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For Love of Penang Food

Sunday September 19, 2010
For love of Penang food
By ABBY LU , Sunday Star,, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Imagine how bland our hawker centres and restaurants will be without Penang favourites such as char kway teow, Hokkien (prawn) mee and fruit rojak. For those who are unable to visit the northern state for its delicious offerings, Penang food is now easily available at many hawker centres and restaurants in KL and PJ.

IT’S no secret that the Pearl of the Orient is a food lover’s oyster.

Many KL-ites will not turn down the opportunity to go on a food excursion to Penang, if only to pig out for a day or two.

“It’s a must-go destination at least twice a year,” says Daniel Ooi, an IT consultant with a multinational company.

L.Y. Wong concurs, saying that the best street food in Malaysia can be found on the island.

“Hopping from stall to stall for a day or two is simply pleasure,” he says.

For those with time to spare, the northern state is just a four-hour drive from the federal capital.

But if time is a luxury, then perhaps the next best thing is to check out places that offer Penang fare.

Over the years, many restaurants promising “authentic” Penang food have been set up in KL and Petaling Jaya but only a handful have survived. Their best critics are perhaps the hordes of Penangites who have migrated to the big city and are able to compare the quality of the food with that back home.

Sunday Metro surveys five “Penang” restaurants – Little Penang Cafe; Penang Village, LST Cafe (previously known as Lorong Seratus Tahun Curry Mee), Seri Penang and Penang Flavours – to check out the secret of their endurance and how they manage to keep pulling the crowd.

All the restaurant operators hail from Penang, with the exception of Seri Penang where one partner is from KL and the other from Penang.

Penang Village co-founder Connie Su says her customers are always curious as to whether they originate from Penang.

“They even go to the extent of speaking Hokkien with us to see if we’ve got a Penang accent,” says Su, who runs the outlet with her husband Tonny.

And like most Penang people, these owners are equally fastidious when it comes to quality. They spoke extensively on the importance of maintaining the taste of the food that are served in their restaurants and cafes. Some, like Little Penang Cafe, even refuse to open new outlets beyond their current three because they want to keep it within the family!

Sunday Metro goes the whole nine yards to find out about their specialities and sample some dishes.

First in town

Many may wonder where all those years have gone to but Little Penang Cafe has been with us for 11 years now! It claims to be the first to introduce the Penang-delights-under-one-roof concept, with its first outlet opening in Nov 1999, at the then-quiet Mid Valley Megamall. Though it was situated in a tucked-away corner, customers found it soon enough and within a short span, business boomed.

Co-owner Cecelia Chan says that when she first moved to KL in the mid-1980s, she yearned for good Penang food but could not even find any restaurant serving it in the mall.

So Chan, from Tanjung Bungah, Penang decided to set up her own restaurant, despite having no experience in the F&B business.

Business was so good that she subsequently opened two more outlets at The Curve shopping mall, Petaling Jaya, and Suria KLCC, KL, with her sisters Vivian and Josephine.

“Many of our regulars have been with us since Day One,” she says.

She adds that neither she nor her sisters had any experience in running a restaurant when they started.

“Vivian owned a construction company, Josephine is a housewife and I was from the advertising industry. But we shared a passion for food and we could all cook, having learnt from our mum who handed down most of the recipes, including Devil’s Curry.”

“We’re very hands–on; most of the sauces and dishes are prepared by us and we go to the restaurants every day to ensure that the quality is maintained.”

Despite the good-sized crowds, the sisters are contented with their three outlets and have turned down countless offers for joint ventures and franchises.

“It’s more important to have three and run them well than to have 10,” Chan stresses, adding that they are assisted by immediate family members.

Their specialities include the fruit rojak, char kway teow and prawn mee and they stress a lot on quality.

“If they’re not good, we can close shop!” Chan quips.

After testing the food, Henry Lee, a consultant with an oil and gas company, gives his verdict as “not bad, considering that it’s pork-free”.

“The char kway teow topped with crab meat really gives it a Penang touch,” he says, adding that it reminded him of the famous Sisters Char Keow Teow at Jalan Macalister on the island.

More than Penang

While Little Penang Cafe is very focused on single-dish meals, Penang Village takes a different approach by offering 86 items on their menu!

“We try to accommodate everyone. Although Penang hawker favourites are a must, we also cater to those wanting full meals and local favourites such as nasi lemak,” says managing director Tonny Leow who runs the business with his wife Connie Su.

