We were at Nam Seng Coffeeshop yesterday for a wantan noodle lunch at a popular stall which has been operating there since the 1970s. But, the old wantan noodle chap decided to take an unannounced day-off (as usually happens with hawkers/food vendors in Penang), so we opted for the chicken rice there instead.
The version here is not Hainanese, as the chickens are roasted, instead of poached. But other than that, the preparation of the rice seemed to be the same: i.e. the rice has a distinct chicken stock flavour, and was actually very fragrant and tasty, even more so than other much-vaunted Hainanese-run spots in the city.
Note: I’d always found Hainanese chicken rice in Penang to be rather poor cousins of their Singapore counterparts. Most Penang spots served rice which are practically tasteless. There used to be one place in Penang, Tho Yuen on Campbell Street, which served really amazing Hainanese chicken rice, but that was in the 1960s-70s. Tho Yuen is still there, but its old chefs are long-gone, and so was their famous chicken rice. But in Singapore, almost every Hainanese chicken rice spot serves food which is of the quality that Tho Yuen used to produce. So, my advise to chicken rice hunters: forget about that dish when you are in Penang, just go for it in Singapore. Even KL, Malacca or anywhere else in Malaysia, perhaps with the exception of Ipoh, cannot measure up to Singapore’s standards.
The chicken rice meal here at Hutton Lane, more Penang-Hokkien-style than anything else, proved to be pretty good. We ordered:
A mixed platter of roast chicken, roast pork (Hokkien: “sio bak”) and Chinese BBQ pork (Hokkien: “char sioh”). The chicken was pretty nice, but the roast pork and Chinese BBQ pork were of “Penang standard”, i.e. quite mediocre, as mainly-Hokkien Penangites are not very good with Cantonese-style roasts. To get good ones in Malaysia, one needs to go to mainly-Cantonese cities like Kuala Lumpur or Ipoh.
Soy-braised hard-boiled egg and tofu - these were pretty average.
"Chai boey" - this was actually pretty good! It’s a popular Penang-Chinese soup (actually, more stew-like) of Chinese mustard greens, dried chilis, tamarind and the odds-and-ends from the various roast meats. “Chai boey” is the Hokkien term which can loosely be translated to mean “miscellaneous leftovers”, and is the equivalent of what the Chinese-Americans call "chop suey" in their Cantonese/Toishan lingo.
The version here was sharp, spicy and with a depth of flavour from the long, slow-simmering process for the soup/stew. Absolutely loved this one.
Poached chicken livers - for me, a chicken rice meal is never complete without chicken livers, to add an earthy, depth of flavour to the meal.
We washed down our meal with some very refreshing iced Umbra juice drinks. “Umbra” is the Penang term for the June plum, a sourish-green fruit which yields an intensely sharp, tart flavour and is much sought-after in Penang for its juice. The Penang term came from Sinhalese/Sri Lanka term “ambarella”. In Indonesia, the fruit is known as “buah kedondong”, which is also the term used by Singapore-Malays. However, the Chinese majority in Singapore mispronounced “buah kedondong” as “balonglong”, which became the prevalent term for the fruit in Singapore.
Whatever one calls it, the juice is really refreshing, so don’t miss this whilst one is in Penang.
Overall, I think this place was actually quite a find - lesser known than Foong’s Hainan Chicken Rice shop a mere 2 doors away.
Nam Seng Coffee Shop
124, Hutton Lane (corner with Amoy Street), 10050 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Opening hours: 7am to 2pm daily, except Fridays.