Keat Seng Restaurant will always, always, stay in my memory as the place where I tasted my very first steamed pork-shrimp dumpling/“siew mai” (燒賣) and steamed shrimp dumpling/“har kau” (蝦餃).
The year was 1972, and my Singaporean-Teochew maternal grandfather thought it’s about time his 8-year-old grandson, weaned on a diet of Hokkien-Teochew-Nyonya foods all his life, be introduced to the intricacies of Cantonese cuisine or, more specifically, “dim sum” (點心). We were on a holiday in Penang which, like Singapore, has a majority Chinese-Hokkien & Teochew population. However, Cantonese dim sum is also available in both cities - Singapore has Nam Tong in Chinatown, which served golfball-sized dim sum from 4am in the mornings, catering to the Cantonese & Hakka coolies who crave substantial sustenance before starting their long days filled with arduous menial work.
Keat Seng Restaurant can be more accurately described as a traditional Chinese coffeeshop with a collection of food stalls within its premises. It’s quite a popular breakfast destination in Ayer Itam even back then, and had a good dim sum stall at the time. It also happened to be located a mere 5 minutes’ walk from the country house of my Penang paternal grandfather, whom we visit whenever we’re in town.
It was at Keat Seng that I was introduced to the delicious wonders of Cantonese dim sum. Hokkien and Teochew cuisines do not have any equivalent - steamed dumplings do not exist in our culinary vocabulary. Ditto Nyonya cuisine, which my paternal grandfather, being a 4th-generation Straits-born Chinese, swore to, with its Malay-Thai-infused influences: piquant curries, spicy salads, coconut-infused stews and puddings. Cantonese dumplings, at the time, was about as alien to me as Swedish smörgåsbord.
Today, Keat Seng still does a bustling business each morning (7am till 12 noon), and has a different set of stalls which operate in the evenings (6pm till late at night). The dim sum stall is no longer there - in fact, the closest dim sum stall was the one at the neighbouring coffeeshop, Golden City.
However, Keat Seng still has an enviable collection of food stalls offering a large collection of Penang hawker eats.
What we tried this morning:
- Roti jala with Hainanese-style chicken curry. In typical Penang fashion, this Chinese-Nyonya dish effortlessly marries Malay lacey-pancake (roti jala), tinged yellow with turmeric and with a coconut milk-enriched egg batter, with a Hainanese-Chinese take on Malay-style chicken curry, albeit richer in coconut milk than its Malay counterpart. The roti jala here is soft & fresh, but its curry was nondescript. Thumbs-down.
- Wantan mee - this is Malaysian-style, i.e. dressed in a blend of lard, dark & light soysauces, sesame oil, and other condiments, unlike the HK version which emphasises the use of a savoury soup to complement the noodles, nor Singapore-style, where the wantan noodles are tossed in lard & spicy chili paste. It’s got the old-fashioned “char siew” - more poached & tinted red, like the retro renditions we also find in Malacca or Singapore, than the real caramelised BBQ pork we find in mainly-Cantonese cities like HK or Kuala Lumpur.
The rendition here is pretty respectable - nowhere near the best I’d had in Penang (you get better ones at Chulia Street, Hutton Lane or Cecil Street Market), but turned out to be the best option I had at Keat Seng for breakfast this morning.
- Curry mee. The version here is the quintessential Penang-style curry mee - a mix of yellow Hokkien wheat noodles and “beehoon” (thin white rice noodles) in a thin coconut milk-infused savoury-salty soup, with beansprouts, tofu puffs, shrimps, cockles and pig’s blood cubes, garnished with fresh mint leaves. Again, not the best I’d had around, but a pretty good rendition. I love pig’s blood, and this place was generous with it.
- “Orh kueh” or steamed yam cake. More specifically, it’s a pudding made from steamed Asian purple yam (or taro) with tapioca flour. This is then topped with golden crisp-fried shallots & fragrant, minced dried shrimps (“hae bee”), and served with sweet chili sauce. A good “orh kueh” is heavenly, and we find this all over Penang. The one here tasted average - not enough yam to give it a more pronounced flavour.
- “Chee cheong fun” or steamed, rolled rice flour rolls. The one here is Penang-style - again, very distinct from the HK version which is thinner and usually filled with shrimps, or scallops, or else “char siew” (BBQ pork), or the KL version with its thick brown bean sauce and additions of “yong tau fu” ingredients like fishpaste-stuffed tofu and vegetables.
Singapore-style “chee cheong fun” is closest to the Penang-style, except that the Penangites also add “hae koh”, a pungent fermented shrimp paste, to the hoisin-beanpaste dressing.
Penang “hae koh” has the same effect as Thai “nam pla”, Cambodian “prahok” or Vietnamese “nước mắm” - its strong smell sends its native connoisseurs into raptures whilst outsiders might go into death throes at a whiff.
The “chee cheong fun” at Keat Seng, served topped with crisp-fried shallots & toasted sesame seeds, is average at best.
- “Chu bee pui” - steamed glutinous rice flavoured with soysauce/oyster sauce/ dried shrimps, is a spartan, rustic dish, closer to Singaporean “chu bee p’ng” than HK-Cantonese “lor mai fun”. The version here didn’t have the right texture, and we suspected they used poor quality glutinous rice, or else mixed ordinary rice with the more expensive glutinous rice before cooking. Avoid.
Overall, I think Keat Seng Restaurant (吉成餐室)'s business thrived because of the variety of hawker foods it offers, rather than the quality, and perhaps because of its more than half-a-century-old reputation.
Keat Seng Restaurant (吉成餐室)
10J, Mk. 16, Jalan Air Itam, Taman Ria
11500 Ayer Itam, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +6019 423 8833
Opening hours: 7am-12 noon daily, except Wed (Closed).