Glorious food: Chinese cuisine

Penang's Chinese gourmet dishes

Penang Chinese cuisine © Adrian Cheah

Chinese gourmet cuisine is widely regarded as one of the world's finest and the fine dining establishments in Penang mostly serve this cuisine in its authentic form with recipes handed down through generations. In general, there are four main influences in Chinese gourmet cuisine originating from the different regions of China – Hakka, Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew.

With its roots in the imperial palace and filtered down to the private homes of the rich and powerful and to the restaurants where the privileged entertained, Chinese gourmet dining tends to be lavish and opulent affairs with 8-course and 10-course menus. Peking duck, Beggar's chicken as well as abalone, scallops and fish maw-inspired dishes are some of the more popular choices among the locals.

Penang Chinese cuisine © Adrian Cheah

Chinese restaurants in Penang are popular for banquet functions such as weddings and anniversary celebrations or business lunches or dinners where deals are clinched and favours curried. But for the occasional diner who just wants to have a treat, Chinese gourmet cuisine is still very much affordable with a la carte choices or set menus. Here is a list of restaurants in Penang serving great Chinese cuisine (in no particular order): 

  • Maple Palace Chinese Restaurant at 47 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, George Town | T: +604-2279690
  • Starview Restaurant at 341, Dato Keramat Road, 10150, George Town | T: +604-2266544
  • Ang Hoay Lor Restaurant at 260, Jalan Brick Klin, George Town | T: +604-2624841
  • Chin Bee Tea Restaurant at 124, Lebuh Noordin | T: +604-2611761
  • Chin's Chinese Stylish Cuisine at Tanjung City Marina, Church St. Pier, 8A, Pangkalan Weld | +604-2612611
  • CRC Chinese Restaurant at 22, Jalan Pangkor, George Town | T: +604-2289787
  • Double Good Restaurant at 28 A, Jalan Tun Dr Awang, 11900 Bayan Lepas | +604 643 4188
  • Dragon-I Restaurant at No. 2F-115-118, Queensbay Mall, Jalan Persiaran Bayan Indah | +604-6466888
  • Foong Wei Heong Restaurant at 25, Jalan Sri Bahari, George Town | T: +604-2611918
  • Goh Swee Kee RestaurantAT 5, Jalan Sri Bahari, George Town | T: +6012-4296736
  • Golden River Restaurant at 6, Jalan Sungai Emas, Batu Ferringhi | T: +6012-4428880
  • Hainanese Delights Restaurant Penang at 1926, Heritage Hotel, 227, Jalan Burma | T: +604-2261926
  • Hei Yeong Seng Chinese Restaurant at 207-221; 231-245, Jalan Burma, George Town | T: +604-2293623
  • Hua Hee Restaurant at 4c-1, Tingkat Kenari, Taman Desaria, Sungai Ara | T: +6017-5352700
  • Jade Palace Restaurant at Lot 163D Level3 &4, Paragon Mall, Jalan Kelawai | T: +604-2189191
  • Ming Garden at Lot 77-2-28, Penang Times Square, Jalan Dato Keramat | T: +604-2269977
  • Tho Yuen Restaurant at 92, Lebuh Campbell, George Town | T: +604-2614672
  • Tek Sen Restaurant at 18 Lebuh Carnarvon, George Town| +6012-9815117
  • Zhong Hua Restaurant at 488D-G-18-19 Jalan Burma, George Town | T: +604-2299818
  • 747 Hainanese Restaurant at 2, Peel Highway, George Town | T: +604-2296228

Besides Chinese banquets, here are some recommended Chinese dishes at street stalls and hawker centres.

Bak Kut Teh

bak kut teh © Adriab Cheah

Chunks of pork ribs, pork belly, assorted mushrooms and bean curd slow-cooked in a dark, aromatic Chinese herbal broth infused with spices is served with plain steam rice or yam rice. Bak kut teh literally means “meat bones tea” in Hokkien. On the side, mix up a batch of your own dipping sauce with diced garlic, sliced red chilli, bird's eye chilli, dark and light soy sauce. Remember to order a plate of eu char koay (deep-fried puff breadsticks) which goes well as a side dish. Bak kut teh is popular in Penang for breakfast and supper.