Both are from Air Itam in Penang.

 
Penang Village’s Leow and wife offer some 86 items on their menu.
 
“After spending about 11 years in Auckland, New Zealand, Connie and I returned to Malaysia because we believe it’s a better place to raise our two children. Although we were also in the restaurant business in New Zealand, the thought of starting another one from scratch didn’t cross my mind,” he explains.

But soon, Leow became very frustrated with the food selection and felt uncomfortable in hawker centres because of the humid Malaysian weather.

“If tourists were to come and dismiss the idea of eating at these hawker centres, then we lose the opportunity to showcase our food,” he adds.

The couple opened their first restaurant at Desa Sri Hartamas in 2000. A year later, they had a second outlet at Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL. To date, they have five outlets, one franchise in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, and three franchises in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Their newly refurbished Great Eastern Mall outlet has a heritage touch, reminiscent of the colonial era. “This colonial heritage is a part of Penang,” says Leow.

Su chips in: “There are so many types of food in Penang – nasi kandar, nyonya cuisine and hawker specials. Some people think they know Penang food but are disappointed when they are served a different thing.”

 
Penang Village’s pai tee.
 She points to some key differences: Penang curry mee is completely different from its Ipoh or KL counterparts. The soup is clear and more diluted, and chilli paste is added when the dish is served to make it red and spicy.

Another source of confusion is the Hokkien mee. According to Su, Hokkien mee is prawn mee in Penang. Though the fried, thick egg noodles can also be found in Penang, they call it Hokkien char and its sauce is brown, not black like KL’s.

“Penang is also known for its Peranakan cuisine, but it’s very different from Malacca’s baba and nyonya fare. Due to our proximity with Thailand, the taste is more sour-ish and spicy,” she explains.

As restaurateurs, she says, their role is also to educate people on what Penang food is all about.

“Now, even our Malay patrons know how to order char mee suah,” she grins.

One of the restaurant’s specialties is its fried carrot cake with bean sprouts.

Another all-round favourite is the Nyonya pandan chicken that packs a delightful flavour without being dry or charred. The Penang nasi lemak also earned top scores for its steamed fragrant rice.

Secret recipe

Although Chan Lye Ho has been married to her husband Kenny Moey for 15 years, she still doesn’t know what goes into the chilli paste of the famous Lorong Seratus Tahun curry mee! Moey, whose father founded the original stall in Penang, calls it a family secret and informs us that only he and his brothers know the recipe.

 
LST’s Moey and his wife are looking forward to perfecting even more dishes.
 
Collectively, the family has been in the curry mee business for about 60 years! “My father started the business before I was born,” he says, adding that the secret has been handed down since then.

However, famous as they are, Moey recalls the early years in Petaling Jaya as an uphill struggle.

“In Penang, people don’t care so much about the ambience and decor. Also, they already know us in Penang. So, when I came here, I opened a very basic coffee-shop style restaurant, selling only curry noodles,” says Moey.

He soon learned that KL-ites are not like Penang residents who are willing to travel from one place to another for a single plate or bowl of something good.

“For an entire shop, sometimes I only make a few hundred ringgit a day,” he says of those hard times. Running the business was so taxing that he didn’t even dare bring his family down from Penang initially.

Still, he persevered and incorporated the feedback that he received from patrons. He revamped the SS2, PJ outlet (his first) into a cafe-style restaurant and abbreviated the name to LST.

He also introduced more items to the menu and they now serve a variety of Penang hawker delights. When asked who the chef was, Moey laughs and says he cooks everything – some are learnt from others while others are perfected through experimenting.

 
LST’s chee cheong fun.
 
“I get feedback from customers and, personally, I like complaints,” he says, explaining that he can then tweak the dishes to suit his customers’ taste.

Moey, who obviously takes pride in what he does, is completely hands-on.

“In the food business, you have to control everything from A to Z, starting from the raw ingredients to the right temperatures and ‘fire power’ for each dish.”

For example, he tells us that certain soups cannot be brought to boil because when it’s too hot, the santan will rise to the surface and become little white dots. And speaking of santan, he’s definitely fussy about it. He has changed his supplier six times in the past 10 years.

“Different coconuts from different soils give a different taste.”

At LST, the clear winner is still the curry mee. The light, sweet curry broth that’s punctuated by slight spiciness from the chilli paste is simply delightful.

Moey tells us that the right way to eat Penang curry mee is to add varying amounts of chilli paste to it (depending on taste).

