Monday, 6 October 2014

Penang – Where the Good Food is!

For Baby Boomers, a visit to Penang is like finding once again the home we left all those years ago. While modernization and gentrification has altered the townscape quite a lot, certain pockets of Penang still transport the visitor back powerfully to Singapore of the 60s and 70s. Sights, smells, sounds, and especially tastes, still evoke what can only be described by the cliché, ‘the good ole days.’

The younger visitor, meanwhile, will find a town on the upswing, thanks to its new status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Hip hostels and cafes line the historic lanes of Georgetown, and specially commissioned street art cling to weathered walls and peep out from unexpected corners. But the most telling impression the youngster will take away is the stupendous street food, which literally carpets Penang.

Penang and Singapore share many similar flavors, not surprising given some of our common origins in Malay, Hokkien, Hainanese and Indian food. However, differences exist, some more obvious than others, because of geographical and historical circumstances. Just look at Singapore’s and Penang’s idea of laksa!

That being said, to anyone who has ever moaned about the food in Singapore going to the dogs, a trip to Penang is an antidote. Dress comfortably for sure; ideally in tees and Bermudas, as it’s hot and the best food is invariably found in non-airconditioned coffee shops, side lanes and outdoor spaces.

Meat Porridge and Fried Kway Teow
It may sound touristy, but to local and visiting foodies alike, the street market at Jalan Kuala Kangsar is not to be missed. The food stalls are mixed in with the usual market vendors along both sides of a thronging and narrow lane. Nearly all of Penang’s signature foods are here; but two stalls in particular stand out: the pork porridge, and Penang fried kway teow, located at the entrance to the market street, next to Campbell Street.

Forget about decorum: make a choice, shout your orders to the stall-owner, and grab a seat nearby. Your porridge will arrive in about 20 minutes, steaming and delicately smooth in texture. What’s unfamiliar – at least to us Singaporeans – was the shredded charsiew on top, which, surprisingly, went very well with the porridge.

The hawkers use itinerant pushcarts, and adjacent to the porridge stall across the lane stood the Penang fried kway teow. Although not on the usual litany of foodie favorites, this stall unfailingly serves up a heaving plate of cockle-filled kway teow perfumed with intense wok hei.

Jalan Kuala Kangsar Street Market
George Town

Penang Assam Laksa
Once located on the roadside next to a Shell petrol station in Farlim district, this laksa pushcart attracted droves. Following complaints, it was forced into a nearby coffeeshop, where it is still named after its original ‘address.’

Unlike most commercial stalls where canned sardine is used as the stock base, this one uses fresh fish and spices for broth. There was a right balance of sweet and sour coming from the blend of assam peel, shallots, garlic, and lemongrass. What stood out from this spicy thick stock was the Penang prawn paste and ikan kembong.  Freshly cooked ikan kembong was deboned and strewn generously on the bowl; and those who wanted more fish could simply request for it.

Another must-try was the fried spring roll. Eat it the local style, dipped into the laksa broth – another novelty for a Singaporean.

Farlim Shell Station Laksa Café
Medan Angsana 4, Bendar Baru Air Itam
11500 Penang
Telephone: +6016 459 7179

Curry Rice
Known only to locals in the Jelutong area, this family-run stall opens every night at 10.30 pm. It is a swift and efficient operation. Early arrivals will find the whole coffee shop looking deserted half an hour before opening. Then suddenly a flurry of activity erupts, and a 6-man team sets up the stall and brings out more 30 trays of freshly cooked food from the back of the shop – all in 30 minutes!

The food was predominantly Teochew, with a variety of spicy curry dishes to choose from. The taste was home cooked and simple; however every curry dish had its own distinct taste, unlike in Singapore, where it sometimes seems like a ‘one-curry-fits-all’ situation exists. The only thing to beware is that one tends to over-order as each and every dish looks equally appetizing.

Tong Sun Coffee Shop
Jalan Perak, Jelutong
Penang 11600

Fried Oyster Omelette
Amusingly, this rundown coffeeshop was listed in Penang food guides for the beef noodle stall it housed. But it is the fried oyster that is driving the crowds here. The stall-owner, Mr Gan, gained popularity when he operated for more than 10 years from an old coffee shop at New World Park. He moved due to high rents some two years ago.

Mr Gan serves two versions of fried oysters: the Thai style which is more dry and crispy, and the more popular starchy and wet style -- which is also the version Singaporeans are more familiar with.  Go for the Thai version, as the crispy edges of the omelette would blow you away when dipped in the special chili sauce.

