Childhood Food

I wanted to post up stuff about my trip with my parents to Hong Kong but honestly I got a little lazy since I had to resize the bunch of photos.

Anyway.

That will have to wait until I am in a less lazy mood. Actually it’s not that I have nothing to say. The problem is, I have plenty of things I want to write about. But the thoughts and ideas fly by like mozzies.

I was a facilitator at a Lean In Forum in early July (and yes, that begs for a post of its own) at Hard Rock Hotel. Don’t ask me why it was at Hard Rock. It just was. Apart from the godawful long drive from my place in Bayan Baru all the way to Batu Feringghi, I just think it would have been a lot less of a hassle if it were held in say, E&O Hotel or Eastin Hotel.

But more of that later.

Today I had an interesting conversation with Nic at dinner. It’s kind of strange saying that as I am my husband’s business partner and if I am not out and about meeting potential clients, I am mostly with him. For breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner.

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A Matriarch’s Cuisine of Love

It’s only when guests or friends come to Penang that I make that mad effort to find new places to dine. Most times, we’re lazy and eat around our area which to me is rather sad and boring. I mean, how many times can you eat “chee cheong fun” for breakfast before you kind of roll your eyes and wish this dish was never invented?

Little Kitchen, Noordin Street, George Town
Little Kitchen, 179, Noordin Street, George Town, Penang

My area, Taman Sri Nibong, isn’t exactly crawling with lots of eateries.

So it gets fun when guests arrive. A few days ago, Nic and his Mensa Penang friends hosted Patrick, a fellow Mensan from Hong Kong.

It was Patrick’s first time in Penang. We thought it would be fun to take him to a Nyonya restaurant in George Town. But where? Nic’s favourite Nyonya restaurant, Hot Wok, had closed down about 2 years ago so there went the first choice on our list. Nyonya Breeze in Straits Quay was a little too modern for my taste, at least for this round.

I quickly scanned CK Lam’s food blog and found an interesting one. “Let’s take him there,” I enthused to Nic.

That’s how we ended circling Noordin Street three times before we finally found a parking spot near Hotel Grand Continental. The hotel was just one street after the Nyonya restaurant called Little Kitchen @ Nyonya. Don’t ask why it’s so oddly named.

Conceptually the restaurant was interesting. It is a Straits Chinese shop house some 135 feet long which belonged to a 4th generation Straits Chinese family. They still reside on the first floor. This family runs the Nyonya restaurant with the matriarch as the head chef! (She was this smiley Auntie in her 70s.)

Ulam appetizer with two types of sambal belacan
Ulam appetizer with two types of sambal belacan

So what’s unique about this place? Plenty of character I can tell you.

The main business (yes, the Nyonya food isn’t the main business and I will tell you why in a bit) is their birds’ nest business.

This family trades birds’ nests – the kind that most Chinese elders will give an arm and a leg and two best jade bangles for. So you can actually buy the birds’ nests in dried form from them or pre-order and have them double-boil the birds’ nest dessert for you (available for dine-in or take-away).

So the Nyonya food is more like a hobby for this family.

Nic and our Hong Kong Mensa friend, Patrick
Nic and our Hong Kong Mensa friend, Patrick

This we found out from the Auntie’s son – a chatty guy in his 50s. He must be recounting the history of the 7 year old restaurant to so many customers that the stories simply flowed out easily. And he is a veritable trove of birds’ nest facts, trivia and how the Chinese grew so mad over drinking and eating birds’ nest. The other way to locate this restaurant is to look for “Birds Nest Heaven” – the alternate name of the shop.

An array of Nyonya kuih to whet the appetite
An array of Nyonya kuih to whet the appetite

Anyway, he said that his family really didn’t need to run a Nyonya cuisine restaurant. His grandfather and father had done well for themselves back in those days of trading that the family was well set for life.

The only thing was, with his father’s demise some 10 years ago, his mother felt an inexplicable sense of loss. You see, in those days, his mother cooked every day for his family. Specifically his father never had to eat out. He had breakfast, lunch and dinner prepared lovingly by his wife.

Plus as her children had grown up, they ate out more than they ate in. Hence, the matriarch felt abandoned – no one appreciated her cooking any more.

So the children got together and hatched a plan to keep dear old Mum happy and cooking up all her favourite Nyonya dishes.

That was how Little Kitchen was born or at least that’s how Mr Loh, the son, tells it.

The second hall where we dined
The second hall where we dined

When you step into the restaurant, it does feel like you’re dining in someone’s home. We were ushered to the second hall which had an air well.

What I liked was that we were served tiny slices of Nyonya kuih as well as raw sliced cucumber, baby brinjal and four-angled beans with sambal belacan as appetizers.

The other unique feature is that all drinks were free flow – nutmeg, ginger, Chinese tea and plain water. These were in traditional hot water flasks and you could drink all you wanted for RM4 per person. Funny how free flow of drinks could make me so delirious!

Free flow of nutmeg, ginger, Chinese tea and plain water in Chinese flasks
Free flow of nutmeg, ginger, Chinese tea and plain water in Chinese flasks

The food portions weren’t exactly large although they were tasty and had a true home-cooked feel. We ordered pig stomach soup with gingko nuts (although it had Szechuan vegetable too which is a first time tasting this vegetable in a pig stomach soup), fried paku or fern shoots in sambal hae-bee, sliced pork with cincalok, mixed vegetables, acar fish and asam prawns.

Mother-of-pearl day bed, one of the antiques in the restaurant
Mother-of-pearl day bed, one of the antiques in the restaurant

Later the affable owner came around to explain why his dishes were small in portion and a tad more pricey than most. Then again, he did say he was “rather choosy with his clientele” preferring those who could appreciate the food and not just bus-loads of tourists who eat and leave.  Not that his place could accommodate bus-loads. At most there were 6 to 7 tables.

Mixed vegetable stir-fry and pork cincalok
Mixed vegetable stir-fry and pork cincalok

As someone who goes to the wet market (yes, I do cook), I know how pricey fish, pork, chicken and vegetables cost these days.

Anyway he justified it by saying that his mom insists on the best cincalok, the freshest ingredients and all so these add up. Plus he served us on true-blue possibly heirloom/antique porcelain plates – perhaps harking back to the days when his grandfather used to run a restaurant on No.7, Leith Street!  (Upon looking under the plates, Patrick says that they were from Jingdezhen, a city in China famous for its fine quality chinaware!)

Look at the original floor tiles so telling of a Penang Nyonya shophouse
Look at the original floor tiles so telling of a Penang Nyonya shophouse

Dining at Little Kitchen was an experience that wasn’t just about the Nyonya cuisine and food tales.

Sure the food’s on the pricey side (the bill came up to RM208 for the five of us, plus drinks and 2 bowls of black glutinous rice dessert) and it wasn’t classy like some of the newer establishments. (This is Ji Tiao Lor after all.)

Labelled herbs in pots to show you what's used in Nyonya cooking
Labelled herbs in pots to show you what's used in Nyonya cooking

Yet in its homely way it was charmingly Chinese – much like dining at your favourite aunt’s home.

Whatever it was, I left feeling satisfied and perhaps made a mental note to revisit, if only for the unique tale it has to tell.

Colourful pickles in jars
Colourful pickles in jars

Eating in Cintra Street

You know, sometimes before I fall asleep, I have a million and one ideas for my blog. And when I wake up the next day, damn. The ideas have flown.De Tai Tong Cafe decked out with lanterns during Mid-Autumn Festival

Last night was one of those nights. Had a bunch of ideas to write about.

Well, good news…I have recovered from being a total sick zombie. It took me a while but I am back in one piece. Still have a scratchy throat and a bit of a cough but hey, as long as my appetite is back – the world looks a heck of a lot better. While some friends said I wrote better while half-dead, I think I shouldn’t be too dead sometimes. LOL.

Food Tales In De Tai Tong

I was having dinner with my folks and Godmother last night at Tai Tong (these days it has renamed itself into De Tai Tong Cafe). It’s impossible not to know of this dim sum and Chinese eatery along Cintra Street. It’s an institution. Even the old ladies who serve you – see I couldn’t even bear to call them waitresses – seem to have aged with this Chinese eatery.

