Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hainan Town: Peranakan in Penang

Hainan Town is a kind of strange name for a Nyonya (peranakan) restaurant...but it is situated in a lovely building right smack in the middle of Penang town. Formerly known as “Huay Chia Kio”...or railway bridge in Hokkien, the building is a wonderful architectural style of colonial and traditional Straits Chinese (peranakan). Done up very nicely indeed...the insides are beautiful, and can grace the pages of an interior magazine.

Part of the dining area is in airconditioned space...actually two rooms, one of which is shown above and connected through the white curtains via a set of folding doors to the other. And the rest is open air, under the verendah.

Overlooking the Penang harbour, and the QE2, a fine dining establishment occupying another part of the Huay Chia Kio. Amazingly, even during the day, the verendah remains fairly cool...though assisted by mobile cooler towers, this pays tribute to the brilliance of the architecture of the colonials.

We had a fairly traditional nyonya meal. Begining with a Penang variation of the fried chicken...known as Inchikabin.

Chicken is spiced up in a marinade...many traditionists claim the recipe is long lost...I did know that my aunts did make incredible inchikabin, and my father used to wax lyrical about them...but I have not tasted a great inchikabin for a long time...the memory of the taste now lingers, but in truth, I cannot remember it enough to taste it. This version served by Hainan Town was rather ordinary. Heavily spiced marinade seem to be a feature. And the chicken pieces fried till almost dry. The legendary inchikabins were reputed to be so crispy, even the bones can be eaten. I guess, in substitution of technique and skill, over frying to ensure crispness is one way to render the bones edible. Indeed it was barely edible. But the rest of the chicken was nondescript. The sambal belachan, the worth by which one measures a nyonya or bibik, however redeems itself...wonderful stuff.

The sambal kankong was very nice. The leaves are a bit older than I would have liked, and cooked a bit over what would have been crunchy vegetables. But the sauce of sambal belachan and fresh small, sweet shrimps again saved the day.

We also ordered some lobak...

This was a halal restaurant, thus no pork was used...this lobak...a traditional Nyonya version of the Ngor Hiang (Five Fragrances) was made with chicken instead of pork. Amazingly, it tasted quite good...the typical lor (gravy of starch and slivers of beaten egg) was absent, and the lorbak was to be eaten with the accompanying chilli sauce.

We also had the Penang favourite spring rolls...the choon piah (literally spring biscuits)

These guys know a good thing when they come across it...the ubiquitious sambal belachan again showed its true blue peranakan colours...maximising the taste and providing a bite to the tongue...the greasy choon piah was rather pedestrian...though not pales in comparison to the one I sampled just a few days earlier at Foong Wei Heong.

The piece de resistance is the rather rare traditional nyonya dish called Perut Ikan...or literally stomach of the fish. This is a very special dish. A plethora of herbs, spices, vegetables are used to prop up the main character...the perut ikan...a rather difficult ingredient...which at its best is flavourless and tasteless, and at its worse can stink to high heaven.

This is a dish requiring high skills of the chef...mastery of the ingredients, and a certain magical balance between hot, sour, spicy, salty, is the nirvana which rewards the discerning diner the true taste of the perut ikan.

This Hainan Town version was rather good. A touch too sour to my taste, but the balance was uncanny...and delicious. Shiok.

Hainan Town is an interesting restaurant. Convenient location, beautiful surroundings. The prices are a bit high for Penang, but the decor, ambience and the service kind of makes up for it. The food is acceptable, with little sparks of brilliance (the sambal belachan is the key redeemer...the perut ikan acceptably good) in an otherwise rather plain tasting fare. Recommended for the intrepid visitor to Penang.

Hai Nan Town Restaurant
8A, Pengkalan Weld, 10300 Penang.
Tel: 604 - 263 8633

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