Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Feasting in Penang: Sin Hup Aun

breakfast with family

Breakfast in Pulau Tikus...its a must-do in Penang. The Pulau Tikus market is a veritable treasure of interesting hawkers and nooks and crannies selling all kinds of wares and food.

Amongst one of the more famous coffee shops is Sin Hup old establishment at the corner of Jalan Pasar and Jalan Moulmien.

Situated just across the Pulau Tikus market, where all manner of food can be purchased, the cafe...curious how Penang coffee shops all call themselves cafe...I suppose they think its a higher class moniker than coffee shop, or kopi tiam.

I love the Indian mamak mee goreng:

Unlike the ones found in Singapore, which is in deep red hue due to use of coloring, the Penang ones are different. The noodles are fried with eggs, bean sprouts, and bean curd cubes, and just before being served, a wallop of sauce, like a very thick rebus sauce, is added and stirred till it becomes a thick and moist, clinging to every bit of noodle. Some crispy bean curds are added, and the divine concoction served. Simply shiok.

Another famous hawker plying his trade in this coffee shop is the Indian Apong stall.

The Indian apong is diffeerent from the kind served up by Ah that the cook allows the sides to form a thin crust around the succulent, moist apong into a crispy part. As you can imagine, the apong is a round pancake...the outer edge is thin and crispy, the inside is moist, soft, succulent.

We also had some wan than mee (note spelling in Penang)

This was not the best WTM in Penang...though acceptable. The noodles are springy, but not sufficiently qq. The sauce is lacking a bit. Not your calories for better WTM elsewhere.

Around the corner from the coffee shop is a famous Ban Chang Kuih store. BCK is a Chinese pancake, made in a shallow pan. Batter is poured into the pan, and allowed to cook...crushed peanuts, creamed corn, and sometimes a small slice of margarine is added for flavour. The pancake is served folded into itself...and a thin, crispy crust and outer, with a soft, moist, succulent interior. I did not take photographs, but imagine it to be like Mr. Bean, but 1000% better.

We also moved into the market and found an old favourite...the soya bean store:

Also different is the soya bean sold in Penang. It is sold throughout the day, unlike in Singapore where it is predominantly a breakfast drink. But the Penang variety is thicker, more concentrated with bean flavours. And fortified with black sugar (ohr thng in Penang Hokkien)...which is actually a syrup made from sugar mollases and gula melaka. Fragrant!

Sin Hup Aun and neighbourhood stores
Pulau Tikus Market

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Feasting in Penang: more HKM: Hot Wok

with family

Followup on the HKM reviews, this is another one...just off before reaching Penang Plaza in Burma Road, is a curious peranakan restaurant called Hot Wok. Other than peranakan food, which I did not try, it also serves HKM out of a stall just on the five foot way of the shop.

Interesting! My sister highly recommended it.

The soup was quite tasty, but I doubt pork skin was traces were found in the residue of the remainder soup when we finished drinking (yes, I always finish drinking the HKM soup). The noodles were characteristically soft and flaccid. But you can order extra ingredients like larger prawns. The environment is, of course, much nicer than a coffee shop...air conditioned comfort, nice tables. The HKM is good, though in terms of taste, fragrance I would put it a notch or two below Super...which is saying a lot. Plus no wait (almost), and pleasant environment. Good place to sample what Penang has to offer for HKM.

But in addition to the HKM, you can order a plate of roast pork to go with it. Incredibly, it tasted very good together. The pork was flavourful, had a crunchy, crispy skin, and goes very well with the HKM...perhaps the pork bone used in the soup was the unifying factor.

Hot Wok
124-E & F Jalan Burma,
(beside the Giant Supermarket in Penang Plaza & diagonally opposite the BMW car showroom)
10050 Penang, Malaysia.
Telephone: (604) 227 3368 Facsimile: (604) 229 8268
(Daily except Tuesdays)

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Feasting in Penang: Super Hokkien Mee

with family

As mentioned in the earlier Penang series, Hokkien Mee...the soup variety served by hawkers in Penang is a favourite of the such, other than CKT, we had HKM everyday were in Penang...:-)

I didn't take my camera on our second visit to Ah Leng CKT, but there were only two other food stalls in the same coffee shop, one selling economy rice, and the other HKM. We tried it and it was quite superb. The soup was cooked in the traditional way, with pig skin, and was excellent.

