Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant – Original Muthu Chettinad Mess
How do you find a shop without a signboard – Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant?
Muthu Chettinad Mess is a “Santhu Kadai” or “alley shop.”
The first time I found out about Muthu’s was 20 years ago.
Kay showed me a photo of herself eating a banana leaf meal with crabs!
I was intrigued, but she refused to tell me the whereabouts of this mysterious shop.
“It hasn’t got a signboard,” she crackled.
I know most of Little India like the back of my hand.
I’ve had meals there since the 1980s, so I figured I would find it easily.
Not that many shops with bright yellow walls, surely.
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A Life-Long Affair with Spices and Banana Leaf Restaurant
I returned to my Penang hometown to look for authentic South Indian Meals on a banana leaf plate.
The first time I went was a couple of years ago.
The first time I headed there in the late afternoon.
Most shops along Acheen Street (now called Lebuh Acheh) had their roller shutters tightly shut down.
Since it was a Banana Leaf restaurant with no name, I looked around in vain.
A Chinese aunty came out of the shadows of an old shophouse.
I waved and asked her if she knew of this restaurant.
“You are Singaporean?” she clucked her tongue and shook her head.
“Go to Little India la, all the banana leaf shops are there,” she shooed me away in her sing-song Penang Hokkien.
I tried to ask again.
She gestured towards Beach Street, hoists her hefty body over her mini-bike, and peddled off.
I looked at Shree and protested in the heat of the afternoon sun.
We were both tired and hungry.
The aunty must be a newbie in the Lebuh Acheh Mosque enclave.
The community here affectionately refers to the settlement as their kampong or urban village.
How could she NOT know?
Shree and I walked up and down the entire Acheen Street, looking for clues.
Surely there must be a green refuse bin with discarded banana leaves sticky out.
Or, at the very least, a mild whiff of spices?
The failed second attempt was in the cool of the evening.
No such luck.
Muthu Chettinad Mess – Tuck Shop Style Dining in the 80s
Muthu Chettinad Mess wasn’t easy to track down.
There is no signboard outside of its name.
One day I got tired of searching – since I used to go in the evenings, there was no way I could ever find the restaurant.
So, I booked a Grab, yes I did and found it!
Other Hints to Find Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant?
As Muthu’s is closed in the evenings, there was no way to find the eatery.
I found its yellow exterior wall and brown door and window-frames on 143, Lebuh Acheen.
Next door is the Chiat Cheong Sdn. Bhd. Building.
I stood around aimlessly.
Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant is right opposite is the small and neat Armenian Park.
Homey Ambiance at Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant
There are a few eateries around George Town that has a homey ambiance.
When you step in, you would almost hesitate at the threshold.
The overall ambiance resembles home, with a TV casually sitting in one corner.
You will see a few tables leaning against the walls and think if you have accidentally stepped into someone’s home with the front door ajar.
I took to reminiscing about eating lunch at the old Kaliaman’s and Susila’s at Penang Street.
In the 80s, we ate the tuck shop style.
Long wooden canteen-style tables with banana leaves slapped on like table runners.
We would jostle for space as we sit down to eat on the rickety wooden benches—our area marked by that foot and a half of banana leaf.
We ate, shoulders touching.
No one minded.
Everyone was equal in Susila’s.
Lawyers in their stark white shirts and black trousers sat with clerks and laborers.
School children, housewives in sarees, and Chinese office workers ate together.
Without air-conditioning, with only a slow ceiling fan overhead, everyone perspired.
All of us ate noisily.
Most of us use our hands.
Mothers would mix the parboiled rice with dhal gravy and make it into a ball to feed small children.
Runners carried stainless steel pails of rice and dishes to refill our ever-empty banana leaves.
Life was simple; the food was excellent and cheap.
No one knew about cholesterols or trans-fat and the dopamine effects of sugar.
Everyone ate mountains of white rice like there was no tomorrow.
The Hunt for Red Spicy Crab Curry at Muthu Chettinad Mess
With that in mind and the promise of a solid red spicy crab curry, I set out again to look for Muthu Chettinad Mess.