De Tai Tong Cafe sells mooncakes during the Mid Autumn Festival

(Have I mentioned they are grumpy and pushy as hell? If it were not for my Godma suggesting this place, I’d hot-trotted to some other Chinese zhu-zhar place on Campbell Street but she hadn’t been to Tai Tong for a while and I thought, what the heck. The auntie servers are STILL as awful as ever.)

I knew it was a heck of an old place – I just didn’t know HOW old. I thought maybe the place is 30 years old. It looks that way.

Until over dinner last night my Dad remarked that Tai Tong is more than 50 years old! My mum chipped in and said that my maternal grandpa used to “yum cha” in the cafe back in those good old days. She used to eat at this place as a child! (My mum is in her early 60s so that says a lot about this place.)

OK, now that is some history. My Godma then said that in those days, Foo Heong (that’s another famous eatery across the road diagonally from Tai Tong) and Tai Tong were the bee’s knees. Both these eateries were super happening and get this – they served wedding banquet dinners.

I almost choked on my “siew mai” when I heard this.

When You Got Married Back Then…

Tai Tong Cafe isn’t very spacious. But back in those days, people getting married didn’t have the entire village invited. Plus they didn’t need a stage or karaoke either. Best of all, my parents told me that a typical wedding banquet would be about RM45 per table of 10 diners. (OK, second choking of siew mai now.)

“That’s cheap!” I blurted.

Mum said that when she got married in 1972, most guests would give you gifts instead of ang pows. Dad remembered lots of transistor radios plus the odd glassware set or two. And then the really generous relatives or friends would give you a RM10 shopping voucher so you could go to Tong Aik Departmental Store (that was THE airconditioned supermarket of its day in Penang) and pick your own wedding gift.

Piglets in a basket - every kid's favourite biscuit

My Godma remarked that in those days, RM45 was equivalent to our RM400 today. If someone gave you a RM10 shopping voucher, you must have meant a  lot to them because in those days, “char hor fun” was a mere 30 cents per plate!

So much inflation since then! So much have changed since then.

Sometimes having dinner at an old eating establishment brings back rather a lot of poking down memory lane.

What I Truly Detest About De Tai Tong Cafe

Anyway, I still don’t like the argumentative auntie servers at Tai Tong; they make ordering such a chore because they keep bugging you about ordering their specialty dishes when all I want is just my regular stuff. According to my parents and Godma, Tai Tong Cafe’s food isn’t as spectacular now. It used to be so much better.

As for me, this place can be a hit-and-miss affair.

Sometimes the food is really good – I quite like their braised duck noodles in ginger gravy, their fried rice and “ang thor” noodles (a poor man equivalent of sharks’ fin soup) with lashings of black vinegar.

I also enjoy their “char hor fun” is it is served piping hot and the gravy has not soaked into the hor fun entirely, making it a mess to eat. Their “sang meen” is another winner but again, it must be eaten piping hot or gets very cloying after it gets cold.

From time to time, the auntie servers will recommend all sorts of things to you – deepfried spring rolls, steamed fish, fried chicken wings etc. Pay no heed to them.

If you arrive at noon when they are packing up their dim sum for the day, they will bully you into buying their leftover dim sum or pau. Do not be taken in. Pity for their incessant bugging means you will be too stuffed to the gills later on.

The aunties just want to make their lives easier by offloading the remaining pau or dim sum to you. Politely but firmly decline. They may be aunties but it is my stomach yeah?

Weekends are crazy times to eat in Tai Tong as the entire weekend crowd of hungry Penangites and outstation visitors descend on Tai Tong like ants. Even the odd Mat Salleh or two will wander into this cafe and be hoodwinked into eating whatever the auntie servers recommend.

Parking along Cintra Street is much easier on week day evenings and less maddening.  And god knows that THAT by itself can be such a relief in Penang.

One Secret Place You Must Not Miss

If you come earlier say before 6pm, you can make a quick de-tour into People’s Court behind Tai Tong and look for the long-time and supremely famous biscuit maker, Leong Chee Kei at the flats. Again, this tiny shop is an institution. My mum remembers buying his “gai dann kou” – egg sponge cakes – as a kid.

I’m not a big fan of “gai dann kou” – it’s too dry and sticks in my throat but he has a plethora of traditional style biscuits to make your trip down memory lane worthwhile. He sells pepper biscuits, pong pneah, tau sar pneah, gai dann kou – all these freshly made daily.

And Yet Another One Serving Up Smiles

Of course, you should not miss the other famous pushcart opposite Tai Tong either – there are two pushcarts really. One sells Chinese herbal teas but the other pushcart sells “harm chim peang” and “pak tong kou”, again firm favourites of mine if I happen to pass by in the evenings. I always used to buy white sugar cake (“pak tong kou”) for my grandma as it seemed to be her favourite snack.

Then again, there is Foo Heong – super duper famous for its “yin yeong” or “char hor fun”. They have a Reputation you know. Nowadays the sheen and glam is gone but the last time I heard, you had to pay for extra chili or sambal if you wanted more for your “yin yeong”.

Oh I could go on and on about the old style eateries but that is enough for today.

Kimberly Street and Campbell Street and even Kampung Malabar each hold their own eateries worthy of blog posts on their own. Makes you salivate right? Right!

(Chan Kou Loh Dim Sum comes to mind and he’s gone. Also the famous Big Rock zhu-zhar who is still there whipping up dishes like a pro each time – errr, yes, who else is not famous in Penang? And dozens more.)

Such is living in Penang!

Do you have any Penang eatery secrets to share, since we’re on this topic?

That Quest For Tau Sar Pneah!

Living in Penang for the past decade and more makes me quite Penangite in the sense that I do not truly appreciate the little things Penang are famous for.

Lor bak, Singapore style.  From Food Republic, Vivo City.
Lor bak, Singapore style. From Food Republic, Vivo City.

If you ask me when was the last time I had a plate of sinfully oily char kueh teow, I’d have to think a bit. I cannot recall. I don’t normally eat char kueh teow. It’s more like I don’t crave it that much. That goes for quite a number of Penang hawker food like chee cheong fun, Hokkien mee, laksa (assam laksa to you KL people) and curry mee.

In fact, eating out can be quite a chore.

Nic and I have to really think hard if we want to eat out.

Most times, we eat in because I much prefer to cook (yes, for some strange reason, I like cooking and I like knowing what I put into my food).

It helps that Nic is always the eager guinea pig – I think he secretly enjoys my little kitchen adventures! But he won’t admit it. Oh men are like that. They’d rather have a tooth extracted than heap praise on their wives. But then again, I shan’t be judgemental. I’ve only seen this hesitance to praise of the men in my family – my uncles, my dad and of course, my husband.

So the only time we ever go out is when friends from abroad or out of state come for a visit. Then we have to figure out the hawker food for them as non-Penangites are very focused when they come to Penang – like Soh Peng said, “Give me hawker food. I don’t care for any Western cuisine.”

Penangites are the opposite. We’d rather tuck into Western/Italian/Japanese/Korean than plain old hawker fare. Maybe we have had too much of the same thing.

While on a flight to Penang sometime ago, another friend told me that she spied a Singaporean woman seated in front of her checking a long list of must-eat food in Penang! But that is really what Singaporeans come here for. Our lipsmacking food. (Which really, does taste much better than any old Singaporean fare. No wonder they go mad here over our Penang food. And they go “cheap, cheap”!)

Over the Hari Raya Haji weekend, Soh Peng came to stay. On the last day, hours before she took her flight home to Singapore, we went in search of Penang’s famous snack – tau sar pneah. These round little biscuit snacks are usually bought by visitors to Penang. Most locals I know never touch this biscuit. We’re that bored of our famous little biscuit.

You see, we didn’t want to buy the biscuits on Friday when she arrived. We figured the biscuits would be fresher if she bought them on the day she left. Funnily we forgot that the rest of the world (KL and Singapore people) were on the island for the three-day weekend too.

We thought we’d buy at Him Heang on Burmah Road. Wrong move! The shop was packed with tourists that Monday morning. I had this feeling that we were a bit too late. There was no more tau sar pneah! People were buying biscuits like there was no tomorrow. The next batch of tau sar pneah was arriving at 3pm but who wants to wait till then?