But I did sample one of the best Penang had to offer in HKM. Called Super HKM, and located at the oddly named One Corner Coffee Shop, just behind Penang Plaza, this stall, I believe used to be behind a department store just across Burma Road from Penang Plaza called Super. They were at the corner shop with the famous Swatow Lane Ice Kachang and Mee Goreng, but that delapidated shop was torn down, and most of the hawkers, including the Swatow Lang Ice Kachang moved into the swanky New World Complex just down the road.

But this HKM stall moved across the road the other direction, and set up shop amongst perhaps 10 other stalls. The wait at the Super HKM is super long, that many Penangites, because they live there, and not tourists who have time to spare, have not eaten at the store before.

We arrived at about 9am, usually by this time, they would have run out, but we were lucky, and could still place our orders. 45 mins later, it arrived...meantime, we planted ourselves on a table just next to the store, and soon after we placed our order, we saw and heard countless other who were told "bo liao"...meaning sold out.

The soup was wonderful...the stock was heavy, with the characteristic hard boiling (boiled for a long time) with pork bones, prawn heads, pork skin and fortified with rock sugar. It had a beautifl savoury taste and fragrance. The chilli was quite powerful, if you add the entire spoonful as it was served, giving quite a kick. The slices of hard boiled egg provided richness. And the deep fried shallots were capable accomplices to enhance the taste.

The noodles were typical - yellow mee mixed with bee hoon. And typical of Penang HKM, cooked till very soft and flaccid. A couple of slices of lean pork adorns the dish, as well as a few mid-sized, shelled, sliced prawns. The pork was lean, but flavourful. The prawns were fresh, but because they were sliced, could not really judge the succulence and crunchiness. But the dish had a fresh, sea flavour. Very good.

For us, one of the better HKM we tasted this trip.

Super Hokkien Mee
One Corner Coffee Shop
Jalan Larut
Google map, courtesy of Penang Tua Pui.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Feasting in Penang: Lorong Selamat Char Koay Teow

with family

Penang Char Koay Teow is the cornerstone of Penang hawker food. Intriguing that a dish as simple as stir frying some flat rice noodles, with bean sprouts, egg and prawns can be elevated into an artform..and so difficult to fact impossible to achieve at home. This is because home stoves, even my powerful Viking stove at home, cannot muster the power to produce flavourful, wok hei impregnated CKT.

The goggle lady at Lorong Selamat is an icon in Penang CKT scene. I have been eating there since my school days, when a plate was RM3. In those days, the CKT was fried by a man...whom I understand is now frying CKT just outside the old coffee shop.

The stall started as a push cart along the street, and serving the coffee shop, she now operates from her own coffee shop just a few doors away...though still in a push cart...probably for licensing requirements. Her cafe now offers drinks, which is a high profit business, instead of just serving CKT and letting someone else milk the high profit drinks. Vertical integration?

Be prepared to wait at least an hour for your plate of CKT...and in the meantime, should you get impatient, and go to remind her, be prepared for an earful. Bad service and long waits are tolerated, especially by tourists who have time on their hands, but only when the taste of the dish is exceptional. And this CKT is exceptional.

But before getting into the CKT, as you would wait in the cafe, I also need to make you wait for the description of the CKT. We ordered some otak-otak to start our wait:

The Penang, peranakan style otak is steamed in a banana leaf. This was fairly typical. As one opens the banana leaf packet, the nose is hit with the fragrance of the custard/souffle like coconut paste surrounding flakes of fish. The custard/souffle is soft, tender, flavourful. And within, chunks of fish. Rather nice I must say, though my mom's home made otak is superior.

We also tempted our tastebuds with Penang laksa:

Penang laksa is different from Singapore's. Instead of a rich coconut gravy, Penang's version is a thick fish gravy, with plenty of sliced/juliened cucumber, pineapple, and generously topped with pepermint leaves and grated banana flower. This is a sweet, and sour soup. But fortified with hey koe (fermented prawn paste), to provide richness and smoothness. Typically the fish is sheredded, and boneless. But this version has boneless, whole sardines. Interesting variation. And though laksa is my least favoured Penang dish, it was quite good.

We also had some vegetables in the form of popiah:

This is similar to the popiah served at Padang Brown, but without the gravy poured on top. The turnips and filling were well stewed, and the crab meat added provided a richness not afforded if no crab was used.

