The 90-year-old Penang Chinese Swimming Club is not only known for its pools, there is also a popular Hakka-Chinese restaurant there.
The Hakka people (客家) are famously known as the “gypsies” of China. The very term “Hakka” meant “guest families”. Centuries of war drove the Hakkas from northern China (around modern-day Shanxi, Henan, and Hubei) down south, where they set up new homelands in Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Sichuan, Hunan, Zhejiang, Hainan and Guizhou. Throughout all this, the Hakkas maintain a shared language and cultural practices, even as they absorb certain characteristics of the provinces they settled in. The Hakkas number over 80 million worldwide. In Singapore, the Hakkas are about 10% of the 2.8 million Chinese population, and the founder of modern-Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, was a Hakka himself. In Malaysia, the Hakkas constitute a quarter of the 6.5 million Chinese population here.
Penang’s Hakkas have settled here for more than 3 centuries, pre-dating the island’s official “founding” by the British East India Company in 1786. Today, whilst Penang’s Chinese populace is largely Hokkien (Fujianese), the Hakkas form the majority of the population on the western part of the island known as Balik Pulau.
Lao Hakka restaurant, in fact, started off in Balik Pulau just about a decade back, although it has since moved to its current location at the Penang Chinese Swimming Club.
It was rather popular so be prepared to wait, especially on weekends, when its large tables are filled with mainly Hakka families.
What we had last Sunday at dinner:
Son Pahn Ji (Hakka yam abacus beads with pork & cuttlefish). This is a Hakka classic, with gnocchi-like taro noodles shaped into flat discs (like the Chinese abacus beads, hence the name), stir-fried with dried cuttlefish, minced pork, wood-ear fungus and garlic. Very good rendition here, and less greasy than those I find in many other places.
Wong Li chau Chu Chong (stir-fried pork chitterlings with pineapple). Another example of Hakka home-cooking, with a tasty sweet-sour-tangy flavour imparted by the pineapples slices.
Wong Chiu Keh (chicken in yellow wine stew). The Hakkas usually home-brew their yellow rice wine, also known as niang chiu or “mother wine” (家娘酒) as the brewers are always the women. And one of the much-loved Hakka dish is chicken stewed in wine, with lots of ginger for flavour, and wood-ear fungus for additional texture. The version here at Lao Hakka seemed more diluted than home-cooked versions I’d had. Tasty nonetheless.
Kiu Nyuk (braised pork with yam). Probably the best-known Hakka dish to most people. It’s also known as “kau yoke” in Cantonese. Braised pork belly slices, interspersed with taro, in a fermented beanpaste-soysauce marinade. The version here was tasty, although their use of fermented beanpaste was also dialed-down.
Yong Ku Kua (bittergourd stuffed with minced pork). The Hakkas make masterful use of the bitter flavours of the gourd, juxtaposing it with sweet, fatty minced pork, then topped with golden-fried shallots & garlic. The soupy gravy also has a touch of Chinese wolfberries.
Hakka dishes tend to be more rustic, compared to other Southern Chinese regional cuisines. Hearty portions. The food items like steamed cakes or noodles also tend to have a slightly chewier texture compared to their Cantonese, Chaozhou or Fujianese counterparts.
Penang Chinese Swimming Club
562, Tanjung Bungah Road
11200 Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +6017-418 8212
Opening hours: 11am-3pm, 6pm-10pm, Tue to Sun (Closed on Monday)