The Legacy of Taste

loading Tai Buan is helmed by father and son.

Some dishes don’t change on the streets of Penang.

There are some things in life that never change. Taste is one: a dish from childhood – the certain way a char siu is marinated and barbecued to the perfection that a six-year-old will remember forever – so perfect it shapes a child’s palate that no Michelin-star restaurant will ever reproduce such mouthwatering distinction.

There is a place on Lebuh Chulia – just before the turning into Rope Walk – that has been there since as far back as my memory can serve me. There are a lot of such places, I will admit, but not many where I have seen Sunday brunches with my late grandparents, my grandfather shovelling the meats into his mouth (that man lived to eat), me propped up on two plastic stools stacked atop each other – too big for a baby chair, too short for an adult chair.

(From left) Yap Kin Mun and Yap Kum Moon.

There was a young man there then who did most of the running around. He is now 38, his face lean, having lost its baby fat. “That’s my nephew, Yap Kin Mun,” says 63-year-old Yap Kum Moon, proprietor of Wai Kee Cafe, “and that’s his wife,” he continues, referring to the woman behind the chopper board. Kin Mun and his wife operate the cafe in the evenings. Their dinner servings only began this year. Before that, the place was opened only for lunch, which Kum Moon is still in charge of.

Wai Kee Cafe has been operating since the 1950s – that’s more than 60 years pleasuring the gullets of Penangites. Kum Moon, 63, took over the business from his father, Guangzhou-born Yap Wai, whom the cafe is named after. They moved to their current location from across the road in 1961.

In 2015 Wai Kee Cafe’s neighbours, which comprised an antiques shop and chemical shop, among others, were evicted by the building’s new owners. According to Kum Moon, the Yaps were, however, invited to stay on and continue with their business – as long as the food is good and customers keep pouring in, Wai Kee Cafe is welcomed anywhere. “I oversee the dinner operations, training Kin Mun and his wife. One day when they are ready, I’ll retire and let them take over the business entirely.”

Many such mom-and-pop restaurants did not survive into the twenty-first century, and there are many others out there today without any upcoming successors.

Generational eateries are common in Penang – we have loyal taste buds. “It’s my father’s recipe,” says Kum Moon. “This Cantonese style of barbecuing meat is not so easy to find in Penang anymore. We have not altered the recipe much since my father’s day – the soup and vegetable are still staples – and besides removing certain dishes from the menu such as braised pig ears, pig’s liver and other internal organs (changing tastes and complicated preparation methods are the reasons behind this), everything else is the same.” Kum Moon admits that there is a slight difference in taste with his nephew’s recipe, but he dedicatedly coaches him to perfection (“I have to test his recipes every day,” Kum Moon says. Imagine that – eating those beautiful marinated meats daily!).

Many such mom-and-pop restaurants did not survive into the twenty-first century, and there are many others out there today without any upcoming successors. Those that are lucky enough to have heirs sometimes see their business models altered to keep up with the times: Moh Teng Pheow Nyonya Koay, nestled in a cul-de-sac behind Wai Kee Cafe, is jointly operated by master kuih-maker Mook Hian Beng and his children, and now serves hot food on top of traditional freshly made kuih; while Tek Sen Restaurant on Lebuh Carnavon has moved from the five-foot-way round the corner into a large airy shophouse a few doors away, equipped with a line kitchen that keeps the wait down to a bearable level.

Kum Moon's workers run the cafe like a well-oiled machine.

Honey roasted char siu goodness.

With today’s preference for air-conditioned outlets that, most of the time, serve some form of fusion food, open-air eateries such as Wai Kee Cafe are old school. No, there are no cushioned chairs or servers in uniform – eating there results most of the time in one being bathed in sweat, while Kin Mun and his entourage (those workers have been there forever; Kum Moon half-jokingly says that it’s because he’s a good boss) shout orders across the shop. It’s not glamorous, but it works.

“He was working as an electrician,” says Kum Moon, gesturing to his nephew, “but the cafe offered better prospects, so I asked him to come and help me out. He’s been doing so since he was about 20.”

Ong Tai Buan skilfully dishes out insanely tasty porridge and condiments.

It’s a gruelling job: Kum Moon wakes up at 5.30am every day to purchase the necessary ingredients (everything is fresh and locally sourced). He begins marinating the meats at 7am for at least three and a half hours. “We prepare and barbecue everything (we still use charcoal to barbecue the char siu – that makes all the difference) nearby at a rented property at Rope Walk and transport them over in a cargo bike. It’s not convenient to prepare the food at the shop for lack of space.” Kin Mun helps with the preparations,and one can spot him zooming across Lebuh Chulia with his cart laden with char siu, pigs’ intestines, roasted duck and chicken, and other assorted meats at around 11am, and again before the evening shift begins.

Today, thanks to the internet and the convenience of ride-share, Penang’s old eateries are booming. And as Penang’s tourism industry finds second life, foreign patrons are on the rise: “They come with their maps and their apps, and it’s great for business, although things can get quite strained.” On Sundays, one has to be at Wai Kee Cafe at 10.30am, and even then, there’s at least half an hour’s wait.

It’s the same at most mom-and-pops: at Tai Buan on Lebuh Muntri, the braised duck, served in a broth of soy sauce as black as night and just as dangerously exquisite, is snapped up very quickly, and for this writer, whose parents have been frequenting the porridge-seller since they were children themselves, it is an encouraging sight. The queue is no doubt an annoyance though.

Braised duck, tofu and salted eggs are the order of the day.

Tai Buan is located at Lebuh Muntri.

Tai Buan is currently operated by Ong Tai Buan. His son, aged 35, helps him dish out bowl after bowl of porridge and its sumptuous condiments at lightning speed. Ong’s father, who came from China, started the business at Lebuh Chulia. They then moved to the five-foot-way at the corner of Lebuh Buckingham, which I remember going to when I was very little, before relocating to their current premises in 2000. They hold on to their treasured family recipe, and just like the luckier mom-and-pops, Ong will pass down the apron to his son when he retires.

Taste is subjective: one man’s meat is another man’s poison. There is no “best restaurant”, for all the Michelin stars in the world. There are only the tastes that linger in your mind your entire life – and the memory of being seated on stacked stools, the blue tiles on the floor, and the smell of steaming hot rice.

Julia “Bubba” Tan counts her lucky stars that her favourite eateries show signs of surviving for at least the next decade, and is being very selfish and will not reveal her favourite nasi kandar stall for fear of having to jostle with blog-savvy out-of-towners during lunch hour.

Related Articles

Jun 2016

Where Students Return to be Teachers

At SMJK Sacred Heart, dedicated teachers inspire future generations of the school.

Jan 2016

Fusing modern skills with traditional crafts

Art festival Urban Xchange 2015 brought together young artists and traditional handicraft masters to re-imagine Penang’s heritage.

Feb 2016

Insidious Selfies: Should Leaders Act like the Rest of Us?

Behind the photograph is someone who is very, very different from you.