[Penang, Malaysia] Hainanese dinner at Happy Garden, Batu Ferringhi

We opted for a Hainanese dinner yesterday evening at Happy Garden in Penang’s Batu Ferringhi beach strip. Owner-chef, Tan Tee Yong, is one of the last of the dying breed of those traditionalist true-blue Hainanese chefs who’d dominated the culinary world of Singapore and Malaysia for more than a century. Back then, the Hainanese men would sally forth from their home island off the China coast to seek their fortunes in “Nanyang”, the “South Seas”, which was what the Chinese called South-east Asia in those days.

Known for their fortitude and dependability, the Hainanese in British Malaya carved out a niche for themselves as cooks and servers in households of the rich, the colonial officers, even the mess halls of the British army there. By the beginning of the 20th-century, no self-respecting British governor, or Malay sultan or king would be caught dead without a Hainanese chef in their kitchens. Every restaurant in the land, every cafe or coffeeshop, every bakery or even the tiny kitchens on-board the railway coaches or ships (cruise liner and naval warship alike) would have Hainanese chefs.

Historically, in British Malaya, the various Chinese ethnic groups came to dominate certain sectors of the economy: the Hokkiens were known for their merchants and traders, the Cantonese (and rival Hakkas) for their miners and coolies, the Teochews for street hawker food, the Hingwas in the transportation industry, and the Hainanese for being the preeminent dialect group dominating the hospitality and service industry, especially the kitchens in the top hotels and restaurants.

But times are a-changing: in the past 3 or 4 decades alone, young Hainanese no longer aspire to become chefs or own restaurants and bakeries like their forefathers. The lines have all but disappeared where ethnic-based work areas or economic sectors are concerned.

So it came to be that, in Singapore and Malaysia, people started looking back with dewy eyes at the hey-days of Hainanese restaurant food and cooking. “The food used to be so good back then. The restaurant had a real Hainanese chef” became a common catchphrase. People would flock to places where “one of the last Hainanese chefs” are still cooking. So, it it was for us when we heard that Happy Garden was owned and run by a Hainanese chef, and we simply lost no time getting here.

Happy Garden was, at first glance, like an elderly Chinese aunt’s home - a small, zinc-roofed Chinese village house, surrounded by abundant greenery and flowering shrubs that needed some trimming. The Tans bought this little house with its expansive grounds in 1985, and has been running their restaurant business here ever since.

Mr Tan had polished his cooking skills at Palm Beach, Penang’s oldest beach hotel, back in 1972. He’d then moved on to cook at another Hainanese-owned eatery, Jee Hooi, until 1978, before going to the United States for a few years to gain experience and earn enough to return to Penang and started Happy Garden 35 years ago.

Today, he still cooks the well-known classic dishes from the 1970s like choon phneah and roti babi, all served with delicious home-brewed Worcestershire sauce dip; Hainanese-style "Western dishes* like chicken chop and chicken pie; Nyonya staples like inche kabin; plus a variety of Hainanese noodle dishes. It’s strictly a mom-and-pop operation here - Mr Tan cooks and his wife, Sherine Lim, takes the orders, serves and clears the tables.

We started our dinner with:

  1. Choon Phneah - these are large deep-fried meat-and-vegetable-filled spring rolls. Besides the size, the traditional choon phneah is differentiated from the smaller popiah chee (deep-fried spring rolls) by the former’s mottled skin, as the choon phneah’s wrapper is made from flour, egg and water, whereas the smooth-skinned popiah chee* skin is eggless.
    The choon phneah filling also has more meat filling, besides finely-julienned jicama, carrots, cabbage, onions, and sometimes crabmeat. Because of its size, each choon pheah is usually cut into 4 pieces before serving, whereas popiah chee are served whole. Choon phneah is usually served with a Worcestershire sauce dip, spiked with cut, red chilis.

  1. Roti Babi - this is a traditional street food dish, but served as an appetizer in some restaurants these days: basically a battered, deep-fried bread sandwich with minced pork and vegetable filling. The version here is pretty tasty - moist, flavorsome filling encased within a golden-fried bready crust. It’s also usually served with a Worcestershire sauce-red chili dip:

  1. Inche Kabin - this is a classic Nyonya dish of chicken pieces marinated in spices and coconut milk, usually overnight. The marinated chicken pieces are then dredged in flour and deep-fried till crisp on the outside and still moist inside, then served with prawn crackers. The version here has a slightly heavier-than-usual turmeric slant.

  1. Hainanese Chicken Chop - a Hainanese coffeeshop mainstay: basically a flattened chicken cutlet which is batter-fried, then covered with a thick brown sauce consisting of onions, peas, tomato ketchup, soy sauce and other “secret” condiments. The version here was served on a bed of fresh lettuce leaves, and was pretty tasty.

  2. Hainanese fried noodles - I’m not a fan of Hainanese-style noodles, which I always felt was a blander take on what the Cantonese serve up. But the version here was pretty good, actually, chockful of chicken-meat, shrimps and “choy sum” greens, covered with golden-fried shallots.

