The Hainanese Influence in Penang’s Cuisine

loading Dinner at the old Hollywood Restaurant, with chicken pie on the table. The author’s father is seated on the right with his old friends from the Chinese Swimming Club.

Here are some tips on how to capture the taste of yesteryear.

When I began writing the chapter on Hainanese influences for my first book, Penang Heritage Food, which was published in 2010, I wondered why the Hainanese were cooking Nyonya food in their restaurants. I soon worked it out – I remember my mother telling me that her father, Khoo Beng Chiang,1 had a full-time Hainanese cham phor (chef) in their house; he cooked both Nyonya and Western food.

Many well-to-do Nyonyas had full-time Hainanese cooks in their households – that was where they learned to cook Nyonya food. I understand that the two Hainanese brothers who started Loke Thye Kee restaurant used to work for Khoo Sian Ewe, a well-known land owner, civic leader, philanthropist and a prominent member of the Straits Chinese community in Penang.

The Hainanese were among the last Chinese language groups to arrive in Malaya, when the other language groups had monopolised most of the trades. They ended up working for the British in their households and kitchens, eventually playing a major role in the local food and beverage industry.

They looked after holiday bungalows up on Penang Hill, Cameron Highlands, Fraser’s Hill and Maxwell Hill, as well as rest houses all over Malaya, and worked in military messes, government canteens, and in the kitchens of the Penang Club, Chinese Swimming Club, Penang Swimming Club, Penang Sports Club and the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, among many. The restaurants at the main railway stations all over Malaya, as well as within the Malayan Railway trains, were run by the Hainanese.

Cooking for the British, the Hainanese chefs incorporated local ingredients into dishes such as chicken chop, chicken pie, and cake and curry puffs, blending East and West and Hainanese. I should add that in Penang, there are some unique dishes not found in Singapore or Melaka, such as choon piah and min chee.

The better known Hainanese restaurants in those days were Garden Hotel and Hollywood in Tanjung Bungah; Chooi Lim Koo restaurant in Ayer Itam; and Loke Thye Kee at the corner of Jalan Penang and Jalan Burma.

Min chee. Photo courtesy of Penang Heritage Food.

Chicken pie (left) and chicken stew (right). Photo courtesy of Penang Heritage Food.

Among the dishes that bring back memories are choon piah, roti babi, inchi kaybin, hylam (mah) mee, macaroni pie, chicken stew, chicken pie, min chee, mushroom/giblet soup, braised mutton, fish and chips, gulai tumis, curry kapitan, ju hu char, prawn fritters (heh kian), lor bak, duck soup, and chicken, lamb and pork chops.

 

There are not many restaurants serving Western Hainanese/Nyonya food today. It is sad that, with very few exceptions, the quality has definitely dropped – many of the dishes are pale imitations of the originals, in spite of favourable comments from today’s food bloggers who I suspect do not know what Hainanese food should taste like.

The Hainanese were among the last Chinese language groups to arrive in Malaya, when the other language groups had monopolised most of the trades. They ended up working for the British in their households and kitchens, eventually playing a major role in the local food and beverage industry.

The younger chefs did not pick up the finer points of Hainanese cuisine, and the older chefs did not pass down the details, which was what happened in many Nyonya families: the elder Nyonyas sometimes withheld important ingredients or tips from those outside the immediate family – and occasionally even from members of their own family.

Dinstinctly Hainanese Stews and Pies

Hainanese chicken stew is similar to the English chicken stew cooked with white sauce. Tinned button mushrooms were traditionally used as fresh mushrooms were not available then. Local ingredients such as soy sauce, cloves and cinnamon were added to make the dish more interesting.

The chicken stew, when cooked with less water, is used as the filling for Hainanese chicken pies. I remember eating the chicken pie made by the caretakers of a holiday bungalow up on Penang Hill when we stayed there. The same puff pastry was also used to make curry puffs for tea – like those sold at Tip Top in Pulau Tikus or Wing Lok on Jalan Penang.

Min chee or bin chee is made up of diced potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, chicken, onions and green peas. It is served with mashed potato and fried egg, together with croutons and fried sliced shallots as garnish. It could be a meal by itself.

There are two possible origins of min chee. It could be an improved version of the English mixed vegetables (of boiled carrots, peas, beans and swede); the Hainanese chefs added diced potatoes, chicken and tinned mushrooms, as well as soy sauce, cloves and cinnamon bark to give it a subtle local flavour.

Another plausible origin for min chee is that it is a corruption of the word “minced”, as in minced beef or lamb. The Hainanese cooks could not speak proper English, and “min chee” was used to refer to minced meat used in shepherd’s pie or cottage pie, which also uses onions and carrots. “Minci” is in fact the equivalent for “mince” in an old phrase book, Malay for Mems, written in 1927. There is a Macau version of min chee, claimed as a national dish there. The ingredients used are minced meat, fried potatoes and soy sauce.

My wife’s Aunty Jane used min chee as the filling for the pai ti shells that we made for her. You may think this is a “new” Nyonya fusion food, but there is a recipe for Jawa kwei paiti (or kroket tjanker) in a book of Malayan recipes published in the 1950s. The filling is similar to the min chee.

The Hainanese, like other Chinese language groups, do not waste anything edible. The mushroom/giblet soup is an excellent example. The chicken giblets, as the name implies, are the main ingredients in this dish; unused chicken bones and other parts of the chicken are made into stock for the soup. The other ingredients are diced tinned mushrooms, onions and potatoes, as well as tung hoon (glass noodles). Today, the chicken and mushrooms in this dish are cut into large pieces, which would have been admonished by the Nyonya of old as “chor”, or coarse – another example of the lack of quality control today.

Choon piah, which is traditionally served with sliced chillies and ang moh tau eu.

Pai ti shells filled with min chee, similar to Jawa kwei paiti (kroket tjanker).

Roti babi/ayam – the "fine dining" version prepared by the author.

Deep-fried Goodness

Choon piah has similarities with the poh piah chnee. Poh piah chnee is traditionally made by wrapping leftover poh piah filling with the poh piah skin, and is deep fried. It is traditionally served with sang yong chor (a sweet and sour chilli sauce). On the other hand, the traditional choon piah is unique to Penang. The skin is specially made and the filling is different from the poh piah filling, the main ingredients being minced meat and crabmeat, and shredded dried mushrooms, onions, yam beans, water chestnuts and cabbages. It is also deep fried.

My mother used to make choon piah, and her recipe can be found in the Penang YWCA and the Penang MGS Ex-Pupil’s Association cookbooks. The choon piah served at old Hainanese restaurants used a specially made thin pancake-like skin. Apart from the aforementioned ingredients, cinnamon and cloves were added to give it a subtle flavour. Some of today’s restaurants use five-spice powder; in one restaurant, they added so much five-spice powder that the colour of the choon piah filling became very dark!

There are very few restaurants today that serve traditionally made choon piah. Most restaurants use poh piah skin; some coat the poh piah skin with a thin batter and deep fry the dish. There is an ongoing debate as to whether choon piah is considered a Nyonya dish.

Roti babi is a Nyonya dish. A special filling of minced meat (chicken or pork), onions and spices including coriander, cekur roots and pepper is stuffed into a pocket slit within a thick slice of bread. The bread is coated with beaten eggs and deep-fried till golden brown. However, the Hainanese version of roti babi described in Penang Heritage Food has a somewhat similar filling to the choon piah: cabbage is not used; the proportion of onions to yam beans is greater; and instead of cekur and coriander, cinnamon and cloves are used. Some of today’s Nyonya restaurants use the same filling for choon piah and roti babi.

Curries

Gulai tumis is a Nyonya fish curry of Malay origin. It is traditionally cooked with tow tah, a larger relative of the white pomfret species. It is the torch ginger or bunga kantan that distinguishes it from other curries. Curry kapitan is a medium-dry curry with a coconut milk base. It has the characteristics of a Malay dish which has been adopted by the Nyonyas. The spices used are all fresh – chillies, onions, turmeric and lemongrass, plus the most important: belacan (shrimp paste).

Garnishes and Condiments

An interesting assortment of garnishes and condiments from Western and Eastern cuisines is used to enhance Hainanese Western-Nyonya dishes, such as croutons, fried sliced shallots, sambal belacan and sambal penceri.

Worcestershire sauce is the quintessential English condiment that accompanies Penang Western-Hainanese dishes. Lea & Perrins is the best known brand of Worcestershire sauce in this part of the world. The sauce is referred to in Penang as “ang mo tau eu”; the Hainanese used to make their own, and my mother and my aunts also made this sauce using an heirloom recipe.

Gulai tumis.

Curry kapitan, a medium-dry curry.

Mushroom/giblet soup – giblet not included! Served with Worcestershire sauce.

Western Hainanese dishes such as chicken stew, chicken pie, min chee, mushroom/giblet soup and inchi kaybin have always been served with Worcestershire sauce. Choon piah and roti babi/ayam are also always served with Worcestershire sauce with added sliced red chillies. In addition, min chee and the mushroom/giblet soup are served with croutons and eu chang, or fried sliced shallots.

The mention of croutons reminds me of inchi kaybin (deep-fried spicy chicken), which were traditionally served with the longer version of croutons. Today, inchi kaybin is served with prawn crackers. In the old days, the inchi kaybin was so well cooked that we could even eat the smaller bones, such as the breast bones. You can’t do that today, partly because the chicken in recent times is cut into large pieces.

Curry kapitan is traditionally garnished with a generous serving of eu chang and fried sliced salted fish (tanau kiam hu).

Other iconic dishes such as raised mutton and fried or grilled fish are traditionally served with sambal penceri, which is similar to the Thai nam chut. It is most probably a condiment adopted by the Penang Nyonyas. Sambal penceri is made from sambal belacan, sliced shallots and chillies, and soy sauce.

It is my hope that the comments made in this article will be noted by our younger chefs, and will lead to an improvement in the quality of Penang Hainanese Western-Nyonya food.

The dishes depicted in the photographs were prepared by the author himself.

1I only learned recently that Khoo Beng Chiang was one of the founders of Chung Ling High School.

Dr Ong Jin Teong is an engineering and food consultant. He conducts cooking classes, does research on Nyonya and heritage cuisine, and hosts the occasional supper club. He has published two award-winning books: Penang Heritage Food –Yesterday’s Recipes for Today’s Cook and Nonya Heritage Kitchen – Origins, Utensils and Recipes.



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