A Taste That Transcends Generations
Mention Penang’s ‘must-buy’ items and sure enough, tau sar pneah makes the list in a heartbeat. Its name literally means ‘bean paste pastry’, which is what it is; mouthwatering balls of sweet mung bean paste with the savoury hint of fried shallots, enfolded within layers of flaky pastry and baked to golden perfection. This popular snack enjoys somewhat of a cult status in the state, so much that many insist no visit to Penang is complete without them.
The origins of the humble tau sar pneah can be traced to the Fujian province in Southern China during the mid-19th century. 1856 was the year when the first ever pastry house dedicated to traditional Southern Chinese pastries was founded in Penang with the aid of a Fujianese pastry chef, and this marked the start of a legacy. This pastry house is Ghee Hiang, which until this very day continues the ages-old custom of making biscuits and pastries by hand.
Interestingly, the emergence of tau sar pneah isn’t limited to Penang. In tandem with the Chinese diaspora, regions in Southeast Asia have their own versions of the pneah (biscuit). The bakpia (‘meat pastry’), which is also known as hopia (‘good pastry’), is a highly-popular snack in Indonesia and the Philippines. Introduced by migrants from Fujian during the turn of the 20th century, its recipe also calls for a filling of sweetened mung bean paste. However, the bakpia or hopia does not have fried shallots. In Indonesia, lard is replaced by vegetable oil to accommodate the religious restrictions of its demography.
Despite all this, little can detract from the international popularity of tau sar pneah and through it, other traditional Southern Chinese pastries. Confectioneries such as beh teh saw, hneoh pneah and phong pneah fall under that category where in place of mung bean paste, they have fillings of molasses, brown sugar or refined sugar. Together they represent the sugar cravings that have spanned several generations from Fujian to Penang.
The next time you make a trip to Penang, be sure to pick up a box of Ghee Hiang’s delicious Fujian pastries to have a taste of the Malaysia’s oldest tau sar pneah brand!