A Snack Well Worth Waiting For

loading Ban chien kuih.

These delicacies can be enjoyed at breakfast, tea or supper and with its crust thin and crispy, or thick and satisfying.

It tastes best when cooked with charcoal.

Made from a simple base of flour and eggs, ban chien kuih is a popular Hokkien delicacy. It comes with a flavoursome crust filled with crushed peanuts, sugar and margarine, and is usually cooked in one large pan, then cut and divided into slices for sale. And that’s only one of its delicious variations – ban chien kuih is made and savoured by many communities: the Malays and Indians call it apam balik or apong balik, while it is known as min chien kuih in Singapore and dai gao min in Cantonese-influenced towns such as Ipoh and KL.

The origin of the pancake’s name in Penang is based on its Hokkien pronunciation, “ban chien”, meaning “slow-cooked” in English. To be sure, the time it spends on the pan is rather lengthy, especially if you are hungrily waiting for it.

The snack can be found at roadside stalls or at morning and night markets everywhere in Penang.

Many of these stalls have been around a long time. For instance, the pancake stall at Pulau Tikus market, located opposite a coffee shop along Jalan Pasar, is manned by the third generation ban chien kuih seller, Neoh Kooi Aun, together with his wife Ooi Guat Meng. It was once operated by Neoh’s grandfather, who arrived in Penang from China about a century ago. The famous stall continues to dish out ban chean kuih of the thick variety, stuffed with either brown or white sugar, until late morning.

Another roadside stall that has satisfied cravings for this crispy snack for decades is Apong Guan, a regular presence on Jalan Burma. The owner, Uan Cheng Guan, better known as Ah Guan, has been making mini apong balik, filled with two pieces of bananas and some sweet corn then folded in half, for about 40 years now. Ah Guan churns out pancake after pancake from eight in the morning until about six in the evening. Working six days a week, Ah Guan’s only rest time is an hour-long lunch break. The back of his truck, where he cooks the pancakes, can only accommodate ten pans – so expect a long wait!

Apong Guan, a regular fixture along Jalan Burma.

Andy H'ng Yong Chiad prefers using charcoal to fire up the pan, and has retained the use of thick round iron pans.

Not all pancake businesses continue to be operated by their original sellers. Andy H'ng Yong Chiad’s family stall, located in Farlim along Jalan Kampung Pisang, is one such example. Taking over the stall from its ailing owner, who has since passed on and who had served the area for decades, H’ng has been manning it for more than a year now. According to him, the trade is easy to master and does not require much learning. He decided to take over when he saw how familiar a spot it was for anyone looking for a pancake.

Like his predecessor, H’ng uses charcoal to fire up the pan; unlike gas, charcoal adds favourably to the taste and fragrance of the pancakes. He has also similarly retained the use of thick round iron pans when most vendors today prefer using thin goldcoloured metal plates, and gas instead of charcoal. H’ng operates his business daily from noon until five in the evening, and has added a new flavour: pandan – a welcome innovation.

The ban chien kuih cuts across ethnic lines. One of the most popular local pancake stalls in town is the three-wheeler stall along Lebuh Downing, in front of the General Post Office, which has been in business for the past 30 years.

Noor Azam’s apam balik stall was started by his brother until he took over. Today, the same stall is manned by Noor’s very own workers, Pak Cik Addenan and Mak Cik Salmah. They begin selling at noon as the area is usually bustling during lunch time. With a regular clientele consisting of civil servants and bank workers, Salmah observes that Penangites of all races enjoy their apam balik as a tea-time snack. The pair normally operates the stall until everything has finished.

Addenan prefers not to customise or add new flavours to the pancakes, sticking to the original recipe. As some of their customers do not consume eggs, their apams are made from flour, sugar, peanuts and sweetcorn to accommodate strict vegetarians.

The ingredients and methods are simple enough, but it takes a certain determination to withstand long working hours – and for the daytime vendors, relentless heat – to produce and sell enough goods to cover costs and earn a neat profit. Rising prices of basic ingredients such as sugar and flour, coupled with the need to keep the snack affordable (each piece is usually priced between RM0.60-RM2, depending on the selection of ingredients), present a problem to the vendors: how to keep their prices low?

The H’ngs have had to revise their prices to cope with GST – despite complaints by their regular patrons. They had to do so to maintain the size and quality of the pancakes. The H’ngs remain optimistic: their customers tend to purchase in bulk. Keeping up with the times, the H’ng’s have also set up a Facebook page (www.facebook. com/kochabi.apombalik) to spread the word and attract new customers.

Rising cost of sugar, flour and peanuts affect the price of the ban chien kuih.

Noor Azam's apam balik stall.

Addenan and Salmah have kept the price of their apams at RM0.90 per piece. Even so, a price hike is inevitable: one kilogram of ground peanuts currently costs them RM12, and they may have to raise the apam price next year to RM1 per piece to cover basic costs. While Salmah insists that RM1 for an apam is still the cheapest in George Town, regular customers will be given advance notice of any price hike. Rest assured, quality – and more importantly, crispiness – will be maintained even then.

Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst with the History section of Penang Institute who writes to inspire and takes pride in introducing herself as a writer rather than a lawyer.
Ooi Kok Hin is an INTP who lives to write and writes to live. Follow him at www. facebook.com/ooikokhin.

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