Jia Siang Cafe, seafood at its freshest
Being more than half a century old, I have learned to watch with my own eyes and note down the "gloriousness" that is everywhere around me. As an artist and a photographer, this singular duty of being aware has helped me capture photographs that forge the narrative in my projects and creative endeavours.
I find the rustic fishing hemlock in Pulau Betong fascinating. At the crack of dawn, fishermen fill ice boxes with ice before heading out to sea, hoping for a good haul. Depending on what they are after, the fishermen will set off at an ideal time that promises a decent catch. For squids, crabs and prawns, they would venture out to sea the entire night. For fish, they would follow the flow of the tides as this would aid fishing efforts. It takes knowledge, technical know-how and experience to be a seasoned fisherman.
By noon, some would head back to the jetty with their bounty, eking an honest living supported by the marine life in the surrounding waters. Others would return only in the late afternoon depending on the movements of the tides. Judging from the size of their boats, these fishermen would not have been able to venture too far out into the open seas.
If you are at Pulau Betong, you can haggle over prices for fresh fish, prawns and crabs directly from fisherfolk, selling them straight off their boats or at the nearby market. The seafood here is as fresh as it gets and many would agree a tad cheaper than elsewhere on the island.
Right behind the market along the riverbank of Sungai Betong is Jia Siang Cafe. Here, the cooks will assist you in cooking scrumptious treats with the seafood that you have purchased, of course, for a minimal fee. This is a common practice among the villagers in Balik Pulau. You decide on your preferred style of cooking – steamed, stir-fried or deep-fried and the flavours that accompany the dish. Seek their recommendation if you are unable to firm up your decision. A rule of thumb – to savour the freshness of the seafood, it is best to keep things less complicated.
In addition to the wide selection of seafood dishes, there is a host of garden green options as well as meat favourites such as the Hakka kau yoke (braised pork belly with taro) and pek cham kay (steamed chicken) on offer.
If available, I would highly recommend the flower crabs steamed with Chinese Shaoxing wine and sprinkled with finely julienned ginger as well as diced garlic. Straight out from the steamer, light soy sauce, garlic oil and sesame seed oil are poured over the crabs, then topped with spring onions. When cooked just right, the white crab flesh has a firm yet delicate texture bursting with the natural sweetness of the ocean. If you are lucky, some crabs will be filled with roe tugged beneath the shells – an added bonus to relish.
If you like a more robust flavour for the crabs, opt for the sweet and sour version. The mild variation offered here sans the fiery heat of chillies provides tasters with the opportunity to enjoy the sweetness of the fresh crabs.
Surprisingly, my mum has a fabulous way of preparing flower crabs. She would cook them in a light coconut milk curry spiced with turmeric, chillies, asam keping and lemongrass. Slices of ripe pineapples are also added to the dish. Upon serving, she would garnish this delectable dish with aromatic herbs (daun kaduk, daun kunyit and kaffir lime leaves) cut finely. Nevertheless, with so many distinct ingredients, all the flavours in this dish somehow unite to draw out the sweetness of the crabs and titillate one's palate like never before. Those who have enjoyed this dish (ketam bunga masak lemak) know precisely what I am talking about.
There are no two ways about this – freshly caught prawns from the ocean vis-a-vis those harvested from a farm. The comparison is utterly pointless. At Jia Siang, only ocean caught prawns are served. Packed with superior taste, even plain steaming (eaten with chilli sauce) would be a satisfying experience. What more when stir-fried with a salted egg yolk, chilli padi and curry leaves? Definitely a finger-licking good encounter!
If you feel adventurous, ask the chef to recommend something that you have yet to sample. You might never know what wonderful flavours await you.
As for steamed fish, the classic approach with ginger and superior soy sauce is a good bet, lovely with groupers and pomfrets. If you bought sting rays, opt for a spicy curry sensation. For red snappers, I would recommend steaming with crushed lemongrass stalks, tomatoes, chillies and tamarind juice. However, it is a sacrilege to have fresh fish deep-fried! If you are looking for a crispy texture, eat a prawn cracker.
The Chinese steamed herbal chicken is both healthy and extremely flavourful. It is comfort food for the body and soul.
Clams, stir-fried kam heong style, is one of my favourite dishes. “Kam heong" in Cantonese means “golden fragrance”. The dish comes smothered in a deliciously spicy and savoury sauce flavoured with fragrant curry leaves. Fresh clams impart a natural sweetness that blends well with the sauce.
Stir-frying with black pepper or steaming with Chinese wine would be two other options you might want to consider when ordering clams.
A stir-fried sambal dish of brinjal, lady's fingers, long beans and petai is extremely appetising. Also, some garden greens simply cooked with just garlic and oyster sauce, although seemingly basic, would be worthwhile ordering. The tofu dishes are simply delicious as well.
Being in Balik Pulau, you have to sample freshly juiced nutmeg with salted plums. Ambra and lime juices are refreshing options available at Jia Siang.
Do make reservations or go early especially on weekends. The cafe is very popular and can be rather packed during lunch. Do not expect air-conditioned dining areas, artistically plated dishes, silverware or cushioned chairs. However, expect fresh seafood and lip-smacking flavours at reasonable prices.
After a tantalising lunch at Jia Siang, my daughter and I spent the afternoon exploring Balik Pulau. Within this austere village lies many charming sights including larger-than-life murals.
As evening drew to a close, we headed to Anjung Indah, a lookout point along Jalan Tun Sardon. Here, overlooking the village below, we were treated to a vibrant, kaleidoscopic "dance" across the sky as the sun dipped into the ocean and vanished.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
8 September 2020
Jia Siang Cafe
321, MK 7, Pulau Betong, 11020, Balik Pulau, Penang
Tel: +6019 746 8465
Opens: 11.30 am - 5:00 pm daily except alternate Thursdays.
GPS: 5°18'21.9"N 100°11'41.4"E | 5.306085, 100.194845