Tiny Seow Fong Lye kopitiam on MacAlister Lane (the end closer to Burmah Road, not MacAlister Road) has been around since the 1930s, and boasts a famous chee cheong fun or steamed rice rolls stall that was founded in 1955, and perhaps the best-known char koay kak or fried rice cake stall in the city (it started back in 1963).
Traditionally, kopitiams or Chinese coffeeshops lease out space for stalls to hawkers, each of whom prepare a specific dish. The coffeeshop owner him/herself will be responsible for providing beverages (coffee, tea, sodas, beer, etc.) whilst the different stalls will offer traditional hawker fare like wantan noodles, char koay teow (fried rice noodles), etc. Some kopitiams in Penang are well-known for a specific stall or a hawker dish offered in their premises, e.g. Kheng Pin kopitiam on the corner of Penang Road and Sri Bahari Road for its lor bak stall, OO White Coffee kopitiam on Carnarvon Street for ST Loo’s beef noodles and Mr Gan’s oh chien/oyster omelette, One Corner Cafe kopitiam on Bawasah Road for its “Super Hokkien Mee” stall, Ping Hooi kopitiam on the corner of Carnarvon Street and Malay Street for “Tiger Char Koay Teow”, Kek Seng kopitiam (founded 1904) on Penang Road for its legendary ais kacang (shaved ice dessert), etc.
But Seow Fong Lye kopitiam here boasts of not one, but two famous stalls:
- The six decade-old (and counting) chee cheong fun stall is run by Mdm Lee Lai Foong, whose family started the business), together with her husband, Oo Boon Siew, who happened to be one of the Oo family that owns Seow Fong Lye Cafe.
- The char koay kak stall is run by the Eoh sisters, Goay Lan and Goay Hoon. Their char koay kak business was started back in 1963 by their father, Eoh Joo Seng. Steamed rice cakes (their texture like firm polenta cakes) are stir-fried in pork lard, with minced garlic, salted radish, a soysauce-based condiment, chili paste, fish sauce, beansprouts and eggs. Simple, but aromatic and packs a flavour punch like no other.
Both stalls are well-known in Penang for offering among the best renditions of the respective hawker food that they sell.
We also ordered fried Hokkien noodles (char mee) from the char koay teow stall. I don’t know how long they’d been around, but my friend who was there said the couple who ran the stall had been doing it for 40 years at least.
Many local Penangites actually eschew a heavy breakfast and stick to soft-boiled eggs with kaya-butter toast - much the same as their Singaporean counterparts. This breakfast dish is actually a local Malaysian/Singaporean adaptation of the British eggs-with-soldiers, the twist being the inclusion of the kaya egg-coconut jam on the toast.
Despite its worn-out look, Seow Fong Lye gets extremely busy every morning, when the office crowd comes in for their morning cuppa before work.
Seow Fong Lye Cafe
94, MacAlister Lane (Lorong Macalister), 10400 George Town, Penang
Opening hours: 7.30am to 12.30pm daily