Gan’s Crispy Fried Oysters
Lam Ah Coffee Shop
194 Lebuh Chulia
George Town

Mr Lous’s Lok Bak
No visit to Penang would be complete without a visit to the Lok Bak stall at this café. Mr Lou Joo Chon has sold lok bak for more than 40 years. He offers quite a selection but the must-try items are the prawn fritters, tou kwa, and fish roll. Also a must is the five-spice meat roll, simply known as lor bak.  Instead of minced pork, Mr Lou seasons strips of pork with a special concocted five-spice powder and wraps it in bean curd skin.

He then fries the rolls in a moderate heat that cooks the meat without burning the bean curd skin. Another of his unique offerings is the dipping sauce similar to our lor mee gravy. This is a derivation of the Hokkien-style dipping sauce, where heavy stock is used as the base and potato starch is added as thickening agent. Incidentally, Penang lor mee shares the same stock with lok bak, except meat bones are added to the lor mee stock.

The popular Mr. Lou makes an appearance at the annual Penang Food Festival held in a Singapore hotel along Scotts Road. But nothing beats eating at his stall, enveloped in the atmosphere of Penang.

Kheng Pin Café
80 Penang Road

Pasar Bukit Mertajam
A visit to Pasar Bukit Mertajam would remind one of eating on a movie set. Located just outside a 120-year-old Chinese temple, the dining space is a courtyard flanked by temples and stalls serving a variety of food from morning till night.

In the day, the dishes to aim for are wontan noodles, Mee Jawa, Hokkien mee and rojak. Look out for a unique dish known as “cup rice”, where rice is steamed individually in an aluminium bowl. Upon order, the rice would be topped with morsels of meat and braising gravy, and then served to be eaten soggy wet with gravy and pickled chili.

At night, the selection from the cze char stall reminds one of unpretentious home cooked food. The ambience is of Singapore streets in the 60s, where tables and chairs were placed randomly in any available space. The food and ‘feel’ of this place has made it one of the more popular spots for friends and visitors to gather.

Jalan Bunga Raya
14000 Bandar Bukit Mertajam

Curry Fish Head
A visit to Sri Siam makes the hassle of crossing to Butterworth worthwhile. Sri Siam is a name synonymous with street-style curry dishes in Penang, ask any Penangite and he would direct you to this place instantly. Be prepared to queue and elbow for a table during lunch though, because Sri Siam’s curry fish head is famous.

Unlike the Singapore version, the curry fish head here is light as it uses coconut milk. However, the taste of onion and mint come through strongly in the gravy. Apart from the curry fish head, the array of dishes available would satisfy even the most seasoned foodie. It is an eclectic mix of Chinese and Malay-influenced dishes, but stick to the spicy items and you won’t go wrong. Sri Siam’s food bears the strong influence of nearby Thailand, so the spices used slant towards sourness, and there is a generous use of fresh herbs.

Sri Siam
32, Medan Kurau 2
Chai Leng Park, 13700 Perai

Photos by Mark Ong

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Man Behind the Michelin-Starred Hong Zhou Restaurant

It was elite credentials by any standard – to be among the first batch of chefs awarded the country’s highest culinary honor, the National Grade of China; and to be recognized as one of China’s 8 most illustrious chefs. But these were not Chef Wu’s, they were his dad’s.

Chef Wu Rui Kang knew he had a tough act to follow. And so he became the first and only Michelin-starred chef of Hangzhou cuisine in the world.
 Chef Wu’s entry into Michelin fame was dramatic. His restaurant’s non-inclusion in the inaugural Michelin Guide Hong Kong 2008 was greeted with howls of disbelief and derision from local food magazines and netizens. The credentials of the Michelin arbiters were questioned, in particular their knowledge of the Chinese food scene in Hong Kong. The following year came the much-deserved nod from Michelin for the Chef, with a one-star ranking.

In fact Chef Wu’s sterling career was hardly heralded. After graduation from university he held a senior post in the Chinese civil service, from which he left to start a small restaurant in Hangzhou. As business grew, he decided to shift his base to Hong Kong, where his father was working at that time as executive chef for a renowned Hangzhou-style restaurant.  Chef Wu opened the Hong Zhou Restaurant in 2006.

While the Chef is, as we have seen, highly esteemed by food circles in Hong Kong, his is an audience that is ardent, initiated, and “focused”. Hangzhou cuisine, while increasingly revered in China, is still received with ambivalence in Hong Kong where Cantonese and Shanghai food reign supreme. But the Chef is patient and resolute.

Tweaking his flavors to suit the local palate is something he has stood against from the start, while the use of air-flown ingredients all the way from Hangzhou is a practice he has always insisted on. Such rigorous measures -- and not half-efforts and compromises -- are what he believes authenticity and reputations are built upon, and what he believes will ultimately win him a large audience for his beloved cuisine. Now he has the star to prove it.

