Story of Penang Food

Fatty Loh vs Fatty Loh
By CHRISTINA CHIN - from Sunday Star,

Sunday December 19, 2010

Behind the aroma and tantalising tastes of some of Penang’s most famous street food are riveting tales of age-old rivalries and even family feuds.

TIME magazine has acknowledged what food connoisseurs in the region already know – that Penang is home to the Best Street Food in Asia. Although the honour was made six years ago, no other place has since come close to knocking it off the coveted spot.

With a reputation to live up to, food is serious business in Penang. Over the years, some establishments have resorted to legal action to protect their trademark or gone to court over partnership dispute. In a few cases, it has resulted in simmering family feuds, especially when relatives or siblings set up branches to continue the family legacy.

Mention Fatty Loh and chances are most chicken rice lovers would have heard the moniker. While debate continues over whether the dish originates from Malaysia or Singapore, it matters little to Loh Seng Hooi who has been selling chicken rice in Penang’s Fettes Park for over 30 years.

Seng Hooi, 45, is more concerned with preserving his grandfather’s nickname Fatty Loh for his business. His business card says “Fatty Loh only at Fettes Park” and he believes the location where it all started is enough to set him apart from others trying to take advantage of the “Fatty Loh” name.

His shop, voted “King of Chicken Rice” by a local Chinese daily, offers more than 10 side dishes to the main attraction.

As the eldest of three siblings, Seng Hooi helped his late father, Kok Keong, run his chicken rice stall as a child and claims to be the only one who learned his secret recipe. The elder Loh started the business at a coffeeshop stall in 1969, operating over a covered monsoon drain. The old shop in Jalan Fettes has since made way for development.

“Now we have a restaurant near the original location that can accommodate up to 240 diners. Until today, the chicken rice is prepared by me and my wife Mei Mei as I want the quality to be consistent. Believe me, the art of boiling and roasting the chicken is tricky,” says the jovial towkay.

His younger brother, Seng Lee, 44, has an outlet in Nagore Road, less than 3km away. In 1998, Seng Lee, took their uncle to court over the use of the trade name and won the case. He regrets resorting to legal action to solve the dispute.

“At the end of the day, we are family. But if an outsider tries to use the Fatty Loh Chicken Rice name, I will definitely sue,” he warns.

While Seng Hooi takes pride in his skilful preparation of the chicken, Seng Lee says it’s his thick, spicy and tangy sauces that distinguish his chicken rice from competitors. His customers include those from Japan, Hong Kong and Britain and his outlet’s Facebook page is filled with reviews from both locals and foreigners.

On sibling rivalry, Seng Lee says they are both their father’s children and each has a right to the famous moniker. “Our mother is 76 now and she won’t want to see her children fighting. Family squabbles will only make us a laughing stock.”

Another iconic street food is the Penang tau sar pneah and Him Heang, which was established in 1948, is considered the Gucci of traditional biscuits. Fans wax lyrical over its traditional authenticity and fragrant golden brown filling.

Him Heang’s popularity is largely due to its exclusivity as it does not have any agents or outlets elsewhere other than its flagship store and bakery along Burma Road.

“My grandfather Seow Oh Thor founded Him Heang. He was very creative and came up with the original Tambun biscuit which is smaller than the tau sar pneah.

“Some say the biscuits originate from Tambun on the mainland but it’s rubbish. My grandfather just decided to call it that,” a third generation family member, who only wanted to be known as Seow, says.

Him Heang’s operation, which began in a pre-war house in inner George Town, moved into its current double-storey building along Burma Road in 1993.

“We are still a family-run business and all biscuits are made by hand. If you didn’t get it from here, it’s not an original Him Heang,” she tells, adding that the company does not have aggressive marketing strategies, confident that it would thrive entirely on the strength and freshness of its products. Indeed, the regular traffic jams outside the building attests to its popularity.

No doubt, its main business competitor is Ghee Hiang – Penang’s oldest tau sar pneah maker. Opened in 1856 by the Teng family, Ghee Hiang has grown into a household name. The founder invited a Fujian pastry chef to Penang and adopted the name Ghee Hiang. Then in the 1900s, Ghee Hiang Baby Brand Pure Sesame Oil was introduced, using methods and techniques learned from Fujian, China. In 1926, it was bought over by three friends (remembered today as Ch’ng, Ooi and Yeoh).

In the past, Ghee Hiang had a reputation of having bad customer relations but many felt it was a small price to pay for the tasty traditional treats. Frustrated customers used to leave the shop empty-handed, after being chided for not making their orders early.

In the late 1990s, machines were brought in to cope with increasing demand. Harder pastries resulted and customers shunned the brand. That was in the past. Workers went back to kneading dough by hand and spearheaded by one of its directors, Ch’ng Huck Theng, the company embarked on an ambitious marketing campaign.

Today, while its old shophouse remains standing near the island’s old ferry terminal, modern outlets with adorable baby mascots (inspired by its logo) have mushroomed around town. One is located just a short walk away from Him Heang.

Singaporean Joanna Qua, 44, spent two days hunting for Penang’s famous tau sar pneah.

“I knew it was a ‘must-buy’ product but I didn’t know which was the best since both Ghee Hiang and Him

Heang popped up in an online search. I asked a local and she told me Penangites preferred the latter, so I went on my quest.

“Because we weren’t familiar with the roads, we went around in circles before ending up at the Ghee Hiang outlet, thinking it was Him Heang!” the housewife laughs.

Retiree Lee Hong Chuan, who lives in Petaling Jaya, says Ghee Hiang’s history makes it his top choice.

“When I visit Penang, I usually get ‘orders’ from friends for biscuits from both Ghee Hiang and Him Heang.”

Penang-born Lee also speaks of his love for the Nyonya apong across the road, outside the Union Primary School. There are two stalls there – Apong Guan and Apom Chooi – run by the Uan brothers. Both brothers, according to their customers, are not on speaking terms. But they are not short of fans – their rich and creamy apong attracts crowds like bees to a flower.

Refusing to reveal much about his elder brother, Cheng Guan, 61, says he has been there for more than four decades.

From the moment Cheng Guan starts pouring the batter into the nine-hole apong pan griddle at 9.30am, the orders start to pile up. The friendly Penang Free School old boy is busy cracking jokes even as he tells his customers of the wait ahead.

Local and outstation cars pulling up beside the road is a usual sight.

“My customers include those from Britain and Australia. They always come for my apong whenever they are here on holiday. For a fee, I teach others my skill but classes are not for locals – otherwise I will have too much competition,” he says only half in jest.

Cheng Chooi, who says he has been selling there since the 1960s, is less chatty but similarly, a nice chap.

“Please don’t ask me about our relationship because I don’t want any more squabbles. I am already 68 and have been selling apong for more than 50 years now. I will retire soon and pass on the trade to someone else,” he says.Cheng Chooi believes that all Nyonya apong are the same. There is no secret recipe and the only thing that makes one better than the other is how generous the seller is with the ingredients.

Post-graduate student Karen Lai, 29, who is back from Japan for a break, is full of praises for Apom Chooi.

“My mother studied at the primary school here and she used to eat Chooi’s apong. Now I’m hooked,” she grins.

Cheng Guan’s kuih is 40sen each while his brother’s is 5sen cheaper. Orders of hundreds of pieces per customer is quite normal.

Like the Lohs and Uan brothers, keen competition among hawkers selling similar items are a norm rather than the exception on the island. And each rival trader can have his or her own strong following from as far as New York to Kuala Lumpur. These foodies will always return to their favourite haunts like a homing pigeon every time they make a stop on the island.

Source: The Star Publications Malaysia

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