Of course, the obligatory ice kachang, or in Malaysia known as ABC (air batu campur...Malay for ice mixed)

Rather tasty. I still prefer the one offered by Kek Seng Cafe at Penang Road, where huge kidney beans are added, and a lump of agar agar adds to the enjoyment. But this version served at Heng Huat is more standard. Red beans, a few attap seeds, corn, ice, syrup, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Finally, after an hour or so, the CKT arrives:

Superb as usual. Well fried. Beautiful smokey wok hei. The bean sprouts have just been flash fried, and while slightly charred on the outside, is still fresh and crisp inside, and crunchy to the bite. The koay teow was soft, and had absorbed the lard flavours. The koay teow was rather dry-er than that served by Ah Leng...possibly because she does not use the gooey tapioca flour that Ah Leng uses. This CKT is more typical of Penang CKT. The huge prawns were very fresh, crunchy, sweet. Excellent.

Its a hard toss between Ah Leng and Goggle Lady as the best CKT in my books...but if I only had time to eat at one, I will lean towards Ah Leng...though will not be disappointed if I end up at Lorong Selamat. I have not forgotten the man who now fried the CKT outside the old coffee shop just a few meters away...from what I understand, he was the original fryer, before goggle lady took over. And his CKT is very brother in law who is born, bred and still lives in Penang says in a blind test, he cannot tell the difference.

Cafe Heng Huat
Lorong Selamat

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Feasting in Penang: Toh Soon Cafe

with family

Located in a side street along Lebuh Campbell, this small cafe is almost perpetually full...the actual cafe is no more than a hole in the wall of a corner terrace shop, and a tentage is set up to cover the side road...with tables and stools setup for customers.

This shop has been around for ages. The attraction is the coffee, and the various offers of bread...toasted, steamed, with kaya, with butter...huge list of offerings.

We started the morning breakfast with black coffee...kopi-o.

Black, totally opaque, the coffee is probably brewed from coarsely ground robusta beans. Typical of the kopitiam coffee, this is usually roasted with maize, and often with margerine. The grounds are brewed using the sock method...where the grounds are placed in a muslin bag, and brewed in a pot with hot water. Toh Guan's coffee is thick, flavourful...a robust, full body flavour, and a distinct fragrance. The nose is not like those we get from the more aromatic arabica, but a thick, dense, smokey fragrance which is also very addictive.

But on to the breads. We start off with steamed local bread:

Two slices of local bread...commonly known as bengali bread...this is different from the factory made bread like those offered by Gardenia, in that I think it contains less gluten, and often free of preservatives. Just flour, yeast, often allowed to rise fully...making the bread very airy, and baked till the outer crust develops into a deep brown. The crust is typically cut off and not served.

Steaming causes the bread to become a bit more elastic than it would have been. It also softens and moistens the bread. Very nice. I wonder why steamed bread is seldom offered.

Also lightly toasted butter kaya bread.

The same bengali bread is lightly buttered and spread with kaya. And toasted in a truly old charcoal oven, shown below:

I am not sure why the oven is situated in the lower part of the stove...toasting bread becomes a back breaking exercise of having to stoop low to insert and remove the bread.

But the bread is excellent. Toasted lightly, it maintains a crisp exterior, while the interior is nice and soft. The butter is fairly generous, but the kaya is a bit lacking. It did not have the fragrance, nor the intensity as that found in Killiney, or my mom's home made stuff. On top of that, the amount of kaya spread was not generous.

We also ordered just plain buttered toast, to be eaten with half boiled eggs:

This was quite brilliant. Nicely toasted, with melted butter. And torn into small bite sized portions and dunked in the liquid half boiled eggs. Very nice.

Toh Soon Cafe
Lebuh Campbell (Penang Road side)

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Feasting in Penang : Apong Guan

It is curious how fame supports hawkers in Penang...many of the famous Penang hawkers "feature" 45 min to 1 hour waiting times...many of them have awful manners in dealing with customers, many of them charging very high prices (RM9 may not seem high to a Singaporean...afterall it converts to S$3.50, more or less ok for a plate of hawker center CKT, but the average Penangite, this is daylight robbery...especially when the same stalls were offering the same food for RM3 when they started, 10 or 15 years ago...before fame sets in). But worse are those who dilute the goodness of their food...because tourists don't know the difference...and reduce the ingredients, while increasing prices.