But what makes a great chef? Chef Wu proposes a combination of assets: kitchen ethics, intelligence, and innate gifts. Kitchen ethics implies respect and humility, especially before teacher or master, he says, and the willingness to give your best in everything from cooking to personal hygiene. In short: attitude.

Intelligence is the drive for technical mastery. Chef Wu lists essential areas such as kitchen skills, cost control, and financial/business acumen. Finally, innate talent and passion is a factor. But, stressed the Chef, it must be coupled with a lot of hard work.
Only then will innate gifts make a difference, and raise the aspiring chef above all the others to greatness.

Hong Zhou Restaurant
1/F Chinachem Johnston Plaza
178-186 Johnston Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong
Tel: +852 2591 1898

Sunday, 31 August 2014


Fried beef hor fun is such a common dish among the Cantonese. It is served either ‘dry’ or bathed in thick savory sauce. To be considered a notch above the others, a hor fun needs to be perfumed with wok hei. Yes, the Cantonese, of all dialect groups, hold wok hei in highest esteem. A good chef must have mastered the advanced stir-fry techniques that allow him to deliver power-packed wok hei to certain dishes. And fried hor fun is definitely one of these.

Wok hei is most effectively achieved when the iron wok is heated to smoking point. Oil is then added to increase the heat as well as to lubricate the food that is to be fried. The contents of the wok are tossed and swirled, the addition of more oil coupling with the intense heat to flambé the ingredients. The fumes and aroma thus created is captured in, and perfumes the dish, producing the prized wok hei.

In the past, Cantonese cze cha stalls would use black bean paste in many of their dishes including braised fish bee hoon, braised pork ribs with bitter gourd, and claypot braised fish head. These dishes were very popular then, but the availability of new sauces such as Kam Heong and Tom Yam have seen them decline somewhat.

 Fried Beef Hor Fun in Black Bean Sauce

Beef                             200 g, sliced about 2 mm thick, across the grain
Oil                                1/3 cup
Chye sim                     2 stalks, julienned
Hor fun                        450 g
Garlic                            2, minced
Bean sprout                 50 g
Salt                                ½ tsp
Dark soy sauce            ½ tbsp
Onion                           ½, sliced thickly
Red chilli                      1, julienned
Chinese wine               2 tbsp
Meat stock                   2 cup
Sesame oil                   ½ tsp
Potato flour                 1 tbsp, mixed with 1 tbsp of water 
Egg                               2, beaten lightly
White pepper             ½ tsp
Fried shallots               2 tbsp
Spring onion               1 sprig, julienned

Apple juice                   2 tbsp, used as natural tenderizer, optional
Light soy sauce            1 tbsp
Ginger juice                  1/3 tsp
Chinese wine                1 tbsp
White pepper              1/3 tsp
Sesame oil                    1 tbsp
Potato flour                  1 tsp

Sauce paste– mixed well and reduced to a paste under low heat
Peanut oil                     2 tbsp
Black bean                    2 tbsp, minced coarsely
Yellow bean paste      1 tbsp, mashed
Sugar                            ½ tbsp
Garlic                            2, minced finely
Red chilli                       1, minced finely
Water                            4 tbsp

  1. Marinate beef and chill for at least one hour.
  2. Heat wok or stainless steel pan until hot. Pour 1 tbsp of oil. Swirl. Add another tbsp of oil. Fry chye sim for 30 seconds. Add hor fun. Swirl hor fun with a spatula in a circular movement. Do not lift hor fun high with the spatula or you risk breaking it into small strands. When hor fun turns slightly golden, push it to one side of the wok. Add ½ tbsp of oil and garlic, give it a good toss and stir in hor fun. Add bean sprout, dark soy sauce and salt, and give it a final toss. Divide hor fun into individual plates. The whole process shouldn’t take more than 4 minutes.
  3. Using the same wok, add remaining oil. Saute onion and chilli in medium heat until onion turns transparent.
  4. Add sauce paste, sugar and mix thoroughly.
  5. Increase heat to high. Add marinated beef and toss the pan continuously. Pour Chinese wine along the sides of the wok, allowing them to dribble to the center.
  6. Pour in meat stock and let it boil for 15 seconds.
  7. Lower heat to medium. Thicken the sauce with potato starch. The sauce should be slightly watery (not too gluey). Turn off the heat and pour egg mixture into the sauce, at the same time using the spatula to stir slowly in one direction.
  8. Scoop gravy onto the fried hor fun in their individual servings.
  9. Garnish it with white pepper, fried shallots and spring onion.

Note: Instead of boiling the sauce paste, it could be fried until all its ingredients (except water) have caramelized, and then simmer it into paste.