[Penang, Malaysia] Dinner at 𝗔𝗵 𝗖𝗵𝘂𝗶 𝗦𝗲𝗮𝗳𝗼𝗼𝗱, Paya Terubong

It’s been nearly 3 years since we came to Ah Chui Seafood, the casual, family-style eatery sequestered away in the foothills of Paya Terubong.

Churning out a variety of freshly-cooked dishes upon order, this kind of super-casual eatery is known as a “choo char” in Penang, In Hong Kong, the term used is “dai pai dong”, whereas in Kuala Lumpur, it’s called a “dai chow”.

Singapore shares the same Hokkien dialect as Penang, so it’s also called by the same term, but pronounced as “tze char” in Singapore (Singapore’s Quanzhou-inflected Hokkien dialect differs from Penang’s Zhangzhou Hokkien dialect, although the two are mutually-intelligible).

Unlike during our previous visit during pre-COVID days when it was jam-packed with diners, Ah Chui was rather quiet last night, as most Penangites are still hesitant about dining out, despite the high vaccination rates here (90% at the last count). 18 months of lockdown has had quite an impact on people’s psyche and attitudes.

What we had last night:

  1. Chili crabs - this spicy-sweet-sour dish has its legion of fans in Singapore and Malaysia.

I’m used to the version most common in Singapore: tomatoey, not-too-spicy, slightly sweet, and streaked through with egg ribbons. You can find this type of chili crabs at almost all its top seafood restaurants: Red House, No Signboard, Palm Beach, Long Beach, Jumbo, Roland, Mattar Road, Punggol, etc.

In Malaysia, the same kind of chili crab prep can be found in Johore (which is the Malaysian state adjacent to Singapore, separated by a 1-km causeway) but not in Kuala Lumpur, where the preferred preparation method for crabs is either by steaming, or else fried “kam heong” (literally “golden fragrant”) using some spicy, strongly-flavored spices.

Penang does chili crabs which somewhat resemble the Singapore method, but the sauce tend to be more liquid, and the egg bit is missing. The gargantuan Sri Lankan crabs, most popular for cooking choli crabs in Singapore, are also not available in Malaysia, so the dish is usually cooked with either local or Indonesian crabs.

The ones here at Ah Chui are smallish crustaceans, sweet-fleshed, but far from the meaty ones I’m used to having back in Singapore.

  1. Crisp golden-fried squid rings - nothing beats fresh calamari, simply battered and deep-fried to a crisp.

  1. Grilled aubergines, topped with dried shrimps - this dish is actually Ah Chui’s claim-to-fame: long purple aubergines sliced lengthwise, grilled till soft and smokey, then topped with crisp, aromatic micro-sized dried shrimps.
    The contrast in flavors and textures between the shrimps and aubergines was what made the dish so amazingly addictive.

  1. Crisp-fried tofu, topped with spicy-sweet Thai-style sauce - this Thai dish has been co-opted into Malaysian cuisine in a big way, maybe because the shared taste preferences of the Thais and Malaysians: spicy, sweet, sour.

  1. Gulai tumis with red snapper - a classic Penang-Nyonya dish which was adapted from Malay/Indonesian cuisine. The version here was good - but then, I’d never come across a “bad” gulai tumis anywhere in Penang, for that matter!

  1. Kam heong clams - this is a spicy, rather pungent prep for seafood, much loved in Malaysia, but quite alien to Singaporean taste-buds. The clams are pretty fresh, though.

  1. Stir-fried “yau mak” (Romaine lettuce) - traditionally, the Chinese never eat anything raw, and uncooked vegetables are a no-no. So, it’s quite common for greens and leafy vegetables to be flash-fried, sometimes just for a couple of minutes.
    The most common way is to sauté some chopped garlic in a hot wok, throw in the leafy greens, and flavor the whole concoction with some Shaoxing wine, a dollop of oyster sauce or a dash of fish sauce, and that’s it.
    The version here at Ah Chui had an incredible “wok hei” (pan-seared aroma) that I didn’t quite expect - it was delicious. I’d come back here just to order this again!

Address
Ah Chui Seafood
1238 T, Jln Paya Terubung, Taman Nyaman Indah, 11060 Ayer Itam, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +60 12-410 3303
Operating hours: 2.30pm to 10pm daily

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The aubergine topped with shrimps gives me an idea.

A delicacy of my region in northwest England is potted shrimps - tiny brown shrimps (the ones the colour blind French call “grey”), flavoured with mace, potted and butter drizzled over to seal it. Usually eaten cold with bread but I may have a try melting them over the aubergine (you do see the occasional menu listing for a pot of shrimps melted into pasta)