Hai Oan is one of the last of its kind in Penang, a family-style Hainanese restaurant which harked back to the late-40s, founded after Penang’s liberation from Japanese military occupation post-World War II.
The patriarch who founded the restaurant was Cheah Sit Chuan, a fresh-off-the-boat emigre from Hainan Island, China. Hoping to build a new life in British Malaya as China was then engulfed in a civil war between Mao Tse-Tung’s Communists and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, the enterprising Cheah tapped into Penang’s Hainanese culinary world, learning to cook Penang-Nyonya dishes which were to form the basis of his new restaurant’s offerings: gulai tumis, choon phneah, chicken chop, roti babi, curry Kapitan, asam prawns, etc.
Assisted by his eldest son, Cheah Sze Pang, the elder Cheah’s Hai Oan competed with other top Hainanese eateries in the vicinity at the time: Loke Thye Kee, Kuan Loke, and Wing Look. Today, second son, Cheah Sze Phatt, runs the kitchen, whilst his sister, the friendly Cheah Soo Moi, takes orders and manages the front of the restaurant.
Our lunch here consisted of some Hainanese appetizers/snack items, plus cooked main dishes:
Roti babi - a Hainanese concoction found only in Malaysia and Singapore. It’s essentially a French toast sandwich filled with minced pork and diced vegetables, served with a Worcestershire sauce dip.
Hainanese spring rolls - the spring rolls here have meatier filling, which much more intense flavors, compared to the plainer Cantonese spring rolls. Also served with a Worcestershire sauce dip.
3)Asam prawns - these are shell-on prawns marinated in tamarind paste, then deep-fried. The tamarind marinade gives the prawns are “blackened” appearance, besides a deliciously addictive piquant flavour.
Fried tofu with leeks - this is actually a Teochew/Chaozhou/Chiuchow dish which proved so popular, it has been adopted by other regional Chinese restaurants in Penang. Basically sliced hard tofu, fried till crisp on the outside and still soft inside, then braised with garlic, pork, shrimps and sliced leeks, flavored with oyster sauce.
Hainanese chicken chop - another Hainanese dish which is unique to Malaysia and Singapore: batter-fried chicken smothered with a savory brown sauce. Garnishes included onions, golden-fried potato wedges, tomatoes and green peas.
Hainanese fried noodles - a light noodle stir-fry: the Hainanese version tends to be lighter and blander in flavor compared to the Hokkien or Cantonese ones.
Hai Oan has a retro feel about it, and the dishes are those which one remembers from the 50s/60s era, and getting harder and harder to find in Malaysia/Singapore.
Hai Oan Restaurant
53-55, Jalan Burmah
10050 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +6017-575 6685
Operating hours: 11.30am to 5.30pm, Tue to Sun. Closed on Mondays.