Bukit Tambun is a tiny sleepy fishing village on the mainland part of Penang. What catches one’s attention when one drives into the village are its rainbow-coloured rows of traditional Chinese shophouses, most built circa 1920s.
Life flowed at a languid pace here, as the fisherfolk go out to sea before the break of dawn, coming back in the early afternoon and, after sorting out their catch and loading them onto transports that bring them out to Butterworth, or to the main city of George Town on the island across the Penang Straits, would laze around in the coffeeshops or small rest areas dotting the village.
Salted fish laid out to dry by the quiet road cutting through the village centre.
The village’s fortunes actually changed some time in the 1990s when an enterprising villager decided to open a seafood restaurant by the river-front, offering fresh-off-the-boat catch cooked anyway one desired. First, the Mainlanders came - from Bukit Mertajam and Butterworth. Then, as news got around, Penang islanders started driving across the bridge from George Town to check out this place which “charges unbelievably low prices” for their seafood dinners. Business went through the roof, more villagers joined in and opened rival dining establishments - all pretty rustic set-ups: wooden constructions on stilts perched atop the Jawi River that meandered lazily through the village.
Today, there is a clutch of seafood restaurants that still pulled in the crowds, mainly in the evenings, to this quiet little hamlet.
We decided to lunch at Jetty Seafood Restaurant today. It’s supposedly the most popular one, ahead of its other two most well-established rivals, Prawn Village Restaurant and Floating Seafood Paradise, plus at least half a dozen other similar set-ups.
Our lunch today consisted of:
Chili crabs, served with Chinese fried mantou buns. No one, but no one, does chili crabs as well as the Singaporeans do. But the ones here came pretty close to what one gets back in Singapore: tomatoey, sweet-sour sauce with the minutest hint of chili-heat, streaked through with egg-white ribbons. One don’t get the humongous Sri Lankan crabs here as in Singapore, but the smallish Penang mud-crabs here were ultra-fresh, which more than made up for their lack of size.
The lightly-fried knots of mantou buns were pleasantly light and fluffy, with a slightly sweetish tinge. They were perfect to dip into the chili crab gravy.
- Deep-fried whole snapper with “kam heong” sauce - the fish was amazingly fresh and, flash-fried, was crisp on the outside, but flaky and moist inside. I never liked “kam heong” sauce which I first came across in Kuala Lumpur, when I moved there in 2011. I found the sauce - “kam heong" (金香) is a Cantonese term which translates to "golden fragrance” - too pungent for my taste. The KL Cantonese chefs combined Chinese fermented beanpaste (“taucheo”), oyster sauce, dried shrimps and Shaoxing wine with Indian curry spices, curry leaves and, in many places, lemongrass and even Malay “belacan” (fermented shrimp paste) and explosive birds’ eye chilis (50,000-100,000 Scoville units).
It was something alien for anyone growing up in Singapore, or even Penang. But, somehow, this style of cooking has slowly seeped into Penang’s culinary repertoire in the past decade or so. Thankfully, the version here is pretty mild, with none of the obnoxious, in-your-face, flavour sledgehammer which KL-style Chinese cooking is known for. I actually enjoyed the gentle rendition here.
Steamed prawns with Shaoxing wine-soy sauce - these huge thin-shelled prawns were the best I’d had in a long time. Steamed gently with a drizzle of Shaoxing rice wine, good quality soy sauce, julienned strips of ginger, and a sprinkling of chopped scallions, red chilis and coriander leaves, they were delicious.
Bitter gourd omelette - our obligatory vegetable dish was bitter gourd and eggs, saltier than we’d have liked, but perfect to go with the other richer dishes.
Prices here have doubled, nay, tripled since the early days of Bukit Tambun’s foray into the seafood restaurant business. But it remained very reasonable - the total bill for this meal for the two of us, plus some beers, was MYR120 (US$28)!
Jetty Seafood Restaurant
860, Bagan Bukit Tambun, 14100 Simpang Ampat,
Tel: +604-588 0949
Opening hours: 12 noon to 10pm daily