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Archive for the ‘Malaysian /Penang food review’ Category

Our latest trip with the airline of Mr Tony Fernandes flew us back to…  Penang, of course.
 A 3 hours 15 minutes flight and a 25 minutes taxi drive later we were ready for FOOD… even if it was close to midnight.
 
Again Penang, you may ask?
Well, yes. I’m considering Penang like a second home after Hong Kong. It is by far the best food place of Malaysia. In fact I consider it the best food place in the whole of SE Asia, although that might be a bit unfair as I have not experienced food from ALL of the nearby regions and countries.
 
Anyway, after the favourite places offering Char Koay Teow, Hokkien Mee, Satay, Loh Bak, Wan Tan Mee, Penang Laksa and having lunch or diner in local restaurants like Heng Kee, Siang Pin Seafood and Goh Huat Seng, we decided to visit a seafood place that we never patronized before.
After all these years, we never had diner at that restoran on Gurney drive, the one with the flashy lights and screaming advertisement billboards.
 
 
 BALI HAI SEAFOOD MARKET
90 ->90D Persiaran Gurney, 10250 Penang
Tel: 04-2288272 / 04-2281272
 

“If it swims, we have it” ???  Oh Right, I swim. Means I may end up in their wok? [Sorry: obvious cheap joke.]  Anyway, during our April 2011 trip,  we decided to give it a try, although personally I was not expecting a lot, even if the restoran was recommended by some local floggers.

I anticipated  it would be expensive without reaching high-end quality service. Right I was unfortunately. On the other hand, their many cooks and chefs’ cooking skills were doing a correct and professional job.  In fact, to be completely honest, Bali Hai is not really a tourist trap like many other places are. It’s a money trap, so, if you agree to pay their prices, food quality is not an issue. Fresh seafood is great and not that difficult to cook. In my book cooking, grilling, ‘wokking’ or steaming some nice garupa, crab, prawns or other seafood has to be done in the simplest way to get the best results.

Perhaps some readers might think I’m too critical. Well, yes I’m getting more critical when the restaurant charges top bucks and pretends to offer top quality. In fact I try to remain very much “feet on earth”. A small kopitiam or a big hawker centre in a loud environment? No problem. But if you want to charge big money, you better  get me state-of-the-art service. Otherwise big no-no. Allow me to explain it this way: If I want to have some food in a small snack bar charging me a few bucks, I can be forgiving about service mistakes and will accept small bloopers. On the other hand, when my wife and I are going to take a bill of a XXX Euros/pounds/dollars in a so-called top end place, everything has to be just as close to perfection as possible,  it’s as simple as that.

Back to Bali Hai: I asked for fresh live fish suggestions. The waitress came with a  seriously declared and confirmed small dead fish of a disputable “brand”, size about 700 grams. Asked about the price:  100 Ringgit !!! Right, so… thanks but no thanks! My guess: if you are a western expat or tourist, price goes up by 25% at least? Anyone to confirm or deny this out there? This Ang Mo is not buying and is not buying fish or crabs from the live aquariums neither, as they sell  at about the price of gold. If I would have ordered the same number of plates we usually order in other local seafood places, we easily would have spent 350+ MYR for food alone! According to what I regard as Penang standards, that is way overpriced, especially for this kind of more or less open-air setting. Those guys are competing in price with the 32Mansion without playing in the same league.

 

Anyway,  finally we ordered some plates from their general menu – mixed fish chunks and veggies; deep-fried squid etc.- Stuff that didn’t need me to take out a second mortgage on our home. Quality wise, it was good and decent food without being exceptional.  … I’m sure the crabs, garupa, sea bass etc would have tasted better. I just was not ready to pay the price.

In short, I made a mental note to myself, not to come back.  I mean, in a place like Penang you can get very fresh and excellent seafood for prices that do not have to compete with Saint-Tropez’ like  jet-set  places. Doh! Doh! Triple doh-lah!!!

Very dead fish yet very expensive

About the Bali Hai Seafood Market itself: it’s a  nice restoran situated along Gurney Drive’s  prime location coast-line . It reminds me in a way of my native Brussels’  “Ilot Sacré”  touristic area near ‘La Grand Place’. Very much an eye-catching place but unfortunately also very much overpriced and good quality only in a few places. Locals know, unfortunately tourists get trapped!

