[Bukit Mertajam, Malaysia] Teochew (Chaozhou) lunch at Yoong Kee Eating Shop

More than 6 decades old, Yoong Kee Eating Shop is one of the oldest eateries in Bukit Mertajam, a small, languid town on Province Wellesley, across the Straits of Penang from George Town, and a mere 15 minutes’ drive from Butterworth. The populace of Bukit Mertajam, like most of Province Wellesley, is largely Teochew/Chaozhou-Chinese (潮州人), and the cuisine there reflects it.

Yoong Kee is famous for its tofu stir-fried with chives (“kuchai”) and Teochew-style steamed pomfret. Situated across the road from the old Cheok Sah cinema, a local landmark, the tiny eatery can get really packed on weekdays, so it’s a good idea to be early.

Our lunch consisted of
1) Tofu stir-fried with chives, squid and shrimps
This dish is a must-order. The Teochew tofu has a unique texture which we can’t find in Hokkien/Fujianese, Hakka or Cantonese-style tofu - hard on the outside and incredibly soft on the inside.
The rendition here, the tofu lightly stir-fried with squid, shrimps, fish-cakes and flowering chives, was very good indeed.

2) Kai lan stir-fried with dried leatherjacket fish (pee-hu) and lard
Dried leatherjacket is a Teochew delicacy, and used to add a salty tang and a rather addictive aroma to whichever dish it’s added to. Used to prepare many Teochew-Chinese soup stocks, it’s also used to flavour the popular KL Hokkien fried noodles.
Here, it’s used not just to lend flavour to a stir-fried vegetable dish, but is also a central feature in the dish itself. Crisp, salty little pee-hu gems are what we looked for in the stir-fry.

3) Teochew-style steamed pomfret with salted mustard, sour plum, tomatoes, ginger and pork-lard strips
The large pomfret is called “tau tay” in Penang, and “chio her” in Singapore (and amongst the mainly Teochew-Chinese of Bangkok). Teochew-style steamed pomfret requires very fresh whole fish topped with salted mustard and other souring agents, e.g. fresh tomatoes or pickled plums, together with julienned ginger, and pork-lard strips (for added flavour and richness). The freshness of the fish is very important, as Teochew-style steaming requires a very light hand at seasoning, and the balance of flavours needs to be just right - so, the salted mustard or pickled plums needed to be pre-soaked to lessen the saltiness/sourness. The version here at Yoong Kee was as good as any I’d tried in Singapore or Bangkok, although a tad blander than I’d have liked.

4) Rojak fruti salad
The Penang-style rojak is actually from the popular Black and White Man Rojak Stall, part of Cheok Sah Square where Yoong Kee is located. This consisted of crisp, crunchy slices of fresh jicama (Asian turnip), rose apple, pineapple, and green mango, slathered with a dark treacle-like sauce, premixed with fermented shrimp paste, then covered with ground peanuts.

Like all Teochew meals, the dishes are all pretty light and subtly-flavoured and you never feel over-satiated after a Teochew dinner.

Do call ahead before you make that long drive to Bukit Mertajam. The folks at Yoong Kee can be notoriously fickle - the other time, a Singapore uncle called a day ahead to enquire if they are open on Monday. They answered in the affirmative, but when we arrived after an hour’s drive from George Town, we found the place closed! So, next time, call just before you go.

Address
Yoong Kee Eating Shop
207 Cheok Sah Square
Jalan Pasar, Bukit Mertajam
Tel: +604 5302296
Opening hours: 11am-3pm and 6pm-10pm daily. Call ahead to confirm.

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Back to Yoong Kee in Bukit Mertajam. Founded in 1955 by a Teochew chef, Chow Ah Yoong, the restaurant is now run by his grandson.

We ordered some of the eatery’s signature dishes, all rustic, simple fare which reflects the peasant roots of Bukit Mertajam’s original Teochew inhabitants.

  1. Stir-fried Teochew tofu with chives - bits of fatty pork and tiny shrimps were thrown in, plus a dash of fish-sauce & other condiments.

  2. Pork-rib and ground nut soup

  3. Teochew-style steamed stingray - this was a masterful rendition of the dish, as the chef somehow manages to neutralise the normally obnoxious scent of the stingray which oftentimes puts off diners unused to the smell. Teochew-style steaming is a very “light” way of cooking, the exact opposite of how stingrays are often cooked in Malaysia/Singapore where a super-spicy chili sambal paste is slathered over a stingray before the fish is barbecued. The sambal, replete with shallots, garlic, “belachan” (fermented shrimp paste), tamarind and other assertive spices, serve to mask the “odour” of stringray flesh.
    But in the case of Teochew-style cooking, only slivers of ginger, some sliced tomatoes, salted mustard leaves and a couple of Teochew salted plums were used to compliment the stringray, which was steamed to perfection: soft-fleshed and delicate.

  4. Steamed pork belly with salted fish and ginger - these are thinly-sliced, wafer-thin pork belly sprinkled with little pieces of salted fish which provided tiny explosions of saltiness to offset the fatty mouth-feel of the pork slices.

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Back again to Yoong Kee Eating House, and the chef seemed to be in good form today. All the dishes tasted a notch above what we had previously.

  1. Stir-fried tofu with pork, pig’s liver, squid and shrimps - there was a certain depth of flavour to the gravy/sauce today. One could also taste the “wok hei” or pan-seared aroma much treasured by the Cantonese-Chinese especially.

  1. Bitter gourd omelette - I loved their version of this omelette, which was light and fluffy.

  2. Pork-ribs, groundnuts, red dates and dried cuttlefish soup - light and flavoursome, this was exactly how I’d cook it myself at home.

  3. Pan-fried fish steak with “taucheo” (fermented bean paste), ginger slivers, onions and tomatoes - this was the only dish where the chef did not rise above his usual standards this afternoon, but it delivered a flavour punch with the use of “taucheo”, a more assertive, saltier Chinese counterpart of Japanese “miso” and Korean “doenjang”.

I’m supposing the chef’s in a good mood today, as all the dishes we had were the usual staples on his compact menu, but he seemed to put in more effort to ensure each dish was perfectly cooked today.

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Oooh, I would like that bitter gourd omelette.

I eat whole fermented soya beans often (in stir-fries and braises), is this “taucheo” a bit simiiar in taste and does it contain some whole beans or is a fine paste? I shall look for it when I go to the Chinese supermarket.

I love doenjang, too.

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It’s got whole beans, albeit softened. Am pretty sure you’ll like it.

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold