A Whiter Shade of Apricot

loading Goh Lean Chin selling heng jin teh at the New Lane hawker centre.

Get to know the remarkable heng jin teh. You won’t regret it.

With its unique aroma, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea, heng jin teh has been a Penang favourite for decades and is usually taken together with eu char koay (fried dough stick). Widely misconceived as being made from almonds, the drink is boiled from apricot kernels, which are believed to ease coughs and soothe the digestive system.1

Heng jin teh and eu char koay (fried dough stick).

A classic octagonal pot in the shape of an apricot kernel.

While this beverage is claimed to have come from the Teochews, it is hard to trace its exact origins. George Town remains home to the oldest heng jin teh vendor.

Famous for its affordable products and groceries, Lebuh Kimberley is also a popular site for street food. At night, the bustling road is filled with locals and tourists hunting for hawker fare, mainly koay chiap, koay teow th’ng, char koay teow and Chinese desserts, especially see koay th’ng (which literally means “Four Fruit Soup”). It is along this very street that the heng jin teh can be found.

(Right to left) Raw and peeled apricot kernels.

Armed with a classic octagonal pot in the shape of an apricot kernel, the shop has been in operation since 1933. Its owners, Goh Lin Siang, 35, and his brother-in-law, Tang Choon Swee, 43, are fourth generation successors who took over operations in 2008.

The business was founded by Lin Siang’s great-grandfather who arrived in Penang from Guangdong Province, China, in the early twentieth century. Upon realising that there was good demand for Chinese desserts in George Town, especially among the Cantonese, he began to make a living boiling and selling these, shouldering them on poles during his neighbourhood rounds.

It was not until the second generation that the Goh family finally owned their own stall along Lebuh Kimberley. An extension of the same business was established by Lin Siang’s uncle at the New Lane hawker centre. Its current owners, Goh Lean Chin and Goh Lean Bin, Lin Siang’s cousins, inherited the New Lane business after their father’s demise two years ago.

Grinding the apricot kernels. In the past, stone grinders were used.

Made with Love

Committed to ensuring that the original taste and texture of heng jin teh are maintained, the Goh family strictly adheres to a recipe handed down through the generations and old methods of preparation.

Their kitchen is located in an old shophouse, which the family once lived in, at the People’s Court along Lebuh Cintra. Here, Lin Siang and Lean Chin take turns using the kitchen from 4:30am until 5pm.

The process begins with the careful peeling of the apricot kernel skin. Grinding the kernels is next, and unlike the old days when the stone grinding process would take at least two hours to complete, it takes only a few minutes to extract the raw apricot kernel juice today.

The juice will then be boiled for over an hour after a filtrating process. This is often the most draining part as constant stirring is needed to prevent the texture from becoming too sticky. Unlike most powderform heng jin teh easily purchased from the market, the texture of homemade heng jin teh is often thick, with a tickling bitterness at first before one truly tastes the natural sweetness.

On the way from the family kitchen to Lebuh Kimberley, ready for the evening's business.

The Goh family stall at Lebuh Kimberley – the oldest heng jin teh vendor in Penang.

See koay th'ng contains gingko, longan, lotus seed and red bean.

Preparation for the other desserts involves tasks such as picking lotus seeds and breaking the hard shells of ginkgoes to extract the fruits – a daunting task, seeing the delicate size of the seeds and fruits. Charcoal is then used to boil the ingredients.

According to Lin Siang, many old residents in George Town still have the habit of having desserts or tong shui after dinner, and some regulars frequent his shop every week to purchase desserts for their parents. This culture is sadly eroding among the younger generation.

Changing tastes also affect business: young people today do not appreciate such desserts – especially heng jin teh, with its strange taste – and are not willing to pay a high price unless extra ingredients are added. While other shops serve modern desserts with easily prepared ingredients such as jelly, sago, corn and sweet potato, the Gohs insist on holding on to traditions and keeping their prices affordable – at RM4 to RM5 per dessert – despite their use of imported ingredients.

Some innovation was necessary to sustain their business. In 2008 the Gohs decided to rent the shophouse behind their existing stall along Lebuh Kimberley; fortunately for them, they are not too affected by the high rental in George Town. Also, as part of the rebranding, a new logo bearing their father’s picture and his stall was similarly launched.

While the Gohs are not the only traditional Chinese dessert vendors in town, their commitment in maintaining the originality of their desserts, especially their signature heng jin teh, leaves a significant footprint on the local beverage scene. As long as the demand is there, Lin Siang is optimistic that they will continue to serve these sweet treats.

Lim Sok Swan is a research analyst at Penang Institute. Her current research focuses on cultural heritage studies.
Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst at Penang Institute. She graduated from Taiwan National Tsing Hua University in Anthropology. She loves to explore the hidden history of Penang through documents and interviews.

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