At last, I got a name after trolling the internet for days.
But there was no location except Acheen Street.
Shree had left to return with a promise of tracking down “my” shop.
It was a die; die must eat deal for me now.
There was a location pinned when I search for it on my car app.
Fifteen minutes later, I arrived at Muthu Chettinad Mess.
Time stood still here.
I stepped over the threshold of the neighborhood’s tuck shop.
I half expected to see Susila come out of the kitchen, her thick grey hair in a single plaid, smiling warmly.
It felt like a homecoming.
I instinctively head to the kitchen.
The curries, gravies, soups, dishes were laid on small stainless steel plates like tapas.
I looked into the pools of soups.
Annee looked surprised to see my starving face.
I wanted chicken soup, a Rasam, and yogurt drinks all at once.
I wanted to eat everything in sight.
They covered the long wooden table with green patterned linoleum.
It clashed with the bright yellow walls, but somehow, everything felt right when Anna slapped a banana leaf in front of me.
The parboiled rice rose in a little mound.
The tray of deliciousness arrived. I could only stare blankly.
How do you take one and not the other?
The dishes all beckoned and called my name.
It was insane.
I asked Anna for the price of the crab.
He said, “Eat Chicken. Eat Fish. Cheaper.”
Suddenly I was twenty years old with an RM3 dollar budget for lunch.
I chose Chicken Varuval and Fried Fish.
Shree taught me to eat with my hands years ago; no utensils were needed.
I ate the fish first, mixed with the cabbage, crab gravy, dhal, and broken Papadom.
It was so satisfying; I drank the spicy warm, pungent Rasam.
“You have to make love to your food to know what you are eating.”
My fingers picked up the spicy Varuval.
I took two small pieces, and the heat from a thousand peppers exploded in my mouth.
Sweat broke on my eyebrows.
My eyes and nose start to water, and quite unladylike, I blew my nose.
The honk deafened the restaurant.
Annee laughed and waved a mineral water bottle at me.
He brought a buttermilk drink to cool down my burning fiery mouth.
As for Shree, I’m going to buy him a crab curry lunch when he returns and watches him eat with gusto!
From Muthu Chettinad Mess Origins To Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant
Eighty years ago, Muthu Chettinad Mess started as a small eatery within the Sri Thayemanggalam Muthu Mariamman Hindu temple.
I knew the eatery as “Bottle Kadai Sapadu” about the eatery’s location near a bottle shop.
The original location was on Lorong Lumut, around the corner from its current location.
In 2010, its current owner, Pum Magen, took over the management and renamed it Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant.
Fast forward to 2021, here I am at Muthu Chettinad Mess again, except the name’s changed.
It is now Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant, a branding exercise.
The Thambis are now wearing spiffy new shirts.
I now learned to park and walk over.
Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant
At the “new” Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant, I looked around for the familiar faces.
The same friendly grinning Thambis.
I made it to lunch at 2.00 pm, right after the lunch crowds disperse.
I complained bitterly that my lunch date Liam was late.
Thambi set up the two banana leaves, ladled the sambar.
I told him to hold it, “Friend coming.”
“Where coming? Send location.”
“Thambi, Akka send location, Google Map, Address, photos all….”
Thambi does the head bobble.
“Rasam?” I ordered.
But I don’t want Chicken in the chicken soup. The friendly Anna turned around.
“There is no Chicken meat in the Chicken Soup, Miss.”
“Yes, there is. In my Akka house.”
More head bobble. More rapid-fire Tamil.
Everyone sympathized with this hungry Akka Aunty starving at 2.30 pm waiting for a “lost” friend – No signboard, remember?
So, when Liam stepped up to scan and checked his temperature outside the door, I felt all the people stood up and cheered. (in my head)
Instead, Thambi, “server,” said, “Order order,” to acknowledge Liam.
Where is Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant?
Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant is on Acheen Street, facing Armenian Park (nearer Lebuh Acheen with Lebuh Carnarvon.)
What is Muthu Chettinad Mess?
Muthu Chettinad Mess is a popular little Indian eatery known among local Malaysian Tamil simply as “santhu Kadai” or “alley shop.’
