Heong Peah, Heong Peng, Pong Peah, Biskut Wangi – whatever way you call it, it means fragrant biscuit and it refers to the flaky local biscuit that’s filled with a sticky, chewy filling of maltose, onions and sesame seeds.
In Ipoh, famous for its heong peah, there are plenty of brands and it’s not always clear which is the best tasting. So when I was there, I took the opportunity to pick up a few brands of heong peah.
While you may be able to find these biscuits around Malaysia and in Singapore, it’s best to purchase them at/near the source, where freshness really makes a difference and you begin to really appreciate why they’re called heong peah.
Sin Joo Heong’s heong peah is quite easily found in Singapore. The pink packets bear a tiger head logo. But be careful, there are others that also have a similar looking tiger head, but they are of a different brand.
Yee Thye has a few shops in Ipoh town, clearly catering to tourists. They offer their heong peah in two different packets. One, is the gold packet, that contains individually foil wrapped biscuits and is nearly RM3 more expensive than the economy pack, a red coloured plastic bag.
The stores of Yee Thye also sell Seng Kee’s version of the biscuit. Seng Kee, a heong piah manufacturer from Gunung Rapat, on the outskirts of Ipoh, says, on the side of the packet that the biscuit is “coconut-shell broil(ed)”, the traditional way.
I chanced upon the shop at Sin Eng Heong in Ipoh town, as I was hunting for pomeloes.
The set up here is as simple and plain as the packets they use to pack their heong peah. In fact, it doesn’t even bear the shop’s name. I guess they don’t need any advertising. As I was browsing their compact shop full of local biscuits and cakes, a line formed for the heong peah.
Their bakers were bringing out other kinds of freshly baked biscuits from the back, so I couldn’t tell if they actually make their heong peah in the back of the store, or somewhere else. And they were so busy, I was scared to get scolded if I asked unnecessary questions.
So, with a huge mug of water, I got down to business.
On Looks Alone
Out of the packets, you’ll find that Sin Joo Heong and Sin Eng Heong have glazed their biscuits. Yee Thye and Seng Kee leave their heong peahs unfinished.
Sin Joo Heong’s biscuit is more oval than round. The glaze is also more uneven than Sin Eng Heong’s.
On the cross section, Seng Kee’s is flat on one side. Many biscuits were damaged in the simple plastic packing.
The more beautifully constructed biscuits are those from Sin Eng Heong and Yee Thye. They both have a nice dome shape and are evenly done.
However, Sin Eng Heong beats all of them. Generously endowed with sesame seeds, a nice tan because of even glazing and baking and its well shaped tight curves make it the sexiest looking biscuit on the plate. However, if you like the rough, raw homemade look, Seng Kee has it.
Yee Thye’s biscuit has a nice crumble to it, but isn’t crunchy. I detected an odd flavour in the crust, that at first reminded me of old coconut oil, then later of eggs. I’m not quite sure what it is, but I didn’t like it. However, the sample from the economy pack didn’t have this.
The ratio of filling to crust was too low, the filling is barely sweet, which tipped the overall taste to slightly salty. The texture was more spongy than chewy. Overall, Yee Thye’s biscuit was unimpressive.
Seng Kee’s biscuit is the crunchiest and flakiest of the lot. Even as you pick it up, the layers of crust peel away. (If you look at the last photo in this post, you can see all the layers of crust around Seng Kee’s biscuit on the plate.) The initial bite is quite interesting. The outside is almost hard. As you crunch through it, the crusty outside gives way to a more soft, flaky inner crust.
The filling is super sweet and really sticks to the teeth. Although I felt there could be more filling, because it’s so sweet, you could still distinguish filling from crust. Despite the initial bitter taste of the crust, it still tends toward being too sweet.
When I bit into the burnt crust, the scent and flavour hit me with a wave of familiarity. I believe this is the same biscuit I tasted when I was young. If it’s the same biscuit, then it was my favourite once before. However, the filling in that biscuit, oozed more than this one.
I decided to follow the instructions on the back of Seng Kee’s packet that says to freshen up the biscuits, microwave them for 15-20 seconds and wait 2 minutes before consuming it. I did exactly as instructed and yes, indeed, the filling was now was soft – too soft – and flowed out of the biscuit.
However, as I suspected. microwaving this rendered the crust too soft as well – the effect of the buildup of steam within the biscuit.
If you wish to subject your heong peah to the microwave treatment, please do so with a word of warning. The filling will be really hot. So hot, it will burn your tongue. I sit here now, typing this in pain.
Although I have not tried this out yet, I would suggest reducing the microwave time to 5 seconds. And follow this in a pre-heated toaster for half a minute or so. I believe this will soften the filling just slightly without it getting too runny and producing too much steam within the biscuit, while returning it to the toaster will make the crust more crispy. Also, you should also be able to eat it when the crust has cooled.
Anyway, the microwave experiment did prove that this is indeed the biscuit that was my childhood favourite. Unfortunately, it isn’t my favourite today. Indeed, I found the filling lacking in complexity. While it had a really nice slightly burnt sugar taste, that was all it was – sugar sweet.
So how does the beauty queen of all the heong peahs on the plate, Sin Eng Heong, stand up to the rest? To be brutally brief, she was a let down.
While the sesame seeds did contribute a good flavour to it, and the crust was more moist than the others, the beautiful glazing, that turned out to be sweet, distracted from the taste of the filling. Overall, it was sweeter than Yee Thye’s but not as sweet as Seng Kee’s. And it had that odd coconut note I detected in Yee Thye’s sample.
I have left the most familiar for the last.
Because Sin Joo Heong is so commonly available, I have to admit I biased against it. How can something so widely available be more than above average? However, it turns out that the ugly duckling from Sin Joo Heong actually tastes the best.
The filling has a really nice caramelized onion flavour, that is lacking in all the others. It strikes a nice balance between too sweet (Seng Kee) and too bland (Yee Thye). The crust does not overwhelm the filling like Yee Thye’s. With an ample amount of sesame seeds, this heong peah from Sin Joo Heong is the most balanced of all the biscuits.
You will find the crust does not collapse completely when you bite into it, leaving a nice hollow, so you can enjoy looking inside to find the part of the biscuit with the most yummy filling.
Best: Sin Joo Heng
Blah-est: Yee Thye
Sweetest: Seng Kee
Prettiest: Sin Eng Heong
Crustiest: A tie. Seng Kee and Sin Joo Heng