Penang Gang started in Leeds, UK as a charity supper club that blended together authentic Malaysian food with original street photography and local art. Founded by Oana Nenciulescu, Penang Gang has evolved to organise fundraiser online Malaysian cooking classes, as well as release collaborative cooking ebooks with other Malaysian chefs residing in the UK.
In 2018, Romanian-born Oana visited Penang, Malaysia and hopelessly fell in love with its bustling food culture. She was swept off her feet, so much that she needed to bring it to the UK, where she is now based. This is how Penang Gang was born.
Drawing from her day job in marketing and events, Oana organises supper clubs and online events where she shares her love for Malaysian food. In the process, her aim is to support talented Malaysian home chefs, food businesses and artists, and make people fall in love with Malaysian food, just like she has.
When the Honest Food Talks (HFT) team first discovered about Penang Gang, we too were swept away by Oana’s passion for Malaysian food culture. We were so intrigued that we at HFT decided to create a whole new interview series called “Behind The Lens” to introduce passionate food culture activists on social media such as Oana.
The following is our interview with Oana to learn more about the story behind the Penang Gang lens.
Where did the idea to start Penang Gang come from?
It all started during my trip to Malaysia, at China House café in Penang, where I was hanging out with my two Malaysian friends that I met in Leeds: HL and Japareng.
Having completely fallen in love with Penang’s food culture, I decided I wanted to bring back Malaysian food to Leeds, where I was living at the time.
"SO, WHAT IF?" I wondered. "What if I could serve Malaysian food in Leeds?"
"It’s totally feasible", they said.
One year later, I was running Leeds’ first Malaysian supper club in collaboration with Siti Taste of Malaysia, a talented West Yorkshire-based home chef who made us all fall in love with her nasi lemak.
Together, we served 43 people and raised £770 in profits for a cancer hospital in Romania, my home country. This was also possible with the help of 6 artists who donated their Penang inspired artwork which was purchased for charity.
I love Siti's big heart, her work ethic and the love that she puts into cooking. Even though I moved to London, we continued our collaboration throughout the pandemic.
We co-wrote a recipe ebook featuring some of Siti’s favourite family recipes. We also ran online cooking classes, bringing together people from all over the world and teaching them how to cook beloved Malaysian dishes, like Roti Jala and Nyonya laksa.
My ‘Penang Gang‘ started with 3 people in Georgetown but ended up with hundreds of people from around the world. And I hope to add many more to it!
What is the hardest part of running Penang Gang?
I really enjoyed running the supper club in Leeds, and would love to do that all again in London. Having moved to London just before the pandemic, I think my biggest challenge right now is finding suitable venues, but also more home chefs to collaborate with.
My aim is to organise more events where people get to try food made by talented Malaysian home cooks, giving them a platform to run their own restaurant, even just for one evening. And make people fall in love with Malaysian food as I have.
So if you know any passionate home chefs or suitable supper club venues, do let me know via Penang Gang’s Instagram!
What do you love or hate about the online foodie culture?
I just love that there are fewer barriers to learning about food from other cultures. I’ve loved trying so many new recipes during the lockdown and really felt like I was travelling to all those places.
What I dislike the most are the standards that Instagram set, that everything needs to look perfect. I think more often than not, food should be portrayed and enjoyed for what it is, a messy affair, rather than something that looks impeccable.
How do you stay inspired?
As a non-Malaysian obsessed with Malaysian food, there’s so much learning to do.
I love to stay in touch with what Malaysian caterers and restaurants are doing in the UK, as well as what happens on the streets of Penang or KL. And whenever I get the chance to try Malaysian food, I do - there’s no better way to learn and stay inspired.
What do you think should get more attention but doesn’t online?
Everyday food, home-cooked food and the people behind it. There are so many talented people out there who make amazing food, who might not be great at self-promotion, but whose food deserves to be tested by many.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your online presence?
To begin with, I think the Penang Gang name is quite intriguing and it generates an interest pretty quickly within the Malaysian community.
But deeper than that, what really helped me grow was truly sharing my love for Malaysian food. When I don’t talk about what I do, I engage with other businesses, try their products and shout out about it. It’s a really great way to connect with my target audience and meet some amazing people.
What advice would you give to individuals or small businesses who are looking to grow their online presence?
I think it’s really about understanding that social media is mutual and that it requires a genuine interest in your community and a large time investment. Not just content creation and planning, but also getting to know your online community and interacting with them.
And I think that most of the time, this is really hard to do, as online presence is just one of the million things that a business owner has to think about. But it really should be one of the first priorities. As hard as it is, we should take the time to engage and get to know our customers and other people like us.
What is the best £20 you recently spent? What and why?
Thosai, mee goreng and a teh tarik at Gopal’s Corner, the easiest way to travel to Malaysia right now. £3 short of £20, actually!
What is your favourite quote?
I recently found this quote in Anthony Bourdain’s and Laurie Woolever’s ‘World Travel: An Irreverent Guide’ and completely found myself in Tony’s words:
"When I first fell in love with the East, deeply and hopelessly, it was while watching delicate fingers opening a nasi lemak. Like origami, a sexy little package of rice and sambal, shrimp paste and chilis, wrapped beautifully in banana leaf. That was it for me. From then on, there was no going back. I felt, seeing that for the first time, I need more of this."
What are some of your favourite places to eat at?
- Gopal’s Corner (Victoria) and Roti King (Euston) - for the closest to Malaysia I’ve ever felt while eating in London.
- Kapihan in Battersea - really special Filipino pastries and the best coffee, with hints of jackfruit.
- Ma Po in Surrey Quays - for real Chinese food, one of my favourite locals.
- Leila's Shop in Shoreditch - for incredible soft serve made from seasonal ingredients, who knew apple ice cream tasted so good?
Who are your favourite accounts to follow and why?
I’m glad you asked!
For UK-based Malaysian Food accounts on Instagram:
- @SitiTasteofMalaysia: The home chef we’ve collaborated with. If you get a chance, you must try her food!
- @MakanMalaysiaUK: These girls are incredibly talented, hardworking and they make social media FUN!
- @LittleYellowRiceCo: Amazing products, events and brand storytelling, drawing on Penang heritage.
For YouTube channels I recommend:
- Beryl Shereshewsky: I just love her themed episodes featuring food from around the world.
- Junelikethemonth: Incredibly creative home cooking with limited ingredients - I could watch her for hours!
- Kimono Mum: For inspiring Japanese home recipes and mother-daughter cuteness.
For foodie Newsletters:
- Vittles: My favourite food newsletter, exploring identity, heritage and the politics of food.
Are there any exciting plans coming from Penang Gang soon?
I'm still in a bit of a London discovery phase but would love to organise more supper club events soon. Keep an eye out on Penang Gang’s Instagram!
Craving for Malaysia food now? Here’s our pick of the best Malaysian restaurants in London for you to try!