The Heng Hwa (興化) people are a sub-dialect group of the Hokkiens from Fujian province in Southern China. Historically, the Heng Hwa district in Fujian was given its own jurisdiction during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). Its inhabitants originated from Henan province in the Chinese central plains, practically the cradle of Chinese civilization as the Henan people had a history that went back 5,000 years.
Modern-day South-east Asia plays host to a large Heng Hwa diaspora which came with Chinese emigration into the region. In Indonesia, Malaysia & Singapore, the Heng Hwas are well-known for dominating the transportation trade (including rickshaws and trishaws) since the early 20th century.
The Heng Hwas also have their own distinct cuisine. My first experience with the cuisine about 20 years ago (at the Hing Wa Restaurant on Beach Road, Singapore) did not make much of an impression on me: it seemed too simple & rustic, and I didn’t quite like the blandish “lor mee”: noodles drowned in a gluggy, pale-coloured, unctuous gravy, then sprinkled with roasted groundnuts and toasted seaweed.
Then, some time in 2000, it all changed as a newly-opened Putien Restaurant on Kitchener Road, Singapore, started attracting the attention of local foodies because of its unusual, yet somewhat familiar dishes. The restaurant is named after the city of Putien (莆田), located in eastern Fujian, China, regarded as the historic homeland of the Heng Hwa people. The restaurant at the time was simple & rustic, with cheap plastic chairs & foldable tables. But, their Heng Hwa-style fried bee hoon (fine rice noodles) dish was an absolute revelation: they used the finest-textured rice noodles anyone has ever encountered, stir-fried with pork, lardons, clams, roasted groundnuts, seaweed, fresh mustard vegetables & shrimps, all in an intensely-flavoured pork-chicken stock. The flavour of the dish was indescribable, coupled with the amazing texture of the beehoon.
Till today, I’ve yet to find another rice noodle dish which can hold a candle to Putien’s. Queues outside the restaurant seemed ever-present. It is really that good. So good, in fact, that in the mid-2000s, there was even a copycat restaurant which called itself Putien Seafood Restaurant that opened a few doors away from the incumbent on Kitchener Road. The intended deception even made front-page news on the local tabloid, The New Paper. The imitator did not last long when the diners wised up.
Anyway, the original Putien restaurant just went from strength to strength: business was profitable, it grew into an island-wide chain and its image was upgraded - swisher interior, finer crockery & cutlery. But, at the end of the day, the standard of its signature fried bee hoon remained the same. It was still the best on the island!
Putien Restaurant opened its first Malaysian branch at the posh One Utama mall in the upper-middle-class Damansara neighbourhood in Jan 2012. Long queues, a common sight at its original Kitchener Road location in Singapore since 2000, was replicated in KL.
Last week, Putien opened its first outlet on Penang, Malaysia’s foodie capital itself. These days, the Kitchener Road location has earned itself a 1-Michelin-star in the Singapore Red Guide. Further reinforcing its image as a swish Chinese dining spot, its Penang branch is located in Gurney Paragon, the exclusive sea-fronting mall built on the site of the former St Joseph’s Novitiate.
Service was brisk, as the crowds build up pretty quickly. We had an 11.30am-1pm seating.
Our lunch today consisted of:
Iced bittergourd, with honey dip
Sliced into gossamer-thin ribbons and arranged into a floral-shaped bouquet, wisps of bittergourd can be picked up with chopsticks and dipped into honey. The bitter and sweet flavours played off against each other surprisingly well.
Squirrel-shaped seabass in sweet-sour sauce
An elaborate rendition of the legendary Jiangsu sōngshǔ guì yú (松鼠鳜鱼). The version here was done pretty well, though certainly far from the best that I’d had (most of the very good renditions I’d had were in Shanghai and Hong Kong). The crisp cubes of batter-fried fish-meat could have been lighter and crispier, and the sauce could have been made less intense. But overall, the best rendition of this dish I’d had in Penang.
The lower-part of the fish-head and inverted to look like a rabbit head
- Steamed prawns with minced garlic. I didn’t quite like the rendition here - the prawns tasted a bit dry-ish, as if pre-frozen prawns were used. Penang is an island, and where the freshest seafood is usually used even for its street food. So to use frozen seafood is pretty jarring. But the recipe used here resembled the one in Singapore admirably - sprinkled with good soysauce, and garnished with minced garlic and finely-chopped scallions.
Heng Hwa Bee Hoon
This is the piece de resistance. The portion here seemed smaller than those I’d had in Singapore and KL. Tastewise, it’s the same, but a bit drier. I love this dish to bits, and am a bit disappointed by the below-par rendition here.
Spinach with century egg and salted duck’s egg in supreme stock
Well-executed vegetable dish here.
We skipped the desserts here as the two top Putien dessert choices, using sweet potato and yam puree, were not available at this new outlet yet.
Make reservations ahead, or else come early if you want to walk-in, as this new outlet can be very busy indeed.
Level 6, Gurney Paragon Mall
Tel: +604-226 0828
Opening hours: 10am-10pm daily.