  3. Hainanese fried bee hoon (rice vermicelli) - the thin rice vermicelli was cooked the same way as for the fried noodles, but presented a different texture. Also pretty tasty.

Located on the farthest reaches of Batu Ferringhi, Happy Garden is in a more “remote” part of Penang island, but certainly worth a drive out there for a taste of yesteryear’s cuisine.

Address
Happy Garden
206-B Batu Ferringhi
11100 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +6016 4903453
Opening hours: 6pm to 10.30pm daily

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Lovely surroundings and great looking dishes.

What does it take to renew interest in the younger generation in keeping the family business going?

Traditionally, the Chinese looked upon chefs, wait-service staff and kitchen-hands as “unglamorous” professions, which was why many Hainanese in the last 30-40 years did not want to take over their parents’ business. I’d lost count of the number of good chefs or restaurateurs I talked to who proudly said their sons or daughters are doctors or engineers or run their own accounting firm, etc. Anything but their own food business.

But I think attitudes are rapidly changing - many youngsters are now beginning to see how exciting the food business can be. Also, TV personalities like Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, etc. are showing these young generation that, hey, being a professional chef can be fun.

So, in Singapore, Penang, KL, in fact everywhere in this region, we are beginning to see a new breed of young chefs coming up. The “problem” is - they also happened to be more interested in Western/continental cooking. 5 years ago, for example, one can not find a good croissant anywhere in KL or Penang. Today, I can walk down Beach Street in Penang where there are at least 6 good bakeries-cafes that serve buttery, flaky croissants, as good as one can find anywhere in the world!

I’m hoping these young generation chefs will soon turn their attention to producing traditional Penang food. I think it’s just a matter of time.

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I think so too! It’s how things usually go, people going back to basics and roots.

I’m not very familiar with Hainanese food, from what I know they are usually lighter or less oily. Interesting to see many deep fried dishes here.

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The most popular Hainanese dishes in Singapore & Malaysia don’t even exist back on Hainan Island, China. Many of these dishes were practically invented in British Malaya, where the Hainanese chefs incorporated British culinary styles and practices to come up with Hainanese chicken chops, pies, oxtail stew, etc. They also adapted Nyonya & Indonesian cooking to produce “choon phneah”, inchi kabin, curry Kapitan, etc.

In Singapore & Malaysia, the Hainanese are famous for their “kaya” (egg custard jam) - I remember a Hainanese friend (whose family owned a traditional Hainanese coffeeshop in Malaysia for 80 years) told me how shocked he was when he went back to his grandfather’s hometown on Hainan Island for the first time, and found out no one there have heard of “kaya”! :joy:

Even Hainanese chicken rice as we knew it in Singapore and Malaysia differed markedly from the traditional Wenchang chicken rice in Hainan Island, which it evolved from.

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Back to Happy Garden for dinner this evening, as some friends wanted to try the deconstructed "chicken pie", where the puff pastry were baked and served separately from the stewed chicken filling.

It was a stroke of genius, as the “pie topping” stayed crisp, until one dips it into the pie gravy. The chicken stew was typical Hainanese, a blend of English-style chicken stew but with Chinese touches: the scent of star-anise, cloves and cinnamon stick in the sauce, perhaps a dash of soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce, too.

For starters, we order the choon phneah and roti babi again.

Cross-section of the "choon phneah"

Cross-section of the "roti babi"

The restaurant is surprisingly quite busy this evening - full house, but the one-woman front-of-the-house tour de force, Mdm Sherine Lim, was calm and composed. No mean feat, considering that some tables had to wait 45 minutes or more before seeing their first dish for the evening! But folks here are terribly patient when it comes to waiting for good food.

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I was thinking of you today, Peter. On Netflix’s programme, ‘Somebody Feed Phil,’ one episode has him in Singapore. He ate such wonderful food there, sometimes accompanied by leading chefs of the area. He had a tasting feast at a restaurant called Burnt something or other. If there was no pandemic (what a world we live in), I’d jump on the next plane!

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He must’ve been at Burnt Ends, it’s an Aussie barbecue restaurant which has a 1-Michelin-star rating in the Singapore Red Guide.

Owner-chef, Dave Pynt - very talented, young chap. I once asked him which part of Australia he’s from. He said “Western Australia”. I said, “I was a freshman at the University of Western Australia in 1984.” He said, “I was born in 1984!” :grin:

Do take care now, June - hope to catch up with you again soon once this pandemic madness is over, either up in the UK or here in Singapore.

Thanks, Peter. Yes, that’s the chef and the restaurant. It looked as if the food was worthy of a star. I hope our paths cross again! Right now, I’d be happy eating in ANY restaurant.

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Pretty sure we shall! I’ll come and see you. This year has been crazy - my first time to have to miss my annual London summer vacation in more than 30 years!

We heard that the UK is going into lockdown again, please take care!!

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold