Savouring mouth-watering Chinese dishes at Jia Shi Restaurant (formerly at Song River)
It is vital for a restaurant to have popular signature dishes loved by many. This is an important factor in establishing a long and lasting clientele that will continue its patronage.
Since 1993, my family and I have always enjoyed breakfast, brunch and lunch at Song River, located at the corner of Gurney Drive and Birch Road. Housed in the shaded front compound of a pre-war bungalow-turned-food court, it has a rustic, retro feel of the old world charm.
You would have been seated at a metal-top foldable kopitiam table and while awaiting the arrival of your food, you would prepare tea. You would help yourself to hot water available from a kettle heated on an old-fashion clay charcoal stove. (I remember my mum using such a clay stove to gently simmer nourishing soups in a double boiler for hours or "pangang" (Malay for toasting over burning charcoal) belacan for sambal belacan.) Some serious tea enthusiasts would bring not only their own tea but tea pots and cups as well. A cool sea breeze, the beautiful shoreline and view of the ocean stretching to the horizon would greet you as you sipped your tea. The soothing sound of crashing waves would usually be drowned out by boisterous chatter and laughter from lively conversations, as the restaurant was often packed.
Now all that is gone. A high fence barricades your view of the ocean as reclamation works take place. The shoreline is pushed so far back you can no longer hear the sound of the ocean. Furthermore, the restaurant has relocated a short distance away, across the road (next to Sunrise Gurney condominium) to a cleaner, more conducive dining area although losing part of its bucolic charm.
Having said that, one vital fact still remains – the food is as it was before, flavourful and delectable! Now called Jia Shi Restaurant, it continues to serve a blend of Teochew and Cantonese cuisines. The dishes have a mild, fresh and natural taste. In order to highlight the original flavour of the main ingredients, chefs are very cautious about seasonings, using them only to draw out or feature the original taste of these ingredients.
Let us take a closer look at some dishes available at Jia Shi Restaurant.
The kitchen offers a handful of dishes using its very own homemade bean curd – deep-fried bean curd, bean curd topped either with eggplant or minced meat, claypot bean curd and bean curd stir-fried with leeks. Although the favourite among the regulars is the dish topped with eggplant, I very much prefer it with leeks. Soft bean curd cubes are first deep fried then stir-fried with shitake mushrooms, prawns and carrots, flavoured with taucheo (salted fermented soy beans), lard and slices of eam bak (Teochew salted pork belly), adding more dimension to the scrumptious dish.
Stir-fried French beans or cabbage with hae bee (dried shrimps), sweet potato leaves or ladies' fingers with sambal and lettuce with meat floss are a few options you might want to consider when selecting a vegetable dish or two for the table. The more people you have in your company, the wider your selection could be.
Another delectable dish to order is the stir-fried bitter gourd with egg. Do not mistake this for an omelette dish. It is actually thinly-sliced bitter gourd stir-fried with egg (that is still soft and gooey like a half-boiled egg), topped with an umami soy sauce. The flavours are utterly delightful. Although this looks like a fairly easy dish to cook at home, I have failed on countless attempts trying to replicate it.
A good meal should encompass flavours that compliment well plus a variety of textures. For the crispy textural component, two items on the menu fit the bill – belacan fried chicken and homemade shrimp dates/cakes. Both, deep-fried till golden are best enjoyed piping hot, with or without some chilli sauce.
There is a variety of popular noodle dishes to consider. Instead of the usual bee hoon (rice vermicelli) or hor fun (flat rice noodles), try tau chiam (noodles made from soy bean and wheat). Its protein value is higher than that of normal noodles while it is lower in carbohydrates. Fresh fish flesh is stewed in a claypot with good stock, cabbage and slices of ginger. A little chopped Chinese parsley and some fried garlic are sprinkled on the dish with before serving.
This minimalist preparation preserves the natural sweetness of the ingredients, while complementing the noodles brilliantly. Although the pale-looking dish may appear bland, believe you me, it is far from that! The natural sweetness from the fish and cabbage is allowed to shine through. To enjoy this dish thoroughly, I have chopped garlic and cabai burung (bird's eye chilli) topped with thick soy sauce and some light soy sauce ready on the side.
Through the years I have enjoyed dining at Song River because the fish (locally sourced) has always been as fresh as it can possibly be. This is of utmost importance in maintaining the quality of the dishes. Always confirm the price of the fish when you place the order. The captain will check with the kitchen and get back to you. Feel free to substitute the fish with cheaper options if you are running on a tight budget. Having said that, selecting a good fish will make all the difference when steaming. Steamed fish topped with silky smooth hor fun (or bee hoon, or a mixture of both) is a must-try. For this dish, I often opt for the rich, sweet garoupa fillet. Drenched with superior soy sauce and topped with chopped spring onions and fried garlic, this truly delicious dish is sublime!
If you enjoy the gelatinous skin of the loong tan (giant grouper) and the firmer texture of its flesh, go for it. However, keep in mind that prices can vary drastically.
Jiashi Restaurant is also popular for its claypot "white" bak kut teh. The stock has a lighter, more subtle herbal note that grows on you. Understanding the Teochew and Cantonese styles of cooking, the unique clear-base herbal broth is deliberate. It is not as intense in taste as the common dark-coloured version, commonly sold throughout Penang.
All of the above and more are available from 7:30 am onwards. Although it sounds like something you would have for lunch, Penangites are rebels when it comes to good food. With dishes that good, we are happy to indulge them first thing in the morning.
Since its relocation in January 2021, the restaurant has extended is operation hours to cater for the dinner crowd as well. You can also buy frozen pre-cooked items to enjoy in the comfort of your home. All you have to do is thaw and steam them.
When you are dining here, forget about fancy ingredients and intricate plating. The modest-yet-addictive dishes highlight the freshness of the ingredients. Run through the menu and order what tickles your fancy. If you need help in deciding, ask the captain about the catch of the day. That will guarantee freshness and a satisfying treat.
If you are in Tanjung Bungah, Jia Shi Restaurant has a branch there called My Home Style Restaurant, located at Lebuh Lembah Permai 4.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 1 December 2021
Jia Shi Restaurant (formerly at Song River Cafe)
No.72H, Gurney Drive, 10250 Penang.
T: +60 16-468 5122
Opens daily from 7:30 am – 3:00 pm & 5:00 – 10.00 pm except Tuesdays
My Home Style Restaurant
No. 2, Lebuh Lembah Permai 4, 11200 Tanjung Bungah, Penang
T: +604-898 2797
Opens daily from 11:00 am – 2:30 pm & 5:30 – 10.00 pm except Tuesdays