Learning to Cook in the Tropical Spice Garden, Penang

Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

I enjoy cooking with spices… no, scrap that. I love cooking with spices, but to me spices are something that come in little glass jars and can be bought from my local supermarket. Spices are abundant in Malaysia and nestled along some of the more mountainous terrain in Penang, and only a five-minute drive away from the main road of Batu Feringgi, the Tropical Spice Gardens opened my eyes to a whole new world of spice.

There are three trails to walk when visiting the gardens – the Spice Trail, Ornamental Trail, and the Jungle Trail – each with different plants and features to experience. As we were going to visit the cooking school afterwards we headed down the Spice Trail, home to over 100 varieties of tropical spices and herbs (there’s around 500 varieties throughout the gardens).

A world of spices can be found at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

Tour of the gardens at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

I highly recommend you arrange a tour guide. For an extra RM$10 (AU$3/GBP£2) per person, cheaper if you have a family ticket or children, a guide will take you through the gardens and talk about the gardens history as a rubber plantation and teach you about different spices. At the end of the tour you’ll be welcomed to explore the gardens or just sit and enjoy a cup of tea made fresh from the spices in the garden. We had no time for sitting as we were off to the Cooking School to learn how to incorporate more spice into our cooking and learn new recipes for diner.

If you’re not keen to cook but still want a bite to eat, the Tree Monkey Restaurant offers views across the Spice Gardens and bay as well as serving up Thai-inspired food and cool drinks.

Learning about fresh spices at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

Spices on a shelf at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

Walking into the cooking school the smell of ground spices hung in the air. It was like being in a candy store as dozens of spices, both whole and grounded, were displayed in jars along the wall. I wanted to try to taste everything!

Two sous chefs bustled around preparing the ingredients we needed for the classes as Chef Sugu introduced himself to the class, as well as his impressive list of cooking accomplishments.

Learning about spices at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

Powdered spices at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

As Chef Sugu tapped out spices into pans, catering for our like or dislike of hotness or if we wanted to work with a particular ingredient, explained that we would all be making the same meals today, but through the different spices and simple ingredient changes or methods of cooking each person would create a different meal.

Learning about spices at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

Cooking classes at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

On the menu today? Prawns Jalfrezi, which quickly became chicken jalfrezi when they found out I’m not such a fan of prawns.

Ingredients for cooking at the

Baskets hanging in the kitchen of the Tropical Spice Garden, Penang

Hands on spice training at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

As our class progressed Chef Sugu would take us outside to explore the gardens and touch, taste and smell different ingredients which we were going to add to our dishes. A sprig of mint or a type of basil I’d never seen – it was all possible depending on our likes or dislikes.

Learning from the head chef at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

One of the most enjoyable parts is the hands on nature of the class. Chef Sugu will take his time to work with you to ensure your dish and the communal class dishes – usually rice cooked in two different styles – taste great and that you won’t be eating anything that you don’t like.

It’s also a great chance to hone cooking skills – one young boy discovered a passion for cooking and his knife skills went from non-existent to fantastic by the time class was over – and try other styles of cooking. We each had one recipe and were encouraged at times to walk around the room and taste test other people’s dishes to see how the spices had transformed the recipe.

My one criticism is that everything moves quite slowly. I understand that we were quite a big class – we had about 12 people in the class – and that cooking does take time. Perhaps it was because we were on quite a tight schedule, but it felt like we were on the slow-pace that comes with ‘Malaysian time’.

Cooking in the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

Cooking classes at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

It was nice to see families and couples coming together to cook instead of having one person do all the cooking, much like at home. It was somewhat comical to watch the Dad struggle and his wife pipe up that she had to “save him” from the tomato; but you come to a cooking school to eat what you cook, right?

Wok cooking at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

Cooking classes at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

Prepping during the cooking classes at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

Prepping during out cooking class at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

Okra and coconut milk at the Tropical Spice Gardens, PenangAfter around an hour and a half of cooking and four different side dishes being created I had come up with a very spicy but delicious chicken jalfrezi (which was more of a masala with the cooking processes I chose), a side of okra cooked with sweet spices and coconut milk, fried onions with sambal sauce, and saffron rice cooked nonya.

