Penang-Century Old Hainanese Satay
In the hope of making a better living and finding a means to support their family, many Chinese migrants left their home and found their way to Nanyang (南洋) or other words Malaya. Some left their loved ones behind and some came with their family.
The Hainanese was the last Chinese dialect to have found their way to Malaya back in the 1920′s. Being late comers to the Peninsular, they found themselves having to adorn the aprons of kitchen helpers, cooks, chefs, domestic helpers for the British and Peranakans (Baba and Nyonya). Thus, the Nanyang Hainanese has inherited the skills and knowledge of their employers in dining etiquette and cooking methods, and therefore gave birth to the Hainanese cuisine in Malaya.
While growing up we found ourselves having the opportunity to savour and experience what Nanyang Hainanese food were and used to be flavourful, passionate and filled with respect. I still remember having celebration in Hollywood Restaurant at Tanjung Bungah, snacking on Western delights in Tip-Top cafe in Pulau Tikus and eating simple meals at Loke Thye Kee on the junction of Burmah Road and Penang Road. Sad to say good times doesn’t last long, many of these establishments have faded into the sunset and those who are left still standing might not last any longer due to the unforgiving-ness of time.
Treasure that is splendid and flavourful, once lost it is forever. Having said that, the traditional Hainanese Pork Satay or “Satay Babi” served with the sweet potato sauce and toasted bread is one aged old favourite that is slowly losing its battle with time. Being exceptionally different from the usual Malay or pork-free satays that are of abundance in Malaysia, it is definitely unique to the Malaysian and Singaporean Hainanese community.Satay itself is myth-ed to have originated from Indonesia, Malaya Peninsular, Middle East and even China, be it where it is from it is one of the much celebrated meat on skewer in the Malay Archipelago. The traditional Hainanese Satay consist of two (2) pieces of evenly sliced lean pork loin and a piece of pork fat skewered in between on a “lili” (in Hokkien) or the midribs of the coconut leaflets, at present it has been replaced by the mass manufactured bamboo sticks/skewers. The lean meat and fat is marinated in a dry rub that consist of turmeric powder, garlic and other secret ingredients that we cannot reveal due to a promise made.
The ready prepared skewers of sinful porkiness are grilled over a charcoal fuelled open heat a-la-minute. Each skewer while being grilled is basted with a basting mix that contains freshly squeezed coconut milk, water, turmeric and some seasonings.
The other important part of the Hiananese Satay is the dipping sauce which is distinctively different from the usual spicy and nutty peanut sauce that is widely available. Traditionally it is served with a sweet potato base dipping sauce made from its mash, water, sugar, tamarind, chilli and seasoned to taste.
Back then, the Hainanese Satay is served with only charcoal heat toasted bread baste with the basting concoction that gives it that yellowish tinge. It is still practice at present, plus the addition of cut cucumber and onion at certain stall(s).
In Penang, there are two (2) Hainanese Satay vendors that still practice the recipes and methods that their grandfather and father have handed down to them. Thus they are the third (3rd) generation of Hainanese Pork Satay vendors that have witness the change that time has on their traits. During the day there is Uncle Tong or “Ah Aun” who is already 67 and still burning strong and caters to the upper market that drives by his tricycle stall in their big cars for their weekly fix of satay. He now only opens on Tuesdays and Saturdays from as early as 7:30am until everything is sold off, which may be by 12:00pm or so. On Tuesdays, you may be lucky enough to find him at Burmah Lane (Lau heok hnui) after 12:00 or 1:00pm when business is much slower. The best is to be early!
In the evening 59 years old Uncle Wang or “Ah Chye” as we like to call him can be seen at the junction of Carnavon Street and Chulia Street manning his tricycle stall that caters to the dinner and supper crowd, and promote our Penang food heritage to visiting foreign tourists that walk along Chulia Street sampling some of the hawker street foods available. Ah Chye operates daily from 7:30pm onwards and only rests on Sundays. He too need to be early, sometimes his satay finishes by 10:00pm or even earlier.Other than the traditional sweet potato sauce, Ah Chye also prepares and provide the usual peanut sauce that he makes with his secret recipe that he has yet to share with us. He also sells the chicken version of the Hainanese Satay if you are not pork-person.
