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Nov 5, 2010 06:37 AM

Penang, Malaysia - Hawker Delights at Kek Seng Coffeeshop

Kek Seng Coffeeshop is one of those iconic coffeeshops in Penang which had stood the test of time. Established in 1906 on Penang Road (Old Georgetown's main thoroughfare), it still attracts a steady stream of Penang clientele, with a sprinkling of in-the-know outstation visitors. The coffeeshop looked as if it underwent its last renovation/cleaning in 1960! Tiny seating booths lined the wall on one side, whilst marble-topped tables filled the rest of the ever-crowded coffeeshop.

The hawker stalls were all doing brisk business. We ordered:

1. Koay teow thng - fine, flat rice noodles in a savoury broth, topped with pork-meat balls; pig's intestines & liver; chicken's heart, liver & skin, pig's blood cubes, beansprouts, slivers of fishcake, fishballs, and minced golden crisp-fried garlic. It was DELICIOUS! One of the best I'd ever had in Penang.
2. Lor bak - a selection of crispy deep-fried morsels (prawn fritters, pork-meat rolls, tofu, battered fish, Taiwanese sausages, etc.) plus century eggs with pickled ginger, served with 2 types of dips: spicy chilli sauce and a sticky, eggy 5-spice/soy-flavoured dip. It's similar to Singapore Ngoh Hiang, except that the Singaporean version don't have the 2nd type of dip. And Penang lor bak has that fresh, bespoke taste compared to the mass-production factory-made Ngoh Hiang we get in Singapore!
3. Fresh spring rolls filled with a tasty filling of stir-fried shredded turnips, prawns, crab, lettuce, flavoured with hoi-sin sauce and chilli paste. Unlike the Singapore version, there's no use of raw garlic here.
4. Kueh pie-tee (served by the same popiah stall), where the popiah filling is served in crispy golden pastry shells instead. These are served topped with fresh minced chilli-lime sauce.
5. Mee Jawa - which consisted of yellow Hokkien noodles, with a sour-sweet tomato-based sauce, with chicken slivers, shrimps, tofu, hard-boiled egg and shredded fresh lettuce, topped with lots of golden crisp-fried shallots.

We didn't order from the chicken rice & char-siew stall, which had the longest queue, and which seemed to be the most popular stall. The char-siew looked delicious - golden & caramelly. We also didn't order from the popular Penang assam laksa stall, as I'm more partial to Singapore-style curry laksa.

I understood from my Penang friends that Kek Seng was very famous for its Ice-Kachang - shaved ice with red beans, corn, palm seeds & other sweet treats, liberally flavoured with red syrup, brown Sarsi & evaporated milk, topped with ice-cream & jelly. Durian ice-cream was also available. We didn't order any desserts as we were just too full.

The local drinks served there - coffee & tea (both hot & iced versions), Milo, fresh lime & nutmeg juices, etc, did NOT measure up to the standards we experienced in other Penang eateries. I think Kek Seng be resting a bit too much on its 104-year-old laurels. Apparently, the current owners are not the Tung family who ran the coffeeshop from the 1920s-1990s anymore - sad! Still, Kek Seng is a must-visit if you're into Penang culinary history.

Kek Seng
382-384 Penang Road
Opening hours: 7.30am-3.30pm daily (the assam laksa stall opens from 11.30am)

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  1. Yes, the old owners of Kek Seng, Tung Beng San's family, sold the coffeeshop as they could not keep up with the rise in rentals after the Penang government repealed the century-old Rent Control Act. The crockery has been changed as well, the old ones were emblazoned with the "Kek Seng, Est. 1906" logo. Now, the desserts and drinks are really, really bad.

    The "koay teow" soup noodles is good for a reason: the middle-aged woman who serves up the noodles started off as a 16-year-old girl assisting her father. I should know, I am a bit older than her and practically qrew up through the decades eating at Kek Seng!

    6 Replies
    1. re: penang_rojak

      That was my fave coffee shop in Penang. I am not a fan of sarsi flavoured ice kacang though. I thought most of the things there were quite consistent.

      Don't they have another branch elsewhere - nearer Pulau Tikus or something?

      1. re: mikey8811

        No, I don't think Kek Seng has a branch. The Penang Road coffeeshop is their only one in town.

        1. re: mikey8811

          That's right, Kek Seng is on Penang Road and it's the one & only. In fact, no Penang coffeeshop has a branch anywhere else.
          mikey8811, you're probably thinking of Seng Lee Coffeeshop in Pulau Tikus on the corner of Burmah Rd and Bangkok Lane, Got very good Indian mee goreng. My favourite coffeeshop in Pulau Tikus is Bee Hooi Coffeeshop at Lorong Pulau Tikus and Burmah Road, but the coffeeshop closes suddenly on some days unannounced. I like their duck drumstick soup with mee suah, banchang kueh, fried koay teow, popiah and kueh pie tee.

          1. re: penang_rojak

            The popiah/kueh pie-tie stall must be the one run by the cranky old woman who makes the crispiest, thinnest, tastiest kueh pie-tie shells I'd ever had. A few years ago, I was at Bee Hooi for breakfast and saw a few tins of these pastry shells which she put up for sale. I bought 2 tins & brought back to Singapore as gifts. Turned out, they were an absolute revelation!! Now, friends will tell me to buy these kueh pie-tie shells if I ever come to Penang again. I heard that one can pre-book these from the old woman.

            1. re: klyeoh

              klyeoh - I know which old lady you meant. No, her stall's the one in the coffeeshop on the corner of Burma Road and Kuching Lane. It's the other end of the same row of shophouses where Bee Hooi Coffeeshop is at the opposite end (junction of Burma Road and Pulau Tikus Lane). I know because the old lady lives in a Peranakan terraced house (kiah-keh chhooh) on Kuching Lane itself, about 500 meters from her stall - I once had to follow her home, to pick up my tins of kueh pie tee shells, heh heh.

            2. re: penang_rojak

              Penang_rojak - Tonight's episode of "Taste with Jason" on the Food Channel covered the famous 80-year-old Indian mee goreng stall at Seng Kee coffeeshop at the corner of Burmah Road and Bangkok Lane in Pulau Tikus! The owner-chef, Mahboob, is an Indian who speaks better Hokkien than I can ever dream of doing so! Amazing watching Jason Yeoh conversing with him in Penang-Hokkien. Jason also happened to converse with an Indian customer in there who spoke fluent Cantonese! :-D

        2. Tried the ice kachang at Kek Seng during a recent trip to Penang. The standard's really dropped & I wouldn't recommend any fellow CH to order this if they ever visit Kek Seng for its other wondrous hawker food options.

          Appearance-wise, the ice kachang looked EXACTLY the same as the one served for decades past. But taste-wise, yuk: it was bland, and the different flavors (rose syrup, sarsi, evaporated milk) all didn't seem to gel together. I guess it takes skill and experience in preparation to make sure something as simple as flavored shaved ice actually have that right balance of flavors!

          The current owners are different from the previous folks who owned the place for more than a century. Sad :-(