And he also shares another secret – to change the aroma of the soup, add crispy deep-fried shallots. The shallots, he says, are frequent requests from Penang customers.

Another must-try at this restaurant is the Penang chee cheong fun. The rolls of rice noodles are soft and well complemented by the savoury prawn paste sauce. With a sprinkling of fried shallots and sesame seeds, this is as close as it gets to those found in Penang.

Apart from the outlet at SS2, LST can also be found at 4A-5A USJ 10/1J, Taipan 10, Subang Jaya.

Peranakan delight

 
Passionate about food: Tang, seen here with his business partner Chan Lyn Kam, started honing his culinary skills at 13 years old.
 
Of Baba descent, Chef Tang C.G. from Tanjung Tokong has been spending his time in the kitchen since 13, learning to cook from his mum. At 16, Tang started work in a hotel and four years later, packed his bags for the bright lights of KL.

In the 24 years that he has spent in KL, he has progressed from roasted chicken rice at the Sunway food court to setting up Seri Penang at Atria shopping centre, PJ, with Chan Lyn Kam in 2006.

Professing to be a food lover who’s game for “anything good”, he frequently scours the streets of Bangkok, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai to find good food or ingredients that he could incorporate into his dishes.

“Cooking is an art – one has to be patient and work hard,” he says.

“Stall proprietors of the old days used to get up at 3am just to boil the soup and prepare ingredients for their morning business. These days, people wake up at 6am and start selling at 7am. Of course, the quality is compromised,” he notes sadly.

But Tang stresses that his restaurant has given him the opportunity to preserve tradition. The prawn mee soup at Seri Penang, for example, takes at least six hours to prepare.

He’s also made some adaptations for the health conscious. For the delicious Penang fish head curry dish, he has replaced santan with evaporated milk, thus giving it a lighter and milder taste.

“It is also a healthier option and the milder taste makes it suitable for everyone, even kids” he says.

 
The curry fish head at Seri Penang.
 
Other things to try here include the Heh-bee butter prawn. With butter and evaporated milk as its main ingredient, the prawns are evenly coated with what is described in the menu as “butter golden sand”. And the Penang otak-otak, layered on top with daun kadok (a variation of the betel leaf) is piquant and melts in your mouth. Penang assam laksa is also another good bet.

The new favourite

While many other restaurants are keen to attract the young and trendy, Penang Flavours co-owner Tan Gim Eam takes pride that the elderly are among some of her staunchest supporters. Why’s that?

“It’s simple. They are much more discerning when it comes to food. And if the food that you serve isn’t good, they won’t come back,” says this lady from Jelutong.

A lively personality who knows many of her patrons personally, she also confides jokingly that people from Penang are the worst clients!

“They will compare it with their mother’s recipe or food that they are accustomed to back home.” Nonetheless, she does not blame these lucky souls as they’re simply used to having good food!

Coincidentally, Tan was an employee of The Star before she joined Time Inc in Hong Kong where she spent 11 years. Each time she returned for a holiday, she would get her aunts to make the pastes and sauces, freeze them and take them back to Hong Kong.

And upon her return to Malaysia, she decided to start a restaurant with long-time friend Lynda Goh from Georgetown.

As much as she enjoys running a successful restaurant now, she still warns that it’s very hard work.

“We have to be here to monitor the quality all the time and in retrospect, running a Western restaurant might have been so much easier!” she exclaims.

Tan explains: “Let’s take a hamburger, for example. I think everyone would agree that it’s pretty straightforward but it sells for RM15.

Compare it to a bowl of prawn mee which takes three to four hours just to prepare the paste and another couple of hours to prepare the soup. It’s very labour intensive!” And it sells at Penang Flavours for RM7.50.

And since Penang Flavours is certified halal, it means that pork stock, one of the key ingredients in prawn mee is not available for use. To make up for that, Tan says they compensate by putting in extra ingredients. For example, she uses extra prawns and chicken bones to make the soup. This method, she says, makes the soup richer.

If you ever make your way to the sole outlet in 1 Utama (near Cold Storage), give its mee rebus a go. Covered in a thick, sweet potato sauce and mixed with a serving of sambal, it is delicious and very satisfying.

According to Tan, this is one dish that achieves 100% consistency due to its ingredient requirements and for some obscure reason, very popular with men! Another item to try here is the cendol, from which wafts of aromatic pandan can actually be picked up as you eat it!

 

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