Brussels' Ilot Sacré

Bali Hai employs a lot of friendly service staff ( although their training could be better) and a number of good local chinese cooks and helpers doing a fine job in the kitchen. I understand their system is attractive for tourists to whom it will look like the (real clean) tropical local food paradise. Indeed, I know the “looks” and (lack of) decoration  of  some smaller local restorans tend to put off less adventurous visitors. (Walls not Swiss-like clean-looking, cigarette butts on the floor, very basic tables and seats…) 

Amazing as it sounds: for some of the local penangite clientèle, places like Bali Hai also tend to exert some kind of attraction (???), maybe for a special occasion when making a point (aka showing off) is more important than the price/quality relation. I believe it’s a cultural thing that westerners are not really grasping. I’ve seen the same happening in Hong Kong’s expensive restaurants when local Honky patrons were ordering bottles of Chateau Petrus to impress their guests. Followed then by adding ice cubes to their wine!  Argh …pure and plain blasphemy in my book!!! 

To conclude, Bali Hai Seafood Market is worth a visit if you don’t mind the prices they charge.  If you come by car, you can park along the seaside for a minimal parking fee, or at a parking lot behind the restoran.

Personally, I prefer to patronize the many other good seafood places in and around Georgetown. If not looking as “nice” or trendy, they are [according to my personal taste] more authentic, serve great quality and are very much loved by people who don’t care for todays superficial bling-bling attitude.

 

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Chee cheong fun (*see note below) is widely on offer by Chinese hawkers in Penang. Originally it came from Hong Kong and Guan Dong province in China. That makes it a Cantonese thin (well, sort of?) steamed rice roll. It’s sheets of rice noodles, made from a mixture of glutinous rice flour and water, spread open on a table and wrapped together. This intestine (chee cheong) noodle (fun) is very popular, also in Hawker Paradise Penang.

They are filled with a diversity of ingredients. Pork of course but also beef, shrimps,fish, chicken, bean sprouts or other veggies. When served pour soy sauce over before eating. In Malaysia it is served mostly with a black sweet sauce, a kind of hoisin sauce. (Goooooogle is my friend!). In Penang, I’ve been told it is usually served with a black and sweet shrimp paste sauce or a chilli sauce or a mix of both. And there I was thinking the Penang chee cheong fun was served with just an ordinary soy sauce!

Still, not really my personal favourite as I find it in general a too much slippery noodle with not enough filling. Not well balanced according to my taste.  Then again, as the frenchies say: “Les gouts et les couleurs ne se discutent pas!” And right they are.And then here is another way, also made in Penang:

(*note) Not referring to Sgt Chee Chong FFFUNNN from the Singaporean army as shown in a rather comical series on the National Geographic Channel about “every Singaporean son’s military service”.

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Marinated spiced  pork, then rolled in thin soybean/beancurd sheets, crispy spring rolls with chicken and beansprouts, deep fried beancurd, cuttlefish, prawn cakes, prawn fritters, sausages and much more. Served as a snack or as a main dish they are deep fried and come with 2 sauces: a spicy chilli sauce and a sticky starchy sauce called loh. Bak means meat.

At Kheng Pin Café (since 1971) at the junction of Penang road and Jalan Sri Bahari or 100 meters further at the Ho Ping Café  (corner of Penang road with Lorong kampung Malabar) are two places that in my view offer excellent Loh bak. But then again as it is a very popular dish all over the island, there really is no “bad” loh bak, only the variety on offer may be different from one place to another. The thing to keep in mind is to go as soon as the stall starts its operation, because the fresher the oil, the better the frying for the best yummy results.

 Ho Ping is situated at the junction of Lorong kampung Malabar and Penang road.

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KUNG HEI FAT CHOI…

A special good address but in my view, not necessary only for the steamboat experience though. Steamboat is called “Chinese fondue” in mainland Western Europe and I prefer to have it at home because too messy to go for it in a restaurant.

