[Penang] Local Penang-Chinese favourites at Tek Sen, Carnarvon Lane

Tek Sen (Est. 1965) is perhaps Penang’s best-known “choo char” spot (a casual Chinese “cooked food” establishment known in HK as a “dai pai dong”, in KL as “dai chow” and Singapore as “cze char”). Offering local Penang-Chinese dishes (including a few distinct Nyonya-influenced ones), Tek Sen draws in not only the local, but also foreign diners, having been mentioned in foreign publications like Lonely Planet and New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/travel/36-hours-penang-malaysia.html).

Tek Sen began as an open-air eatery in 1965, named after the founder, Mr Choo Teik Seng, who started a very “lau eeah” (local Hokkien term meaning “dilapidated”) wooden shack serving Teochew porridge and mixed rice to labourers and trishaw pedalers. The sons, Choo Sam Ken and Choo Sam Chong then helped their parents “upgrade” the makeshift premises into a corrugated zinc-roofed eatery, with stainless steel table tops in the 1980s. It’s still a very humble eatery - no air-conditioning since the Choos believed that’ll make the dishes “kuai leng, bo phang”, i.e. Hokkien for “cool-off the dishes too fast, hence no aroma”.

These days, the rather spartan-looking (and perpetually packed) restaurant on Carnarvon Street is virtually unrecognizable from its humble beginnings - occupying two large shophouses … but, still not air-conditioned. The food is still very good, packing in some very traditional Penang-Chinese flavours, but the prices are higher than most other similar places in town.

The best time to arrive at Tek Sen for lunch is at 12 noon when it opens its doors, before the intimidating lunch crowd hits it at around 12.30pm-1pm. Business was relatively quiet yesterday (Monday) and there were only 4 other tables already occupied by the time we got there a bit past noon: a large table of Mainland Chinese tourists, a Taiwanese family of 3, a table of 4 Indonesian-Chinese businessmen, and a Penang-Chinese couple. Always interesting to be able to hear the different Chinese dialects and accents used in one spot: we hardly get to experience this in HK or Shanghai or Taipei, which tend to be monolingual. Penang seemed so cosmopolitan, so it’s hardly a surprise.

Our lunch spread:

  1. Double-cooked roast pork with chilli padi - perhaps Tek Sen’s best-known dish: chopped-up Chinese roast pork stir-fried in dark soysauce, sugar and “chilli padi” (small, fiery-hot birds’ eye chillis) till it’s caramelly-sweet, savoury and with a hint of spiciness.

  1. Stingray “assam pedas” - a spicy-sour Nyonya-influenced soup-stew dish, done extremely well here. Pieces of very fresh stingray are cooked with okra, tomatoes, onions and torch-ginger is a turmeric-galangal-tamarind-chilli soup. It’s the best rendition of this dish I’d tasted in Penang.

  1. Stir-fried sweet potato leaves with “sambal belacan” and shrimps - this is a classic Penang-Nyonya dish: sweet potato leaves are cooked till wilted and soft (it’s very similar in texture to spinach), flavoured with garlic, shallots, dried shrimps, “sambal belachan” (fermented shrimp paste and red chillis) and fresh, de-shelled shrimps.

  1. Sam wong tan - a Cantonese dish of custardy-smooth steamed eggs. As the name implies, three types of eggs are used - hen’s egg, century egg and salted duck’s egg. Very well done here.

  1. Braised pork-ribs with fermented black beans - a daily special dish. The fermented black beans lend a complex depth to the dish, already piquant from Chinese 5-spice and other condiments used.

  1. Braised fried tofu, topped with shrimps, dried scallops and egg-white - another Cantonese-influenced dish. It was the weakest of all the dishes we ordered: bland-ish, strictly for tofu-lovers like me but, otherwise, not a must-order.

Tek Sen may not have the tastiest kind of “cooked food” I’d had in George Town - Hing Kee in China Street is my personal fave, whilst Hai Ching in Balik Pulau and Ah Chui in Paya Terubong are capable of turning out dishes which are just as good. But Tek Sen has two things going for it: consistency and accessibility. Not to be missed.

Address
Tek Sen Restaurant (徳成飯店)
18, Lebuh Carnarvon, 10100 George Town, Penang
Tel: +6012-981 5117
Opening hours: 12 noon-2.30pm, 6pm-8.30pm, daily except Tuesday (closed)

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Back to Tek Sen for dinner this evening. Although Penang has not had any new reported case of COVID-19 for more than a month now, and no active cases in the state ever since the last 2 patients were discharged on 4 May, Penangites are still quite reluctant to dine out. So, Tek Sen now accepts dinner reservations, whereas previously, it was first-come-first-served. Also, Penang still shuts its borders to foreign and even inter-state travellers at the moment, so its clientele are currently made up of only Penang residents.