The eatery was one of the pit-stops featured in Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” episode where Bourdain ate Curry on Banana Leaf.
What are the opening hours of Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant?
Muthu’s only opens for lunch, from 11 am to about 2.30 pm, Monday to Saturday. It only serves the traditional Indian banana leaf curry rice meal.
How to order at Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant?
Just sit down, and one of the waiters will come round to lay a banana leaf on the table in front of you.
The banana leaf plate is what you eat on.
How is a banana leaf meal served?
The menu is straightforward.
You get an authentic banana leaf rice meal with four condiments.
You will get a Sambar or Chutney and two types of curried vegetables, followed by several heapful steamed white rice.
Help yourself to the trio of curry gravies (Crab Curry, Chicken Curry, and Fish Curry) in metallic gravy-holders that are shared between different tables.
Mixing all three curries seems to get the best flavor for your rice.
After you’ve spooned your choice onto your rice, the Thambi may take the vessels away.
The Thambi will then come around with trays of “add-on” side-dishes which you might want to try:
• crab masala (the eatery’s signature dish)
• curried fish
• curried tripe
• mutton curry
• Black Pepper Chicken
• Chicken 65
• spicy chicken Varuval
• egg Masala
• and various spiced vegetables
I wanted the typical South Indian apéritif Rasam (Chicken Soup) served in a small metal mug.
What we ordered at Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant
Some of the best side-dishes which we tried were:
Crispy-fried spiced tiny local fish.
Not over 4 inches long, they marinated these little fishes in chilis and spices and shallow-fried till crisp.
The local Chinese community in Penang calls this dish “Indian crab curry” instead of Crab Masala.
Blue Swimmer Crabs or Sea Flower Crabs are used and are cooked whole in a highly spicy, oniony dry curry.
It is a trendy dish with regulars.
They can prepare Chicken 65 using boneless or bone-in chicken.
Many theories are claiming its origins.
There stories behind how the fried chicken dish got its name are downright bizarre:
• the Chicken is marinated for 65 days
• made from 65-day-old chickens
• a chicken is cut into 65 pieces
• a chef once added 65 chilies to the recipe to make it super spicy, and so forth.
In reality, Buhari’s hotel and hence the name introduced the dish in 1965.
Black Pepper Chicken
South Indian Black Pepper Chicken is a hot and spicy side that is aromatic and delicious.
The key to this delicious aromatic dish is the freshly ground pepper and can be extremely spicy.
Drinks at Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant
Muthu’s does not serve any other drinks or beverages besides bottled plain drinking water or a diluted Salted Lassi (a yogurt drink)
Unlike the sweet Mango Lassis, the plain Lassi has a bit of savory tang as they make it with a blend of yogurt, water, and a sprinkle of salt.
Lassi is loaded with good bacteria, helps calm the stomach after a spicy meal, and ensures a healthy gut.
Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant Review
Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant is an unassuming shop with no signage that serves one of the best traditional banana leaf rice in George Town.
Like all good Banana Leaf Restaurants, various curries and sides are mild, strong, and even ultra-spicy (to my palate).
Just have a chat with Thambi, and he will make the recommendations.
If you ask the Tamil-Indian at the next table to make their recommendations, warned their spice tolerance differs from yours.
As I found out, with my tongue on feeling the burning heat, and my face turned a lobster red!
Tips: Come early. Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant opens at 11.00 am, so if you want a seat, go before noon. There is a long communal table on one side of the dining room for groups.
The first time I went there at 11.45 am, and the eatery was quiet and empty. Half an hour later, the lunch crowd came pouring in.
If you’re early, explore around Acheen Street and the neighboring Armenian Street.
The area has a friendly community feel about it.
The little streets are pretty, picturesque within the historic quarter of old George Town.
You will find a few cafes for drinks, coffee, and dessert to try after you drop in for a meal at Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant.
Muthu Banana Leaf Restaurant (formerly Muthu’s Chettinad Mess)
143 Lebuh Acheh (Acheen Street)
Operating hours: 11 am-2.30 pm, Mon-Sat
Status: Halal sourced ingredients