The other thing is that my “steamboat” cooking pot is heated electrically while the original one (like in Goh Huat Seng)  is heated by charcoal. Thus (allthough more ORIGINAL (?)),  you end up with all your clothes and hair stinking because of the coal fumes.

As a former cigarette smoker, I think it’s funny that lots of people complain all the time about getting second-hand smoke from a cigarette but accept first hand smoke from a  charcoal fueled steamboat restaurant! It’s almost as strong as the cannabis coffee shops in Utrecht, Netherlands. Then again,  just funny and I can live with it. Just don’t forget to throw your clothes in the washing machine when returning home after diner.

Anyway, we do like this place because they have some great recipes for cooking seafood, fish and vegetables, teochew style. Another reason is that the restoran only gets crowded after 18:30 or even 19:oo hours.

So we usually get there at or even shortly before 17:00 hours, firstly to avoid the traffic jam(s) created by people returning home from work. Another reason: no trouble finding parking space. Also, the restoran itself is still 95% empty at that time, allowing the cooks to pay extra attention to cooking OUR dishes. (:-0)

We prefer not to order everything at the same moment but continue with new orders after finishing a few plates. Makes more sense to keep your food warm! No menu available as most food comes from the daily market offer to get the freshest available seafood and fish. Just ask the Supreme-Leader-lady-in-charge who writes down your orders about what is on offer. You also can ask for some specials you want to try. Enjoy their excellent  teochew cooking skills.   

Some not-to-miss and must try dishes:  prawns [of course] with that heavenly taste of BBQ/stir fry cooking. For westerners, please note that we eat here almost all of it, including the shells. Personally though I do not eat the major part of the head. I just suck it clean. (Excuse my burp.)

 Below is what I tend to call my favourite dish at Goh Huat Seng:

Deep fried chunks of garupa filets,  prepared with a succulent  Sechuan pepper sauce. A definite A+ or 10/10 rating. It’s really excellent but do not tell them too loudly as the price might, ahem, get “adapted” even more.

About Teo chew cuisine according to wikipedia:  

Chiuchow cuisine, Teochew cuisine or Chaozhou cuisine or Chaoshan cuisine (Chinese: 潮州菜) originates from Chaoshan, a region of China in the north-easternmost area of the Guangdong province, which includes the cities of Chaozhou, Shantou and Jieyang. Teochew cuisine, however, bears more similarities to Fujian cuisine, as which it shares many of the same dishes, than to Cantonese cuisine, under which it is vulnerable to inaccurate categorisation. This is likely due to Chaoshan and Fujian‘s cultural resemblance and geographic proximity.  Read more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teochew_cuisine

And don’t forget to order simple veggie dishes. They always are succulent. Side dishes with baby spinach, …bean sprouts, …bean curd with green beans, mushrooms and shrimps and much more.

Another special dish below: sea snail (Don’t know the local name but looks a bit like the french bulots or escargots, only a bit smaller) . Again cooked with a sauce based on Sechuan pepper and fresh coriander. A bit chewy but still tender.

BTW, these snails are way less chewy than the ones sold for instance near the Brussels’ Grand Place.

SMALL BONUS / Intermezzo and link to Brussels’ street food: Escargot stall or in the local lingo: Caricole stal.

(They are cooked in a broth with celery and lots of white pepper: I mean -> LOTS of pepper! To absolutely try-out if ever in Belgium. Tastewise however I prefer the Goh Huat Seng preparation because more flavourful. 

(photo below By Mr Cl. Carlier.)

Movie here under was borrowed from the youtube site. Filmed by a tourist in a side street from the Brussels’ Grand place. To get you a sniff of the local spirit.

By the way, this is the same street that leads towards “Manneken Piss”. I guess I’ll have not to introduce you to that little bugger, right?  

END OF INTERMEZZO.

Back to Penang now. The movie below gives you an idea about the atmosphere at Goh Huat Seng in a local noisy chinese environment savouring a steamboat menu.  

If you want to pay them a visit, call first to check about their closing days, as they are more or less variable.

