Penang’s iconic ‘dragon balls’ and other biscuit treats

Picture by K.E.Ooi
Picture by K.E.Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, March 12 — Tau sar pneah and variations of this flaky pastry biscuit are some of the must-buy items for any visitor to Penang.

These flaky pastries of varying sizes and fillings were initially introduced here by immigrants from the Fujian province of China during the British colonial period and today, these very pastries have evolved into the Tambun pneah or “dragon balls.”

The original tau sar pneah is a round flaky pastry filled with thick mung bean paste but along the way, innovative bakers came up with the smaller, bite-sized versions that have thicker layers of pastry around the mung bean fillings.

It was not long before these bite-sized morsels, known as Tambun pneah, which translates into Tambun biscuits, became the iconic must-have pastry from Penang.

Though some bakers have claimed to be the creator of these Tambun biscuits, the general belief is that it originated from a bakery in Bukit Tambun.

Somehow, over the years, these Tambun biscuits earned a new nickname — “dragon ball” — so now they are also sold as “dragon balls” at some bakeries in Penang.

Up to two decades ago, there were only a handful of small bakeries and biscuit shops selling Tambun biscuits along with the original tau sar pneah and other similar oven-baked flaky pastries with a variety of fillings from sticky caramelised sugar to brown sugar known as the phong pneah, heong pneah and beh teh saw.

Today, there are countless such bakeries, some with branches all over George Town and some boasting modern flavours like durian paste, pandan or even sambal udang fillings.

The original humble tau sar pneah, a larger version of the Tambun pneah, has very thin flaky skin and generous amounts of mung bean fillings.

They are softer and crumble easily as compared to the Tambun biscuits; they come in two variants — savoury or sweet.

Unlike the Tambun biscuits that are sold in boxes, these softer biscuits are usually sold in paper-wrapped rolls of four to five pieces in each pack.

As for the Tambun biscuits, these may use similar ingredients as the tau sar pneah but they have a thicker skin and the fillings are a sweet mung bean paste.

The thicker skin, made from a combination of oil and water dough, is necessary so that it won’t crumble easily and also to give the biscuit a nicer bite.

The phong pneah is another traditional biscuit that has a flaky skin but it is whiter than the tau sar pneah and like the Tambun biscuit, it is made from two layers of oil and water dough to give it a thick flaky crust while its filling is a thick, oozing concoction of sticky maltose and sugar.

Heong pneah are small bite-sized morsels like the Tambun biscuits but instead of mung bean paste, its filling is brown sugar paste with a smoky flavour.

The beh teh saw looks like a hybrid of the tau sar pneah, phong pneah and Tambun biscuits as it has a thick flaky crust and, like the phong pneah, it is made of two layers of dough. The filling is also a sticky sweet concoction made from brown sugar, white sugar and maltose.

In Penang, perhaps the oldest traditional biscuit bakery is Ghee Hiang which was established in 1856 and continues to churn out these traditional treats today.

Here are some tau sar pneah and Tambun pneah bakeries and biscuit shops to check out in Penang:

Ghee Hiang
216, Macalister Road,
10400 Penang
Time: 9am-9pm (daily)
Tel: 04-2269915

Him Heang
162, Jalan Burma,
10050 Penang
Time: 8.30am-5pm
Tel: 04-2286129

Soon Hiang Biscuit
33, Jalan Kuantan,
10000 Penang
Time: 9am-7pm
Tel: 04-2295799

Ban Heang
245 & 247, Penang Road,
10000 Penang
Time: 9am-9pm
Tel: 04-2616125

Sin Teo Hiang Biscuits
2941, Jalan Berjaya, Taman Berjaya Indah,
14000 Bukit Mertajam
Time: 8.30am-9am
Tel: 04-5383414

Ng Kee Cake Shop
61, Lebuh Cintra,
10100 Penang
Time: 10am-6pm
Tel: 04-2612229

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