Tek Sen is currently run by the founder’s son, 68-year-old Choo Sam Ken, and Sam Ken’s son, Choo Wei Yean, 37.

What we had this evening:

  1. Char seoh bak - roast pork, stir-fried with soy sauce and caramelised sugar. It’s sticky-sweet and savoury at the same time. Don’t miss it.

  2. Black pomfret “gulai tumis” - very fresh fish and pieces of okra cooked in a piquant, spicy-sour gravy, redolent of galangal, lemongrass, shallots, chilis and “belacan” (fermented shrimp paste). Tamarind added a delicious, sour-ish tinge to the gravy.

  3. Fried chicken “kum heong” - batter-fried chicken, tossed in a Penang-Nyonya-style spicy-sour dressing of raw onions-red chilis-vinegar.

  4. "Four Heavenly Kings" - a popular Chinese-Malaysian stir-fry of wing beans, stink beans, long beans, eggplant & shrimps, spiked with spicy sambal belacan.

Very good meal - the food is consistently good here.

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Everything still looks delicious. Glad to know they didn’t bite the dust during lockdown.

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Dinner at the breathtakingly busy 𝗧𝗲𝗸 𝗦𝗲𝗻 on Carnarvon Street yesterday evening.

The family-run restaurant is perhaps Penang’s best-known “choo char” spot (a casual Chinese “cooked food” establishment known in HK as a “dai pai dong”, in KL as “dai chow” and Singapore as “tze char”).

Its inclusion in the 2023 Michelin Guide to Kuala Lumpur and Penang’s Bib Gourmand list has elevated its popularity even more!

Our dinner spread:

:small_orange_diamond: Assam prawns - very good rendition here: glossy, intensely-flavoured with tamarind, and perfectly caramelised

:small_orange_diamond: Sayur beremi (Penang-Hokkien: “sarumi”/“too boh chai”) stir-fried with shrimps and sambal belachan

:small_orange_diamond: Deep-fried house tofu, topped with braised, chopped shrimps, dried scallops, snow peas and egg-white

:small_orange_diamond: Crisp batter-fried chicken with umeboshi (sour plum) sauce;

:small_orange_diamond: Assam tumis with black pomfret, okra, tomatoes and onions

:small_orange_diamond: Stir-fried bitter gourd with eggs

:small_orange_diamond: Stir-fried broccoli, carrots and onions

:small_orange_diamond: The must-order - house special caramelised pork belly with chili padi (habaneros)

Despite how busy it seemed, Tek Sen’s kitchen was very efficient and turnover was very quick. If anything, their food seemed to taste even better nowadays!

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Amazingly beautiful food, I imagine it is as delicous as it is attractive. The photos with the six dishes together sum up what makes eating in SE Asia so much fun. Wide variety of foods and preparations and always a dish you have not tried yet.
Well, dishes I have not tried yet might be more accurate. LOL!

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Eating out here is always an adventure for me, too! You never what you may find with each new day.

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I love following your eating out adventures.

I am curious: what do you cook at home (and do you cook at home)?

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Peter - you are such a fortunate man to have this lovely looking food on your doorstep. I am soooo envious

I presume the queue was for the restaurant, not the adjacent coffee shop? Wasnt quite sure from the camera angle.

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Oh yes, it was for the restaurant. :grin:

I only cook 4-5 times a month, and it’s usually something simple: a one-pot meal. Much cheaper to eat out here in Penang, Kuala Lumpur, or Singapore.

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Paradise!

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I think that’s true about NYC too.

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@klyeoh curious to see these, and about the Assamese connection.

Everything looks mouthwatering as always!

I don’t think there is a connection to the Indian region of Assam.

I think it’s a coincidence, because the Malay word ‘Asam’ means ‘sour’ or ‘acid’ or ‘tamarind’ and the dishes listed all have a sour tang. :thinking:

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Yes, you’re right, @Rasam .

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This is kind of embarrassing, but i thought tamarind was sweet. I have had tamarind drinks in Mexico and elsewhere and it was always “artificially” sweetened somehow, apparently. So up until now, in my mind i always assumed tamarind must be sweet.
Yet again, i am reminded to never assume.

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There is both sweet and sour tamarind.

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Choo Sam Ken is the patriarch of the Choo family running Tek Sen. His father, Choo Teik Seng, was the founder of this very successful eatery.

It’s on the 2024 Michelin Guide to KL and Penang’s Bib Gourmand list.

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