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I already wrote about Kopi Classic and its famous Hokkien Mee some time ago. See: https://diehardowl.wordpress.com/2009/09/29/kedai-kopi-classic-hokkien-mee/  

I don’t pretend to have tried all the Georgetown Hokkien Mee stalls but this one remains my favourite. For those of you who haven’t visited Penang before and are going to look for a Café with a sunscreen like the pic just below: don’t, because last year the kopitiam invested in a brand new flaming red sunscreen. 

The former sunscreen at kedai kopi Classic
The former sunscreen at kedai kopi Classic

Have a look at  the video below. It shows the new outside look of the kopi Classic.

Now what is so special about a dish serving a bowl of noodles in a broth? As far as I’m concerned the most important part is the making of the broth itself. It’s a shrimpy and spicy soup and I guess it’s all about balancing the ingredients with a not too sweet and real spicy shrimp/pork broth.

Penang being a food paradise has of course many signature dishes but for me personally, a big bowl of kopi Classic’s Hokkien Mee is the best way to start the day. So, for the newbies, what is it all about?

Mr Ooi's hokkien mee

Mr Ooi's hokkien mee

Hokkien Mee is a mixture of yellow noodles, rice noodles and bean sprouts  served in a prawn and pork broth. What makes it special in my experience and view is the balance of the strong, spicy and flavourful shrimp/pork taste. It’s usually served with sliced and fried shrimps, thin slices of lean pork and sprinkled with crispy fried shallots. If you come very early to kopi Classic you also can get great fried lard crisps adding an extra kick to your noodles dish.

The bowl comes also with a spoonful of added chilli for people who really like it hot. YES, I do!

Noodles for HM

Noodles for HM

Some stalls in Penang add too much extra pork meat while cooking the broth;  in my view that makes the soup way to sweet. Some also add sliced hard-boiled egg (what I like) but no extra egg in the Classic’s bowl though.

The Classics' Mrs & Mr Ooi crew in full operational mode

The Classics' Mrs & Mr Ooi crew in full operational mode

The place usually starts business at 8 in the morning. Regulars however are already sitting round the tables as early as 07:30! Just bring along a book or a newspaper. Or you also can admire the team getting prepared to fire up the gas-cookers, unloading bags of noodles to start a new day for us to enjoy delicious Hokkien Mee. 

There is another Hokkien Mee stall in the “One Corner café” coffee shop (Jalan Bawasah).First we tried to visit the place on tuesday, kopi Classic’s closing day. No good as it was also their closing day. Then we tried again 2 day later ( it was not yet 11:oo am), they already were closing down: sold out!  We’ll try again on a next visit as it also has a reputation for being one of the best in town. As a matter of fact,  I later read somewhere that Kedai Kopi Classic Hokkien Mee’s Mrs Ooi is the elder sister of Mr Lim Bok Huat, owner of the stall at One Corner Café.  So, I guess they share the same recipe and in fact are having 2 of the most popular HM businesses in Georgetown. Both stalls closing Tuesdays,… to avoid losing customers to one another? A good alternative in my opinion is the Hokkien Mee stall in Swee Kong café, across the police station in Pulau Tikus. They open very early and close already round 09:00 in the morning.

Hokkien Mee (Swee Kong)

Just a little warning: when asking for Hokkien mee in Singapore or KL, don’t expect the same dish  as in Penang. In Singapore they use both the egg noodles and rice noodles, stir fried in lard and served dry without soup. It comes with shrimps and sliced lean pork, sambal (chilli) and lime. In KL they use thick egg noodles braised in thick dark soy sauce. Ingredients include cabbage, squid, fish cake, pork and crispy fried cubes of pork fat.

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Back from having been  away for some time lah!

Flag of the State of Penang, Malaysia.

 Since our latest visit we have counted the months, weeks and days before finally touching down again in Penang some 10 days ago. And boy …  were we in need! Desperate for Food with Capital F. So, as from the moment of arrival till the eve before flying out one week later, I gained about 5-6 kg. Na und? So what?  Anyway, that still is only about 70+ kg for a guy over 6 feet. No danger for turning into a sumo or average USA-er there yet [grin].

Of course we went to many of our favourite places in George Town during the week. I’m personally getting good at comparing quality at different stalls for their recipes of CKT, Penang Hokkien Mee, Loh Bak, fried rice, satay and more. In fact, I/we even start being  picky! On average we visited and sampled food from up to 5/6 different shops every day and almost always it was well worth it. Regarding Hokkien Mee, Kedai kopi Classic and Swee Kong remain among “da best” but we tried many more and all were ok,  from average good to real good, to very good.  Yet… we also started noticing [already during our last trip] that we better avoid the newer, so-called modern Hawker centres, equipped with LCD screens and loud music. As it seems the food quality at those places is going down hill while prices are climbing and the offered decoration is of a definite and certain lack of taste for those older than 13. (My opinion only). Now sadly that is nothing new for me but I was hoping Penang would have been able to avoid that kind of “modernisation”. I explain:

On our last visit to Belgium I invited my wife to one of the local stalls selling Belgian fries. Once upon a time in Old Belgium they all were selling their stuff with an ok to very good/excellent quality. Those hawkers prepared the potatoes at home (peeling, cutting) as well as they did prepare themselves the extras like curry chicken [local Belgian style], beef carbonades and more. Nowadays however the youngsters that take over the business, buy the food from industrial manufacturers. Gosh, even the fries now, they buy them pre-cut, if not [the horrour] frozen.Go figure. In fact it’s simple, they don’t find pleasure in preparing. They are becoming a lazy bunch. The only thing they want is selling and getting your/my money. Well, we just vote with our feet and our wallet as we do no longer buy from that lazy bunch. To find a decent “fritkot” (translation: fry-stall) one, sadly, has to look around for quite a while. I hate to say it but having been there and seen that, I’m afraid that Penang’s GOOD hawkers also are a disappearing breed. Let’s hope I’m wrong but…

I’ll be posting about our latest experiences in the coming days, as for the moment I’m in “kicking-off mode”, being back home in HK. Not because of jet lag but more because of Makanan lag, sort of.

In the mean time: here is a nice read from another blogger from Penang… (living in the UK… the poor thing) for those who are new to culinary Penang Hawker Food.

http://breadetbutter.wordpress.com/2010/05/04/what-is-malaysian-food/

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 Location: Pulau Penang – Malaysia. – Gurney Drive North – Open air night hawker centre.  – January 2010.

This Indian Penangite gentleman has a very well-known stall, selling Rojak. I also think he has a few talents as a performer. Perhaps one day he’ll be discovered by Bollywood, who knows. In the mean time he already is world-famous locally and on the YouTube’s Penang visitors site. Personally I think little performances like this emphasize the multicultural aspects of Malaysia and more specially among Penangites from different origins. A strong and leading example from a country that has a majority Malay muslim population. Hopefully it stays this way!

More about Rojak?  Wikipedia says it better than I:

“Mamak rojak, or Indian rojak (Pasembor)

Indian rojak in Singapore.

In Malaysia, mamak rojak (or Pasembur) contains fried dough fritters, bean curds, boiled potatoes, prawn fritters, hard boiled eggs, bean sprouts, and cucumber mixed with a sweet thick, spicy peanut sauce. Traditionally, Tamil Muslim (Mamak) rojak vendors used modified sidecar motorcycles as preparation counters and to peddle their rojak. These mobile vendors now use modified mini trucks. The Pasembor available in Singapore is an assortment of potatoes, eggs, bean curd (tofu), and prawns fried in batter, served with a sweet and spicy chili sauce. In Penang, where it is very famous, it is always called pasembor, but in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore it is called rojak.

Fruit rojak consists typically of cucumber, pineapple, benkoang, bean sprouts, taupok (puffy, deep-fried tofu) and youtiao (cut-up Chinese-style fritters). Raw mangoes and green apples are less commonly used. The dressing is made up of water, belacan (shrimp paste), sugar, chili, and lime juice. Ingredients vary among vendors with some also using hae ko prawn/shrimp paste, tamarind or black bean paste in the mix. The ingredients are cut into bite-sized portions and tossed in a bowl with the dressing and topped with chopped peanuts and a dash of ground or finely chopped bunga kantan (pink ginger bud). Penang Rojak is another type of Rojak found in Penang, Malaysia. It is similar to fruit rojak, but adds jambu air, squid fritters and honey to the mixture.    (End of Wikipedia quote.)

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