[Butterworth, Malaysia] Hainanese dinner at Salad Bowl, Chain Ferry Road

Salad Bowl is a Hainanese-owned eatery that was established in 1976 by its owner-chef, Lee Chiang Huat. Mr Lee is one of Penang’s last old-school Hainanese chefs, his own father was from a generation who came from Hainan Island to work for the British colonialists in British Malaya.

Today, Salad Bowl still offers some of the best onion soups and oxtail soups around, and is Butterworth’s leading purveyor of Hainanese-Western and Nyonya fare for the past 4 decades. Septuagenarian Lee Chiang Huat, still runs the kitchen, which he’d inherited from his father, whilst his son, Lee Keng Kiat, manages the front of the house.

  1. Oxtail soup - this is the typical East-meets-West Hainanese rendition of a “Western” oxtail soup, but given an Oriental slant (more garlic, drop of soy sauce, etc.). A soft, slightly sweet bread roll & a small slice of cold butter are served on the side.

  2. Choon peah (Hainanese spring rolls) - a heftier version of the Chinese spring roll. A choon peah is usually cut into 3 or 4 pieces, before serving. Its filling would include minced pork, shredded cabbage, julienned shitake mushrooms and even glass noodles, on top of the shredded jicama and carrots which the smaller Chinese spring rolls would contain. The Hainanese would also serve the choon peah with a dipping sauce made from Worcestershire sauce and cut, red chilis. It;s good, but I’d had better versions at other Hainanese eateries like Beach Corner and Ocean Green.

  3. Foo yong tan (Shrimp and vegetable omelette) - this is a heavy, rich omelette containing shrimps, shredded carrots, onions, lettuce and shallots. It’s pretty tasty.

  4. Curry Kapitan (Penang-Nyonya dry chicken curry) - this was supposed to be the house specialty, and I do have Penang friends (even serious gourmands) who sang praises of it. For some reason, it’s not really to my taste - the version here seemed to lack the citrusy lemongrass scent, and the piquant chili-belacan-galangal scent that I associate with good Curry Kapitan.

I’m completely perplexed and still do not know why my friends liked the version here - I surmise that they were probably regulars who, through the past 4 decades, had somehow “acquired” a taste for Salad Bowl’s version.

  1. Hokkien char mee - so Salad Bowl offers a Hokkien-style fried noodle dish, instead of their own Hainanese-style one. The mix of yellow egg noodles and the finer rice noodles was stir-fried with chicken, shrimps and choy sum greens. The brown gravy tasted of soy sauce and perhaps oyster sauce. Golden-fried shallots were sprinkled on top before serving.
    Again, the version here garnered lofty praises from my dining companions - it’s pretty good.

  2. Inche kabin - this is a typical Penang-Nyonya dish of chicken marinated in spices and coconut milk, then deep-fried upon order. It resulted in rich-tasting, slightly-spiced (not chili-spicy) chicken pieces which are crisp on the outside, and juicy inside. This chicken dish is usually served with prawn crackers, and a Worcestershire-cut red chilis dipping sauce on the side.

Overall, Salad Bowl delivers, with its retro menu replete with dishes which one remembers from 1970s Malaysia/Singapore, but hardly found anywhere else these days. Old-fashioned flavours are the order of the day at this old place.

Salad Bowl Coffee House
4623, Jalan Chain Ferry, Kompleks Chain Ferry
12100 Butterworth, Penang
Tel: +604-323 2948
Opening hours: 11am to 11pm Mon-Sat. Closed on Sundays.

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

― Jonathan Gold