Finished meal created at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

The finished product at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

Before we were to eat Chef Sugu gave us a final lesson on presentation – even teaching us how to make a tomato into a flower (see Sarah’s plate above), though I’m not sure I’ll be able to replicate his work.

After everything was cooked we headed outside to enjoy a communal lunch. It gave everyone the chance to relax and chat together over freshly made tea, as well as giving each other the chance to sample each others dishes – if there was any left!

Sharing a family cooked meal at the Tropical Spice Gardens, Penang

Have you ever done a cooking class when travelling?
What’s your favourite spice to cook with?

horizontal line


Tropical Spice Garden
Lone Crag Villa, Lot 595 Mukim 2,
Jalan Teluk Bahang,
11100 Penang, Malaysia.

Entrance Fees:
Tropical Spice Gardens
Adult – Self-guided tour RM$15 (AU$4.80/GBP£3.20) / Guided Tour RM$25 (AU$8/GBP£5.40)
Child (ages 4-14) –  Self-guided tour RM$10 (AU$3.20/GBP£2.15) / Guided Tour RM$15  (AU$4.80/GBP£3.20)
– discounts available for families, seniors or students

Spice Cooking School
Price: currently RM$200 (approx. AU$64/GBP£43)
Cooking classes are open everyday except Monday and advance bookings are highly recommended. For the class schedule check here.

Website: www.tropicalspicegarden.com

horizontal line

Tourism Malaysia Logo

You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    nicole | the wondernuts
    April 25, 2013 at 11:50 am

    Does Youtube count as a cooking class? When we visited the national museum in Kuala Lumpur, we were fascinated by how important spices were to trading with Malaysia. I don’t have a favorite spice…unless you count garlic. =)

    • Reply
      April 27, 2013 at 8:19 pm

      Garlic is pretty tasty 😉

      Thanks for the tip about the National Museum in KL. Sounds like it has an interesting display!

  • Reply
    April 28, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    This looks like so much fun! I love that you each got to put your own unique spin on the same dish. I’ve been to several cooking classes where everyone cooked and ate the same thing, with no variation and someone inevitable complains that the dish is either too spicy or not spicy enough. This sounds like a much better approach!

    • Reply
      May 2, 2013 at 12:35 pm

      I agree with you! Food is not ‘one taste fits all’ and it was amazing to taste the different one ingredient or one spice could make to a dish.
      Hopefully more cooking schools pick this technique up. 😉

  • Reply
    Inspiring Travel Blogs 21-30 April
    May 8, 2013 at 5:46 am

    […] Learning to Cook in the Tropical Spice Garden, Penang Follow Nicole from Bitten by the Travel Bug on her cooking class in Malaysia. You can almost smell the spices through your computer screen! […]

  • Reply
    Manh Cuong
    July 28, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    that’s very interesting!
    I’m happy to found this and looking forward to read your new entries.
    thank you!

  • Reply
    July 30, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    WOW! I’ll be in Penang in about 2 weeks and I was looking for fun things to do with my partner..I think he’ll LOVE something like this. Booking my spot now!

  • Reply
    October 25, 2013 at 2:12 am

    This looks like great fun! We haven’t taken a cooking class in Malaysia or Thailand yet which is weird because they are our favourite foods out of everywhere we’ve been. We do try to cook a lot at home, but we should take a class the next time we’re there. That way we will be able to recognize the herbs and spices at the market when we go next. Now we just wing it. Great photos too!

  • Reply
    March 9, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    Another option is to hire a cooking coach. Juls Lee is awesome, I requested her to teach me Italian food that I like and she has taught me how to select and shop for the right ingredients and utensils. I have learned how to cook Alio Oglio, Cabonara, make Tiramisu and bake the first cake in my life without a strict recipe, I find it very useful coz it’s very flexible. I can bake with 3 eggs or 5 eggs depending on what I have in my kitchen. Under her coaching, my food and cake turn out to be delicious. Her style is easy to understand and execute. She does this by explaining the fundamentals of cooking and baking which cooking schools want to keep a secret so you can keep signing up for different courses. Also, I like the face to face and hands-on experience where I can get my questions answered immediately. I appreciate her passion in cooking and highly recommend her service if you want to cook for yourself, children or loved ones.

    You can check out her FB page https://www.facebook.com/julskitchenonfire

  • Leave a Reply