[Penang, Malaysia] Hainanese-Nyonya cuisine at Beach Corner Seafood, Batu Ferringhi

Beach Corner Seafood’s kitchen is headed by Mr Tang, an elderly Hainanese chef with an inscrutable expression. It’s been operating at this location on Penang’s touristy Batu Ferringhi beachfront for 8 years now (next to the old Tarbush and The Ship location). In its previous incarnation, the restaurant was known as Summer Beach, and operated near the Parkroyal Hotel for 14 years.

Mr Tang’s specialty is the “Choon Phneah”, a thicker-skinned meat-and-vegetable-filled spring roll that’s larger than the smaller and more commonly found “popiah chee” (deep-fried, vegetable-filled spring rolls). A single “choon phneah” roll is usually cut into 4 pieces before serving. And a Worcestershire sauce, with cut red chilis, are provided as a dip.

Besides that, we also ordered Nyonya staples like the Assam Prawns, done very well here - the tamarind-soysauce-sugar coating was thick and caramelly, like molasses married with balsamic vinegar, only more fruity and rich. But the prawns used here, although meaty, did not have the usual “fresh-from-the-sea” crunchiness which we get at most places in Penang. Pre-frozen seafood is often frowned upon by Penang’s finicky diners with their Atlantean demand for super-fresh aquatic produce.

The Gulai Tumis, a signature Penang curry which is closer Thai than Indian curries, i.e. only fresh chilis, shallots, garlic, kaffir lime leaves and herbs (galangal, turmeric, lemongrass) are used, and NO curry powder or any dried spice like clove, cumin, coriander, etc.
The gulai tumis is usually cooked using a fish - and black pomfret, a favourite, is used here. The gulai tumis also must have chopped torch ginger flower, for its unique, indispensable aroma and flavour. Fresh tomatoes and okra complete this classic dish.

Surprisingly, the chef’s Curry Kapitan, another signature, must-have Penang-Nyonya dish, was a huge letdown here. It lacked the requisite lemongrass flavours, and kaffir lime leaf scent which are compulsory features of a good curry Kapitan. Also, we could not taste the “belacan” (fermented shrimp paste) and chili rempah flavours here. Avoid ordering this dish here.

The Chap Chye (mixed vegetable) dish here is more Hainanese than Nyonya: cabbage, glass noodles, shrimps, wood-ear fungus, and carrots. It’s pretty blandish, and with a bit of dark soysauce added to give a slight brown dish - quite Hainanese. Our Nyonya version would have some “rempah” (chili-spice mix) added to give the dish a deeper flavour. We’d also have used pork belly for added richness, but Beach Corner Seafood does not serve pork, as it also caters to Arab-Muslim customers staying in the numerous beach-front hotels nearby.

So, a fairly good Hainanese-Nyonya restaurant with some good, old-fashioned dishes which they do well, but with some glaring, unexpected misses as well.

The view from the restaurant of the sunny beaches is nice though - warm and languid. No wonder the Batu Ferringhi stretch is full of vacationing Germans and Scandinavians escaping the European winter.

Address
Beach Corner Seafood
72D, Jalan Batu Ferringhi
11100 Batu Ferringhi, Penang
Tel: +604-881 1867
Operating hours: 12pm-2.30pm, 6pm-10pm daily except Wed.

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As Malaysia further relaxed its COVID standard operating procedures to allow dinner parties of more than 2 persons per table, we sallied forth to Beach Corner at Batu Ferringhi beach, one of our favourite spots for authentic Hainanese-cooked Nyonya cuisine in town. It also happened to be a cool, pleasant evening with the temperatures hovering around 24 deg Celsius (75 deg Fahrenheit), and with the cool breezes blowing in.

We had a table by the beach-front, and ordered the familiar staple dishes for our dinner this evening:

One cannot come here and miss Chef Tang’s fabulous Choon Phneah rolls, freshly-made crepes filled with minced chicken-meat, crabmeat, shrimps, chopped cabbage, onions, carrots, scallions and shallots. Served with good Worcestershire sauce dip (we brought along our own home-brewed version), these were the best-tasting appetisers on the island.

Next up, Assam Prawns - loved the fresh, bouncy prawns, but not too impressed by the less-than-intense tamarind marinade. Didn’t measure up to our “Penang palate” which seeked strong, assertive flavours.

We faced the same problem with the Black Pomfret Gulai Tumis - supremely fresh pomfret, yielding some of the most exquisite flesh, but the overall dish was let down by the mild, muted flavours from the gulai tumis gravy - we did detect all the fresh ingredients used: fresh turmeric, fresh galangal, lemongrass, torch ginger, tamarind, except that there didn’t seem to be enough quantities used for each of those ingredients. Tomatoes and ladyfingers complete the dish, all perfectly textured as the cooking time was perfect. Pity about the overall lack of flavours.

The Hainanese Mixed Vegetables was a stir-fry of cabbage, glass noodles, black wood-ear fungus, tiger lily buds, and shrimps. Whilst tasty, it seemed to lack the elusive, authentic “Hainanese flavours”.

We were pretty satisfied with our meal, although we felt Chef Tang seemed to be veering more towards having milder flavours in his cooking, more than we’d have liked. We finished with some cold beers whilst watching the Penang sunset. For a brief moment, the world’s ills seemed far, far away.

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The prawns do look most excellent. Is the milder taste catered to the foreign holiday makers staying nearby?

I think I prefer either Hainanese or Nyonya.

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I suspected as much.
Eventhough there are no foreigners at the moment because Malaysia still shuts its international borders, Chef Tang either will not or cannot alter his style anymore to cater to the local Penang palate.

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BTW, even Penang has a problem with social distancing on the beaches here which, although not as packed as those we saw on the news in Bournemouth (UK) and Florida, still got us quite worried.

Interesting. I wonder if that’s a Malaysian riff on Korean “chap chae” (glass noodle salad). We didn’t come across any vaguely Korean dishes when we visited Penang.

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“Chap chye” translates literally to “10 vegetables” in Hokkien/Fujianese dialect, but just means “mixed vegetables”. I think the Korean “chap chae” also carries the same meaning, but no resemblance in ingredients or cooking technique. There are some resemblance between the Hokkien dialect and Korean (although the languages are mutually unintelligible) as the the forefathers of the Hokkiens migrated into present-day Fujian from the North, from as far back as the Qin dynasty in 4th-century due to civil wars as well as invasion by the Central Asian nomads.

Large waves of settlers from the North also came during the Sui dynasty (6th-century) and Tang dynasty (7th to 10th century).

My own family is relatively “young” compared to other Chinese clans. My clan’s progenitor/first ancestor, Yeoh Guy Pin, was born in 1312 during the reign of Emperor Ren Zong (aka Ayurbarwada Buyantu Khan) of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty set up by Kublai Khan. Our clan’s detailed family records traced all male descendants through the past 700 years down to my generation. Like I said, my family’s not old, I have an ex-boss whose family lineage went back to the Tang Dynasty, and is more than 1,400 years old! During the Tang Dynasty, China’s cultural influences (even mode of dress, architecture, writing script, language) extended to areas covering present-day Korea and Japan.

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I feel like Japan’s culture is basically China stuck in the Tang dynasty lol

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Except that the Japanese are immeasurably more disciplined compared to present-day Chinese. :joy:

But, yes, Japanese kimono very much resembled Tang Dynasty’s traditional clothing, for instance.

In Hokkien dialect, the Chinese people are called “T’ng Lang”, meaning “The People of Tang”. It goes to show the enduring legacy of that dynasty even up till today.

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

― Jonathan Gold