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).
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.
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.
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.
On the menu today? Prawns Jalfrezi, which quickly became chicken jalfrezi when they found out I’m not such a fan of prawns.
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.
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’.
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?
After 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.
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!
Have you ever done a cooking class when travelling?
What’s your favourite spice to cook with?
Tropical Spice Garden
Lone Crag Villa, Lot 595 Mukim 2,
Jalan Teluk Bahang,
11100 Penang, Malaysia.
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.