Both Ah Aun and Ah Chye are good friends who we have met and befriended for our food research project. They used to sell satay made from pig’s small intestine or “hoon cheang” which requires more preparation effort and time, plus the decline of demand from the younger generations. Ah Chye once said, going further back in time roughly before 1971, his father and grandfather also sold satay skewers that were made of a piece of pig’s liver, small intestine and lean meat.
Time is unforgiving, savour what we have at present before it is lost to history.
I still remembered the last meal I had in Loke Thye Kee *till* today - it took place in 1972 - 4 decades back but it might as well have been yesterday.
The soup was a pork-and-prawn balls soup - the clear consomme was peppery, and sweet from the cabbage, jicama and carrots used in boiling the soup. The jicama and carrots were sliced thinly, then carved into beautiful bird and butterfly shapes - such tiny, exquisite morsels. The pork-and-prawn balls were delicious - similar to "bakwan kepiting" (pork-and-crabmeat balls soup) in Southern Nyonya (Malacca-Singapore) style of cooking. In Singapore, Guan Hoe Soon Peranakan restaurant's bakwan kepiting was the closest one gets to Loke Thye Kee's legendary soup, although one might as well be comparing, say, chicken liver to foie gras.
Loke Thye Kee's "Choon Pneah" was also the stuff of legend - its dip was not Lea & Perrins, but a home-brewed Worcestershire sauce that's more piquant, and with a robust flavor. The "Choon Pneah" was largish, almost the size of an Aussie Chico roll, and filled with chopped jicama, carrot, crabmeat, minced pork, etc, all subtly spiced and which exuded an indescribable deliciousness.
Their Curry Kapitan breathed fiery hot, replete with freshly-blended lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, chillies (both fresh & dried varieties), onions and belachan - *no* curry powder or dried spices here! A touch of coconut creme for added richness, and the gentlest pinch of kaffir lime leaves for the unique Penang Northern Nyonya scent.
The "Joo Hoo Char", finely-shredded jicama & carrots, with pork, prawns and shitake mushrooms, at Loke Thye Kee was also unforgettable. Dried cuttlefish, sliced so finely, each strand could pass through the eye of a needle, added a salty tang to the braised vegetables - as if the spirit of Neptune had floated through the dish, leaving behind the faintest hint of the ocean.
It was always a pleasure for me to visit our Penang Peranakan aunts, uncles and cousins in thos e days (sadly, most of them had passed on, and the younger generation had all migrated overseas) - we all shared the same ancestry from Malacca, but Penang's Northern Nyonya cuisine was distinctly different from the Southern Nyonya cooking style in Malacca and Singapore. One example is Penang "hong bak" which is pork cooked with dark soysauce and scented with toasted, ground star anise powder - in Malacca and Singapore, a somewhat similar dish would be "babi pongteh", also cooked with dark soysauce but scented with toasted, ground coriander powder instead.
How wonderful! In Singapore, we also have pork satays but the dip is typical peanut sauce with some pineapple puree added on top. I'm glad you mentioned Hollywood in Tanjung Bungah (very good inche kabin and Hainanese spring rolls served with Lea & Perrinds sauce), Tip Top bakery in Pulau Tikus (aren't their butter cream sponge cakes wonderful?) and Loke Thye Kee which I had the privilege of dining numerous times whenever I vacationed in Penang back in the 1960s and 1970s. I haven't been back to Penang for so many years now. I know that Tip Top and Loke Thye Kee have closed down. Do you know if Hollywood is still around? I think I was last there 14 years ago! I remembered the year since my daughter-in-law was expecting at the time, and now my grandson is already in Secondary 2!
Hollywood is still open after the Tsunami that hit the area, thus the run down environment. We are trying to track down the original operator who goes by the surname of Foo. The current person we met is Tan.
The last time we were there, we had their Chicken Pie, Braised Lamb and Chun Pneah that were still good, though not as comparable with the Mr. Foo's time.