that turned out to be hot pink wajik. The best I’ve eaten in a long while, just off the pot, steam still rising and absolutely delicious. Oh, apparently they do a different colour each day and we caught it on Pink Thursday. Which cheered me considerably!