They are distinct somehow from our local Chinese restaurants. Perhaps it’s because most of them have signage purely in Chinese, loud and usually in red.
Over the past few years, Mainland Chinese restaurants have mushroomed all over Penang. The hotpot craze, which sees giants Haidilao and Xiao Long Kan joining the pantheon of steamy, pungent hotpot joints in Penang, has truly caught on here as well.
Many Mainland Chinese restaurants are non-halal, with few exceptions. One of the Muslim-friendly restaurants that has been catering to both Muslim and non-Muslim patrons for almost a decade now is CMR Restaurant.
Dishes served at CMR Restaurant.
Located at D’Piazza in Bayan Baru, CMR Restaurant serves authentic halal Mainland Chinese food. “Our dishes originate from Ningxia Province in north-western China, where a sizeable number of its population are ethnic Uighurs and Chinese-Muslims,” says Gao Ming, the 53-year-old owner who has been living in Penang since 2010.
“Setting up this restaurant was not without setbacks,” says Gao. “I had to look all over Ningxia for a Chinese-Muslim chef who was willing to come work for me in Penang; it was very difficult to find one as they thought it was a Ponzi scheme, but I eventually succeeded.
“Most of my customers here are Malays as well as local Chinese-Muslim converts who enjoy our north-western cuisine, especially our signature grilled lamb shank.”
Gao hopes to open a second branch here, but this will have to wait for the economy to look up. “As long as I can continue with my business, I am here to stay. Penang is a very relaxing place compared to the major urban centres in China, which are exceedingly stressful and materialistic.”
Taste of Chongqing
Tucked away in a mansion along Jalan Kelawei is Chongqing Hotpot Restaurant. Established in 2016, its founder Tan Kean Boon, 43, foresaw the potential popularity of Mainland Chinese cuisine in Penang and decided to invest in it.
The restaurant was originally located on Jalan Larut. “It was a daring move as I had no experience in the food industry prior to this,” says Tan. “That was why I chose to primarily serve hotpot as it required less intricacy in its preparation methods, unlike most other Mainland Chinese cuisine,” he says.
“However, that being said, the preparation of certain dishes and the soup base for all our hotpots still requires the professional skills of chefs from China, which is why I hire specifically Mainland Chinese chefs and serving staff for an authentic dining experience,” says Tan.
He attributes the rising popularity of Mainland Chinese cuisine to its exotic taste. “The spiciness of certain Mainland Chinese dishes, especially those from Sichuan Province, might be too much for some Penangites, but their curiosity has prompted them to try the other dishes, which they enjoy.
“I think that there is still space for Mainland Chinese cuisine to develop in Penang, and I am also considering expanding my business as well,” says Tan.
All the Way from Inner Mongolia
Chao Feng Jun has been running Wei Fang Bao Zi, an eatery which serves Inner Mongolian food, in the vicinity of Fettes Park since 2017.
Chao, 53, has been calling Penang home for three years now, when he first arrived here with his wife under the Malaysia My Second Home programme. “My connection to Penang can be traced back to the time when I sent my son here to further his education at a private college,” he says.
“Before coming here, I had two years’ experience running a small-scale restaurant in Inner Mongolia, where I served dumplings to the local community,” says Chao. “When I embarked on my first visit to Penang to see my son, I was shocked to realise that although Penang’s street food is delicious, the variety seemed limited. That was when I saw the opportunity to introduce the exotic delicacies of my hometown to the locals.
My mission is to introduce authentic Mainland Chinese cuisine at an affordable price. Many local Chinese have never stepped foot in China, and even if they did, chances are they were brought to a touristy restaurant by their tour operators,” says Chao.
“My food strikes perfect balance between the five major elements of flavour in Chinese cuisine – salty, spicy, sour, sweet, and bitter,” he says. “Some of my customers come here as often as once every three days,” he adds. “This is not only due to the affordable price, but also our spirit to strive for perfection and to continuously improve.”