When you find yourself thirsty and dehydrated on a hot sunny day in Penang all you have to do is stop by this little spot for a refreshing treat. It will put a spring back in your step and a smile on your face as you head off to do more exploring around the island.
This drink has a certain je ne sais quoi
Lebuh Tamil, off Jalan Penang (if Chowrasta is on your left, turn left after it)
Tel: 016 400 3310
So near to so much delicious food, there’s no excuse not to have dessert now.
Ventilation is not so good in Lebuh Tamil. But hey, that’s what the drink is for!
The streets are hot. Blindingly hot. Your stomach is halfway distended from that enormous lunch of nasi beriyani ayam you just had at Hameediyah. But you're determined, determined to walk through Georgetown just a little more, to walk off the food just a little more, so you can eat just a little bit more. It is Penang, after all. Utter sacrilege to just eat your three square meals a day here and be done.
Then you spy a wide alley. Lebuh Tamil is its name, you find out later. There are dark-skinned young men running stalls selling rojak, fried snacks. Too heavy for now, you sigh. The stall owners are all chatty with each other, like they grew up together. Then you think, this is Penang. They probably did, as with everywhere else on this island, they are most likely the grandchildren of the original owners.
'Ais Tingkap' says a sign, 'Window Sherbet' written below it. An icy drink, perhaps? That sounds promising. You stop to observe the stall under the sign. There is a man working the shop in a space no bigger than your average storeroom. There is a hatch behind him piled with boxes, a window sized opening shielded by the man. This is apparently the window where his grandfather used to sell the drinks out of. They haven't expanded by much since his grandfather brought his business over from Sri Lanka in 1928, or at least their workspace hasn't. A few tables and benches are lined up next to the stall. You take refuge in the shade and take a seat and a sigh of relief.
“Macam sempit je kat belakang tu, bang,” you comment after ordering a drink. He sees the DSLR camera around your neck and assumes correctly that you’re not from these here parts and grins. “Dah biasaa.” He then starts on your drink. Shaved ice is piled into a tall glass along with liquid sugar. Then a spray bottle appears; he squirts it over the ice. He tells you that the stuff in the spray bottle is a herb and root mixture, using (unfortunately) a lot less ingredients than his grandfather used to because they’re not that easy to come by regularly anymore. This is also where the word “sherbert” comes from - “fragrant herbs”. Then more sugar water, and he cracks a coconut over the glass so the juices pour right in. Some rose syrup is stirred in, quickly turning the drink a bright yet dark red. A spoonful each of biji selasih, kembang semangkuk and getah anggur is added, and a final flourish of coconut flesh scraped straight out of the fruit.
You take a sip and are overcome by a flavor rush. It is bold and subtle, smooth and crunchy, sugary sweet and fruity. The herb and root mixture add a certain je ne sais quoi to the drink, enough to make it completely different from anything you’ve ever drank before but not so much to make it taste like a health drink. The crunch comes from the coconut flesh and the shaved ice, turning it more than a drink into a proper dessert. The coconut, biji selasih, kembang semangkuk and getah anggur are all cooling ingredients, perfect on a steamy hot day like this. Before you know it, there’s no more drink left but that loud obnoxious slurp of a straw sucking on nothing. The man grins again. He knows his drinks are good. He also knows that you’re coming back.
But for now, the rest of Georgetown awaits. You pay for the drink and walk resolutely down Jalan Penang. You hear there’s a great assam laksa stall not too far from here...