(Him Heang has its tale of notoriety. In the good old days, they will never entertain walk-ins for their biscuits if you did not pre-order. Yup, they were that snooty. But snootiness attracts more customers because it must mean very tasty biscuits or else why would they be so snooty? Just as we would patronize a restaurant if we see it full of people. You never want to go into an empty restaurant would you? Reminds me of that super famous, super fine butter cake sold in the morning market at OUG. My KL friend lined up patiently for this cake (so we could get a taste of it) and yes, it was superb. The things we do for food!)

Singapore famous chui kuih snack
Singapore famous chui kuih snack

With dejection on our faces, we went in search of Ghee Hiang. At least Ghee Hiang has 2 outlets nearby. I am sure we could get at least something! I thought I was being smart. We tumbled into the car and zoomed off before any tourist could figure out why.

The Ghee Hiang bungalow on Anson Road is normally very quiet. Their compound is spacious and most times, only one or two cars are parked. That day, it was full of cars. All with outstation number plates. Errgh. Not a good sign. On regular days, you can park leisurely, walk out of your car and get into the shop, pay for your bisucits and get out in less than 10 minutes.

That day, we eyeballed a long line of people! The compound was maxed out with cars and even one or two bulky tourist vans. Soh Peng decided to line up.

Ahead of her were about 7 people. She said that a riot almost broke out when the first woman in the line asked the Ghee Hiang staff for 30 boxes of tau sar pneah! The person behind this lady wasn’t too happy because he might not get any the way she was ordering.

We didn’t stay on to hear the bickering as I told Soh Peng that we could try our luck at the drive-by outlet of Ghee Hiang’s on Burmah Road. Ghee Hiang is smart in that way – they opened an outlet just a few hundred yards BEFORE you reached Him Heang. No doubt this was to waylay unsuspecting tourists to buy from THEM before they could buy at Him Heang. Damn sneaky! After all, it was a one-way traffic road and you would see their shop first.

So we went around to this Ghee Hiang outlet.

Oooh, no one at all! No line, no busy people (it was just a window counter where you walked up and made your order).

Unfortunately, no line meant that they too had sold out their tau sar pneah!

Dang!

I was at this point rather clueless on what we could do next. All the island’s tau sar pneah were bought up by crazy car-loads of tourists. Who eats 30 boxes of tau sar pneah anyway?

Soh Peng finally decided that we could try Chowrasta market.

This was getting to be quite strange.

(Earlier, we crossed the road to Apom Guan on Burmah Road near Union Primary School because she had a craving for apom with bananas. We stood to wait at Ah Guan’s stall as he was busy making lots of apom. A well-dressed lady stood nearby too. So did a man. Ah, 2 people before us. Still manageable! Luckily I asked Ah Guan because he said that he was just at 100 pieces of apom and the lady had ordered 200 pieces of apom! OHMYGOD. What the heck would she need 200 pieces of apom for? With that, we just turned tail and left.)

Singapore rojak...somehow tastes different
Singapore rojak...somehow tastes different

And so we got to Chowrasta. For sure they will have Him Heang or Ghee Hiang. The first stall we came to did have Him Heang but in a box of 16 pieces, not 32 pieces. The woman who manned the stall convinced us to try out a non-branded tau sar pneah called Chuan Toe. Eventually Soh Peng decided to buy the non-branded tau sar pneah because she had no choice. She was flying back in less than 3 hours and she had to have her tau sar pneah!

I have not seen such madness over a snack like this for a long time. It amazes me the lengths people go to for their food.

Many people also feel that Him Heang and Ghee Hiang are over-rated and commercialized. That maybe so but these are old-time brands people associate with. It’s tough for people to switch brands especially if nostalgia and good memories are woven into this association.

In my next post, I’d tell you about one non-branded tau sar pneah biscuit which we found – made fresh and tastes just as good, if not better (according to my tau sar pneah fan of a husband).

Singapore style fried prawn noodles
Singapore style fried prawn noodles

PS: Why show photos of food from Singapore? It just shows that I don’t have photos of food in Penang. LOL. Just in case you’re wondering if the photos are wrong. They’re not. They showcase hawker food. Just not hawker food in Penang. 😉