But Apong Guan is none of these. The spritely 61 year old is one of the better known sons of Penang Free alma mater...a school founded in 1816 (yes, before the Raffles founding of Singapore), and once the best English school in the region. He told me that he started work at Malayawata Steel as a Technician, when he told his Engineer that he wanted to strike out on his own. The Engineer gave his blessings, and told him to come back to Malayawata if the business fails. That was 40 years ago.

From this little spot along Burma Road, just opposite the famous Him Heang confectionary, he has had his stall. I remember when I was in school, sometimes, a bunch of us would visit for some apong (Malay pancake, made with flour, eggs, and garnished with ripe bananas).

A special pan, with 8 positions for frying the pancake...the pan is oiled, the pancake flour - a concoction which Guan came to by trial and error added...the lid closed...half way point, he opens the lid, adds the super ripe slices of banana (pisang mas) and a teaspoon of cream corn, closes the lid. About 2 mins later, 8 freshly made apongs are dished out.

Best eaten hot, the apong was fragrant. The skin was golden brown, the insides cooked nicely. The banana...super ripe if you remember me saying...adds a sweet punch, and the creamed corn a nice luxurious finish. Nice. But I was bothered with the smell of uncooked eggs in Guan's apong.

Just 20m before reaching Apong Guan, is another stall...looks almost the same, but the sign says "Apom Chooi"...I believe the original Malay spelling is apong, so spelling the pancake apom is a delebrate attempt to differentiate. BTW, many mamak (Indian muslim) and malay stores spell the pancakes apom too, so the practice is not totally unusual.

But unlike the chatty Guan, Chooi was tactiturn...and looked serious. On the other hand Guan always had a smile on his face. I asked Guan if he was related to Chooi...having read somewhere that they were brothers...and he smiled...and confirmed that indeed Chooi was his brother...but their recipes were different. And due to a family squabble, they don't talk to each other.

I found Chooi's apom to be similar, but without the eggy in comparing the two, I preferred Chooi's.

Apong Guan
push cart along Jalan Burma
+60-16-409-3701 (call for directions or to order in advance. Guan speaks English well)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Feasting in Penang: Ah Leng, world's best CKT?

with family
As I mentioned in the Padang Brown post, Char Koay Teow will feature strongly in this series on my visit to Penang. Not only is CKT the quintessential hawker dish which defines the culinary heights of Penang, it is also my favourite dish. All time favourite, irresistable. True it is less than healthy status due to lots of artery clogging cholesterol and saturated fat from the pork lard, eggs, prawns). But the fragrance, and taste of a well fried plate is heavenly.

Ah Leng is one of the masters of the art. Requiring superb balance of the ingredents, excellent freshness of the prawns and mantis prawns. And masterful control of the super hot wok. Originally with an evening pushcart in Kimberly Street, and operating in the day from the Stadium hawker center, the stall moved when rentals at the Stadium went through the roof, and relocated to the present location.

The stall is situated at the corner of Dunlop and Dato Keramat Roads in a nostalgic, rather run down coffee shop. As is common with famous Penang hawkers, be prepared to wait at least 45 mins during peak lunch time.

Ah Leng himself commandeers the hot fire. The koay teow is fried in batches of perhaps 2 plates a time...this is to try and address the waiting time issue, as the perfect CKT should be fried one plate at a time.

But they manage to create these masterpieces even two plates a time.

The order was placed for the "keh liao" (additional ingredients) which means duck egg is used, and mantis prawns are added. Fresh duck eggs are more luxurious to the mouth, richer tasting than ordinary fresh chicken egg. (BTW, fresh duck eggs are NOT imported and hence not found in Singapore because of a ban due to avian flu). And mantis prawn is added to increase the sweetness, and pure crustacean taste which totally imbues the noodles.

Fried with soy sauce and a touch of oyster sauce, and with a tapioca type thickener (similar to the gooey stuff in or luak, but used in very reserved portions, so normally it is not detected as gooey, but just thicker, slightly moist CKT). Typical with the traditional Penang CKT, lard crisps were well distributed within, and some sprigs of ku chai is added with the crunchy bean sprouts...still crunchy because it is briefly flashed in the scorching fire of the wok.

