Saturday, September 19, 2009

Penang comes to Singapore: or does it?

with office colleagues

Twice a year, The York Hotel gathers some real practicing hawkers from Penang, put them on a plane, provide them two weeks accomodation, pay them for their troubles, and allow them to ply their trade at the hotel.

The origins were supposedly because the late Tan Sri Khoo Teik Puat, who used to own the hotel, craved for Penang hawker food, and to satisfy his own needs, as well as make him the millions he is also famous for, he decided to bring the hawkers in himself.

This is the second such lunch my office makan kakis are partaking together. Done a la carte buffet style...the hawkers are arranged into mini hawker stalls in the dining area of the White Rose Cafe at the hotel. Each stall holder doing his/her own prep and cooking in his own area, just like a hawker center. And patrons pay one price for all they can eat, but for each very small serving (you can take as many servings as you like, but to limit the queue size, only two servings per person each time.

I, of course started with the Penang Char Kway Teow:



Supposedly operating a store somewhere in Pulau Tikus, the older gentleman seems to have the right style and moves to make good CKT.

He fries up a wokful of about 6 small plates each time...and have the longest queues...



The CKT is quite flavourful...he is quite generous with the use of lard, and lard crisps, and the fire is quite hot, imparting a powerful wok hei to the CKT. But it lacked the very last bits to rival the goggle lady at Lorong Selamat, or Ah Leng in Anson Road, or the Duck Egg CKT in Bukit Mertajam, or any of the famous ones in Penang. I found it acceptable, perhaps a bit generic if one were in Penang.

The Penang Hokkien Prawn Mee fared a bit better:



The soup tasted quite good and authentic. The noodles, I always have beehoon mee, was a bit overcooked, but the flavour of the ingredients were very good. For some reason, the prawns were pink...and not natural pink, but a strange pink...though it tasted ok. I enjoyed the HKM.

The Jew Hoo Eng Chye (cuttlefish with kangkong)



For me, the best is always the old store in Gurney Drive...I believe its not there anymore, as with the new Gurney Drive, I think the old hawker retired...there is still a JHEC in Gurney Drive, and while good is no rival to the old one. This serving of JHEC was mildly adequate in my books. The cuttlefish was nice, crunchy, and fresh tasting. The eng chye was not bad...youngish, and fresh too. But the sauce lacked the oomph found in the original Gurney Drive store.

The Penang Laksa looks the part



But I think it fails on the soup...it was not thick with semi-melted/dissolved fish as I would anticipate. But the heykor was quite nice, and the sour, savoury taste of the soup came through. They even use shaved bits of banana flower. The noodle used was not the right type used in Penang, but a factory made type readily available in Singapore.

The last time we ate here, the ladies were absolutely thrilled with the ban chang kuih:



Unlike the type available here at the Mr. Bean type stores, the Penang BCK is thin crust, very crispy, often with sweet corn added to the peanut and sugar filling. I still dream of the store behind our house in Penang, where a Malay gentleman would whip up the best BCK in town (unusual as BCK is a traditional Chinese snack, but it had no lard or pork, so easily adapted by the Malays)...his had a super crisp crust, a soft thin layer within, and gorgeous peanut, sugar mix, and a nice dollop of creamed sweet corn. The York hawker's version was more typical...and would rate perhaps above average in Penang...the crust was very crispy, but there was no soft, cushy layer of batter within...the peanut mix was not quite as rich, and there was no sweet corn.

The same hawker also served up Apom Balik



While BCK is a typical Chinese snack, the apom is a typical Malay (or more accurately Indian Muslim...mamak) snack. Like the Sri Lankan hoppers, this was a sweet pancake, with embedded slices of banana and sometimes corn. This version was quite nice...soft, tender...the batter is expertly managed such that it is just cooked...quivering as one handles it...and with each bite, it spills forth banana and instead of corn, they used raisins...a nice touch. Quite nice.

We also had Penang Lor Bak, which I feel is let down by the lack lustre lor sauce, so I will not even feature it here. The Kway Teow Thng is also not interesting...as it was very mild in flavour compared to the real thing in Penang....and interestingly they had Dry Kway Teow Thng...how can there be a dry kway teow soup (Thng in Hokkien means soup)? The desserts were even more disappointing...the chendol and ice kachang were not worth the calories, and pales in comparison to even the average hawker in Penang, so again nothing to write about.

Overall, a worthwhile event. It is difficult to get the best of Penang to take time off their business in Penang and sojourn to Singapore to show their skills here, so I guess given the situation, getting this quality of cooking is commendable. Will I return again...probably yes, especially when the Penang homesick blues strike.


Penang Hawker Promotion
twice a year for a fortnight, I went on the first day of this season...on Sept 4, 2009.
White Rose Cafe
York Hotel
Singapore
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