For the best bak kut teh in town (in no particular order):

  • Coffee Island at 77, Persiaran Gurney | T: +604-2272377
  • Gurney Carnation Bak Kut Teh at 63, Persiaran Gurney | T: +6012 553 3927
  • Zealand Bak Kut Teh and Seafood Restaurant at 62-65, Persiaran Gurney | T: +6017-4738877
  • Yi Xiang Bak Kut Teh at 88, Jalan Macalister | T: +604-2298131
  • Hong Xiang Bak Kut Teh at 88, Jalan Macalister | T: +604-2298131
  • Bak Kut Teh Good Master at 134, Jalan Tembikai, Taman Mutiara | T: +6012-4235896
  • Beng Heang Bak Kut Teh at 554-S Jalan Ayer Itam | T:+604-8291906
  • Delima Mas Cafe at Gelugor 2, Lorong Delima 6, Green Lane Market | T: +6016-4433304
  • Khoon Klang Bak Kut Teh AT 320 J, Jalan Perak, Taman Desa Green
  • Lai Xiang Bak Kut Teh at 90, Lintang Mayang Sari 4, Bandar Bayan Baru, Bayan Lepas | T: +604-6439968
  • Tiong Lor Bak Kut Teh at No. 51, Lorong Madras | T: +6016-4742930

Bak Chang

Steamed glutinous rice with soy sauce wrapped in bamboo leaves and stuffed with pork, mushroom, dried prawns, salted egg yolk or just white beans. Oily and high cholesterol delight which is a specialty during the Bak Chang festival (fifth moon of the Chinese calendar). Available all year round at roadside stalls in Swatow Lane in the afternoons.

For the Nyonyas they have their own version of chang – pua kiam tea. Still made of glutinous rice but the stuffing differs from that of the traditional bak chang. No soy sauce is being used, leaving the chang white.

Dim Sum

Translated literally means “to touch your heart”. Many beautiful variations of small steamed dumplings made with pork or pork ribs, and dough with meat and prawn fillings. Try also chee cheong fun, broadsheet rice noodles rolled and steamed with prawns, served with light soy sauce. This breakfast fare is now available in the evenings as well. Price differs from restaurant to street stalls, depending on the number of variations consumed.

For the best dim sum in town (in no particular order): Tho Yuen at 92, Campbell Street; and coffee shops along Chulia Street, Kimberly Street, Gottlieb Road, Anson Road and Bali Hai at Gurney Drive.

Dumplings or pau

Dumplings with meat – the Chinese version of the American burger. Other variations include sweet paste instead of meat. Best eaten when warm. Available at most food courts and coffee shops.

Char Koay Teow

char koay teow © Adrian Cheah

The original recipe was said to have used only garlic and soy sauce with lard and was rather popular among labourers. The high-fat content and low cost of the dish made it attractive to them as it was a cheap source of energy. Today, this plate of flat rice noodles has succulent prawns, a handful of bean sprouts, seeham (cockles), a few slivers of Chinese waxed sausage, a dollop of ground chilli paste, kuchai (garlic chives) and an egg, all fried up with chopped garlic in a large spoonful of lard and some good black soy sauce. 

Char Hor Fun (Sar Hor Fun)

char hor fun © Adrian Cheah

This dish consists of thick flat rice noodles accompanied by vermicelli wok-fried on high heat with lard, seasoned with dark and light soy sauces until slightly charred. With a good bone broth (either pork or chicken), a tasty gravy is cooked with a host of ingredients including chai sim (choy sum), prawns, thin strips of pork and slices of pig’s liver as well as fish cakes. The gravy is then thickened with tapioca flour and egg (if desired) before being poured over a plate of smoky hor fun. Prior to serving, the dish is topped with slices of char siew (Chinese barbecue pork) and a dusting of white pepper. It is also served with some slices of preserved green chillies.

Chee Cheong Fun

Chee cheong fun is a thin sheet of steamed broad rice noodles rolled into a thick stick. It is served with a sweet sauce, a chilli paste and topped with sesame seeds. Chee cheong fun is available at most food courts, each stall offering their own secret sauces. One of my favourite stalls is located at Genting Cafe in Island Glades. The peanut butter sauce is truly delicious. If you come across chee cheong fun served with cockles curry, order and relish it. 

Curry Mee

Wheat base mee in spicy coconut curry soup, garnished with beansprouts, prawn, cuttlefish, cockles, beancurd and mint. 

For the best curry mee in town (in no particular order): Corner coffee shop in Lorong Seratus Tahun off Macalister Road in the mornings; hawker center opposite of the Ayer Itam market in the mornings; hawker centres at New Lane, Bangkok Lane and Gurney Drive.

Fried Oyster

Oyster omelet with spring onions and mixed sauce. High cholesterol goodie for the brave-hearted glutton. There is only one stall in Penang that stands tall when compared with others here in Penang. Situated in Carnarvon Street, he sells only in the afternoon and you must taste it to believe it. Also available at most hawker centres.

Hokkien Char

Fried wheat base mee with dark soy sauce and strips of meat, prawns, liver and vegetables. Goes very well with sambal belacan.

Hokkien Mee

Wheat base mee in a special prawns and pork bones enriched soup garnished with beansprouts, kang kong, prawns, egg and pork. 

For the best Hokkien mee in town (in no particular order): Coffee shop along with the Ayer Itam bus terminal in the mornings; hawker centres at Gurney Drive and New Lane.

Jawa Mee

Blanched noodles served with tomato-based gravy, garnished with beansprouts, potato, beancurd, egg, prawns, deep-fried flour paste and sprinkled with groundnuts. The fried version is also available on request at most places. For extra kick squeeze in a little lime juice. 

Joo Hoo Eng Chye

Steamed cuttlefish served with hei tay (jellyfish), kang kong, sesame seeds, groundnuts and sweet sauce. Available at most hawker centres.

Koay Chap

A special rice noodles (different from koay teow) served in a soup-based dish with duck meat, beansprout and hard boiled eggs.

Koay Teow Th'ng

Rice noodles in savoury soup with beansprouts, fish balls and slices of chicken. 

For the best koay teow th’ng in town (in no particular order): Opposite of the Ayer Itam Police Station in the mornings served with slices of pork, minced pork, liver and fish balls; Coffee shops in Hutton Lane, most hawker centers and New Lane hawker centre served with duck meat.

Lok Lok

Lok lok means "dip dip", a hawker version of a steamboat dinner. A wide selection of fresh uncooked food such as seafood ranging from cuttlefish to crabsticks, meat and vegetables are dipped into a central pot of boiling soup to cook. The cooked bits of food are eaten off the skewer after dipping into a nut-based sauce and the cost is calculated according to the number of colour-coded skewers used.

Wan Tan Mee

Cantonese egg noodles served with soup or “dry”. Garnished with pork or wan tan – shrimp balls wrapped in thin dough, vegetables and char siew, strips of sweet grilled pork meat. Try the green preserved chilli. It goes well with the noodles.

For the best wan tan mee in town (in no particular order): Corner coffee shop in Pulau Tikus opposite Church of the Immaculate Conception in the mornings and hawker centres at New Lane and Gurney Drive.

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Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated: 5 April 2019


Varieties of char hor fun for different palates

char hor fun © Adrian Cheah

Hor fun is a versatile type of rice noodles made from rice flour, water, salt and cooking oil. Although hor fun in itself is rather bland, it is able to absorb the flavours of any meat or stock it is cooked with. Its soft, slippery yet chewy texture is key in a few popular street food specialities here in Penang – char hor fun, dry stir-fried beef hor fun, steamed fish over hor fun and hor fun with pek cham kay (poached chicken).

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Moi, comforting rice-based porridge to warm the soul

congee, moi © Adrian Cheah

If the truth be known, a bowl of piping-hot plain white moi (congee in Hokkien) is unpretentious and is as bland as ever. Yet through the millennia, it has become a comfort food that has no equal. Moi has become the food of love, health and of the home for millions. At times, I marvel at how food this simple can be elevated to taste so deliciously divine.

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A luxurious omakase dinner at Maple Palace

Maple Palace © Adrian Cheah

Dining at Maple Palace has always been a satisfying experience. The elegant 6-course omakase dinner celebrating my 54th birthday was such a delightful encounter. Lavished with priced ingredients, the flavours of the scrumptious feast were top-notch!

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An irresistible dim sum encounter at Bao Teck Tea House

Bao Teck Tea House © Adrian Cheah

Dim sum ("touch the heart" in Chinese) refers to an array of dainty bite-size snacks enjoyed all over the world, especially among the Chinese communities. In Penang, dim sum is available for breakfast, lunch and even dinner from push-cart vendors, coffee shops, tea houses, restaurants and fine-dining establishments. Although the price difference can vary dramatically, there are many options for one to enjoy dim sum according to one's budget.

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Savouring mouth-watering Chinese dishes at Jia Shi Restaurant (formerly at Song River)

Jia Shi Restaurant © Adrian Cheah

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.

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A memorable 9-course vegetarian dinner at Happy Realm

Happy Realm © Adrian Cheah

Being a food paradise, Penang offers many avenues for full-fledged vegetarians to obtain scrumptious meals. From Indian vegetarian restaurants to Chinese outlets, there is a wider range of food available. During the Jade Emperor Festival (first to the ninth of the ninth month of the lunar calendar), more stalls mushroom all over Penang selling vegetarian delights from rice dishes to stir-fried noodles and from Chinese cakes to Italian pizzas. Furthermore with the creation of faux meats, some dishes are unbelievably "uncanny".

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Auntie Jo's delightful jelly mooncakes

jelly mooncake © Adrian Cheah

Taishi cakes, the predecessor of mooncakes, were present during the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-1046 BC) and Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). For a long time in history, mooncakes have been created as an offering during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Although traditional baked mooncakes have been around for thousands of years, this symbolic mooncake making tradition has not stopped evolving.

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The humble golden kee chang that are extraordinary

kee chang © Adrian Cheah

Preparation for kee chang (alkaline dumplings) starts a week in advance. Picking the jasmine rice grains out from a heap of glutinous rice is time-consuming and requires patience. The laborious task is necessary in order to obtain a translucent finish for the dumplings. If rice grains are present, the kee chang will lose their translucent appeal. I vividly remember sorting through the grains of rice when young, or as Mum would call it, “pilih the pulut”. I failed to understand then why such a tedious undertaking was even necessary since everything would be gobbled up eventually. Mum refused to entertain our rationale and would not compromise on quality. Today, being a "product" of Mum, I too have learnt not to compromise on quality, finding it rather ironic that my daughter would utter the same arguments I once did.

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Emperor Villa's "kochabi" set meals good for lunch or dinner

Emperor Villa © Adrian Cheah

Emperor Villa, a family-run business offering accommodation and dining first opened its doors to the public in September 2019. It took two years to complete the construction of its rustic villas complete with a spacious swimming pool, nestled among nine acres of greenery in the hills of Sungai Ara, Penang.

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Discover legendary handmade mooncakes by Chef Chong Kei

Mooncake © Adrian Cheah

Celebrated by the Chinese on the 15th day of the eighth lunar moon (between September to October), the Mooncake Festival commemorates the overthrow of the Mongols, when the insurgent leaders, by way of smuggling secret messages in mooncakes, called the people to revolt.

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Jia Siang Cafe, seafood at its freshest

Jia Siang Cafe © Adrian Cheah

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.

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An authentic Hakka luncheon in Balik Pulau

Hakka Village © Adrian Cheah

In Penang, where do you go for classic home-cooked Hakka favourites? To answer that, I ventured to the village of Balik Pulau, where about 30 percent of the Chinese are presumed to be Hakkas. Perched on a hillock in Pulau Betong is a restaurant located at Balik Pulau Lodge. Some recognise it as the "Hakka Village".

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