For me, this is the perfect CKT. Powerful wok hei. Not overcooked, not undercooked. The prawns were succulent, juicy, and crunchy. The mantis prawn soft and tender. The cockles were cooked perfect...just a touch to rid it of the blood and raw state, and not overcooked till rubbery. The noodles infused with the crustacean flavours of the prawn and mantis prawn. With the duck egg providing a smooth, luxurious mouthfeel. And the lard...gorgeous! For me Best CKT!

Ah Leng Char Koay Teow
Kafe Khoon Hiang
corner of Jalan Dunlop and Jalan Dato Keramat
GPS: N 5.412779, E100.31953
open from 7am till about 2:30pm daily

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Feasting in Penang: Padang Brown

with family

Penang...foodie paradise...especially for hawker food. I grew up in Penang, and have fond memories of life in the idyllic city (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site!) and the wonderful hawker food. After some 5 years of not being back in the island, we decided to take a short break to visit my sister who is still lives in Penang.

Immediately on touch down, we headed for Padang Brown. We used to live across the road in Kebun Nyok road. Padang Brown is a large field almost smack in the middle of town. The field is large enough for two full sized football fields, and on some evenings turn into a kaleidoscope which is Penang's Pasar Malam (night market). But dear to many Penangite's heart is the Padang Brown (or just Padang) food stalls.

So, what's great about Padang food. First, the Pasembur:

Originally a version of the Indian rojak (in Penang, this dish is also known as Cheh or uncooked comprises of shredded cucumber, julienned bangkwang (chinese turnips), bean sprouts, bean curds (more than one variety), crackers and slices of cuttle fish and a wonderful orange hued sauce, with crushed peanuts and topped with sliced jelly fish. This particular stall in Padang is my absolute favourite, and incidentally done by Chinese hawkers instead of the usual Indian. Yummy and shiok!

From the stall next door, Penang style popiah.

Unlike those found in Singapore, these were filled to the brim with stewed tunips, carrots, bean sprouts, and crab meat. And generously served with a helping of stew gravy. The ingredients blend well, and the gravy gave the dish some more bite and zing than the dry variety found in Singapore. Again super delicious.

As the first stop in Penang, I had to have the Penang Char Koay Teow (not only is it spelt different from Singapore's Char Kway Teow, but the dish is totally different. No sweet black sauce. Instead, a ferocious fire, super hot wok, lard (plenty of it), koay teow, eggs (sometimes fresh duck egg for extra punch), cockles, sometimes slices of chinese sausage and huge prawns.

CKT is my all time favourite dish. The one served up at Padang was above average for Penang...which is saying a lot. Every coffee shop in Penang has its own CKT stall. So the average standard is pretty darn high. Padang's qualify as top 5 in my book. I will blog about my favourite and no.2 in the following days.

We also had kerabu bee hoon (or Tom Yam Bee hoon)

Bee hoon is fried lightly with a tom yam gravy infused into the noodles...and topped with grated coconut and dried prawns, onions, garlic. Another wonderful dish.

Hokkien Mee is another favourite:

I will feature HKM more than once in this Penang series, as it is a favourite of our family. The Penang HKM is more like Singapore's prawn mee than hokkien mee. It is served with soup, often made by boiling pork bones (a bit like the Japanese ramen soup), but with rock sugar added. Prawns are sliced, an de-shelled...often not large prawns, but smallish ones are used. The dish is typically served with some kangkong, half a boiled egg, and with both beehoon and yellow mee. While the Padang version is not the absolute best, it is also above average. I will blog about the best HKM in Penang separately.

Also interesting is a variety of Nyonya kuih, shown below the awesome kuih talam.

When I was growing up, Nyonya kuih was sold by an Indian peddler, carrying the kuih in two baskets balanced on a wooden pole, going from house to house on foot to sell his snacks. In those days, the kuih were was before the health craze...and were flavourful and often had a consistency which is best described as springy, bouncy...QQ as Singaporeans would say. This kuih talam was such...though the santan (coconut milk) topping was very tender and soft, the green kuih had that consistency.

Here is a picture of the Pasembur stall and the popiah stall next to it. Both these stalls are only open in the afternoon, and due to the popularity, feature waiting times as long as 45 mins to an hour (this is quite a fairly common occurance to have to wait 45 mins to an hour for famous Penang hawkers to cook up their magic...IMHO, if you can spare the time, totally worth it!)

Padang Brown Hawker Stalls
More info on how to get there

GPS: N 5.412779, E100.31953

A in the map marks the spot:

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