Discover Penang Hainanese Food Before It’s Too Late!

loading (from left to right )Hokkien char, Roti babi, Hainanese chicken chop.

If taste can transport you into the past, then Hai Onn Restaurant is a special little time machine.

Hainanese cuisine has always had a place in the hearts – and stomachs – of Malaysians, from the staple chicken rice (with Malaysians and Singaporeans hotly debating its origins), to the potato gravy-based chicken chop with roti bakar on the side, and the hailam char (yellow noodles in white gravy).

Hainanese food is also much sought after to feed guests at Chinese weddings. Dishes such as kiam chye ark and jiu hu char are common at such events.

In recent years, fans of the Hainanese flavour have been flocking to venues like Yeng Keng Cafe, Khoon Pastry House and the latest addition, Loke Thye Kee, to get their fill of chicken chops and savoury chicken pies.

Or to Hai Onn Restaurant on Jalan Burma, where the food gets as old school as is possible. The premise takes up two lots in a row of shophouses, and is essentially a kopitiam – no frills, just good food.

“The restaurant has been running since prewar times,” says Cheah Sze Pang, the amiable and obliging owner of Hai Onn. “My late father, Cheah Sit Chuan, established the business along with seven other partners – all of whom came from China (Hainan Island, to be exact) – long before I was born in 1949.”

Discover Penang Hainanese Food

Cheah Sze Pang.

Sze Pang has no qualms about handing down his recipes, and is in fact publishing a cookbook soon with Popular Book Company.

The taste of the dishes has changed little since then. When Sze Pang took over the business, he already had intricate knowledge of the recipes and preparation methods through his time spent observing – and later working alongside – his father and his partners in the kitchen. “I get people asking me for the recipes,” he says, “and I really don’t mind giving it to them. There was a lady whose daughter liked to eat Hainanese chicken chop, and she wanted to see how we make it. I showed her, but when she tried to replicate it, the taste was different. I can’t explain it,” he says with a laugh, “the method and ingredients for the gravy are really very simple – flour, oil, condiments. It can’t be too thick or too watery either. I guess you just need the right touch.”

What sets Hainanese cuisine apart is its steady use of fermented bean paste, or taucheo. “Most of our dishes contain taucheo, even when it comes to stir-fried vegetables. The Cantonese, in contrast, tend to use taujoo (fermented bean curd).

“But to be sure, real Hainanese food doesn’t have many vegetable dishes – the ones that are on the menu are Baba-inspired, such as jiu hu char.”

It is interesting how this came to be. “My father told me that the Hainanese were the last wave of immigrants to Malaysia – the latest to arrive. By then, all the trades and businesses were already taken up, so what they did was work for the Babas in the kitchens. That was what my father did, and that was where he learned his trade.” Hence, on the Hainanese food menu are signature nyonya dishes as well, such as kari kapitan, gulai tumis, inchi kabin and too tor th’ng, or pork belly soup.

Sit Chuan saved up enough money to start selling economy rice. Then he, along with seven partners, eventually established Hai Onn. Initially, they owned only one shop lot and rented the neighbouring one. When the owner of the rented lot decided to sell, they quickly snapped it up. Not long after that, Sit Chuan’s partners, wanting to return to China, sold their shares to him.

And that was where Sze Pang stepped in. “At that time I had finished Form Five at Chung Ling Private High School, so I decided to help my father with the restaurant – it was the only right thing. He was running the business all by himself and my siblings were all very young.”

Some of the old dishes have faded into near obscurity. “People of the older generation could be quite selfish – they kept the recipes to themselves and wouldn’t hand them down. You only had the chance to observe them when they cooked, and learn from there. I didn’t write the recipes down but remembered them by heart – and hand as well, because I helped out when they were cooking.

“So, I knew what ingredients went into which dish. Some rare Hainanese dishes – such as ark or, or yam duck – I still know how to make. Those who claim to know how to make these dishes probably don’t know the real secrets – they can cook it all right, but it’s not palatable,” says Sze Pang, who is also chairman of the Penang Cook Association. He has no qualms about handing down his recipes, and is in fact publishing a cookbook soon with Popular Book Company.

Hai Onn employs about eight workers – half of whom are family members. Sze Pang’s children are not among them – his daughter is employed elsewhere while his son holds a PhD from the UK and is currently residing there. “It’s not logical to ask him to come back and take over the business,” Sze Pang says, “we invest in our children so that they can have better jobs. I don’t think my son is coming back here – he’s already bought a house there – so I go to England once every two years to visit him. Then, the restaurant shuts down for a month.”

Discover Penang Hainanese Food

Because of his age as well as changing customer trends, Sze Pang has moved opening hours from 8am to noon, and he closes shop at 8pm. “Age is catching up with me,” he says, “and I can’t work hard anymore. My pace has slowed down, so sometimes customers can’t bear the long wait for their food.”

He also has plans to sell his shop: “There was an interested buyer, but because of a disagreement over the price, I withheld from selling. But I think I will sell within the next 10 years. A lot of my customers have asked me not to, but that’s not the issue. I’m getting old,” he says.

“I also travel quite a bit. Apart from visiting my son in England, I travel all over Malaysia to attend meetings on behalf of the associations – I’m also vice-chairman of the Hainan Association. I’m very active in this and it keeps my mind alert.”

He will, however, run the business until a willing buyer comes along. Till then, Hai Onn will continue serving its mouthwatering dishes, without frills or fanfare, in a setting that is becoming more uncommon in Penang. And day by day, that is what makes it increasingly special.

Hai Onn Restaurant is located on 53-55, Jalan Burma. Opening hours are from 12pm to 8pm, Tuesdays to Sundays.

Julia “Bubba” Tan is Deputy Editor of Penang Monthly. She enjoys cooking as much as she enjoys eating, which is a lot.

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