[Penang, Malaysia] Hainanese-Seafood Dinner at Ocean Green

Ocean Green is a beach-front Hainanese-run seafood restaurant that’s popular with both locals and foreign visitors to Penang. It’s owned by the Tans who also own Paramount Hotel, a rather retro-looking villa-like bed-and-breakfast joint established back in 1948, but has partners who manage the day-to-day running of Ocean Green that occupies the grounds of Paramount Hotel directly facing the stretch of beach in-between Gurney Drive and the Esplanade.

We were back at Ocean Green for dinner last night, our first time there in a long time. The restaurant had also just re-opened after the 2-month COVID lockdown. It had kept its entire staff force on full pay during the lockdown period as, Ocean Green’s affable septuagenarian restaurant manager, Mr Goh Cheng Hee said, “Most of our staff have been been with us all their lives.” Mr Goh himself has worked there for more than 40 years now.

Like most of his Hainanese kin that dominate Malaysia and Singapore’s food industry for the past 100 years, Mr Goh is quietly-efficient, meticulous but usually spoke very little. However, I was pretty lucky that two of my dining companions were old friends of his - having known each other since they were all in their 30s. So, Mr Goh even deigned to stop by for a chat.

What we had that evening:

  1. Hainanese-style “choon phneah” - these are large meat-and-vegetable-filled spring rolls, as opposed to “popiah chee”, the smaller, mainly jicama-filled spring rolls. A “choon phneah” is usually about 3-4 times thicker & larger than a “popiah chee”, and hence would be cut into 4 or 5 bite-sized portions before serving, alongside a Worcestershire sauce-cut red chili dip.
    We noticed that Ocean Green’s chefs no longer make their own “choon phneah” skin, which is usually thicker than a “popiah”/spring roll skin and has a mottled surface (as opposed to the "popiah’s smooth surface), so we were more than a bit disappointed at this break with tradition.

But the “choon phneah” filling, a mixture of minced meat, julienned cabbage. onions, celery, and other condiments, were very tasty - in fact, one of the tastiest I’d had in Penang. The Worcestershire sauce was also pretty good - I didn’t ask if it’s home-made, as should be the case, rather than just out-of-the-bottle Lea & Perrins sauce that most eateries resort to nowadays.

  1. Hainanese-style satay - unlike their Malay/Indonesian counterparts, these chicken meat skewers do not have a separate peanut-spiced dip. Instead, the meats were richly-marinated, with strong accents of galangal, lemongrass, and turmeric, beautifully-caramelised on the outside, with a woody aroma from the open-fire grilling, and still deliciously moist on the inside. A must-order.

  2. Teochew-style oyster omelette - in a nod to the Teochews who dominate Penang’s hawker food culture, Ocean Green presented its own take on the oyster omelette which I thought tasted absolutely fabulous, and on par with my favourite osyter omelette at the original Chin Chin, a Hainanese restaurant on Seah Street in Singapore, across the street from the grand old Raffles Hotel.

Singapore’s Chin Chin was founded in 1935 by Mr Lim Kim Choon, a Hainanese chef extraordinaire. The original Chin Chin’s oyster omelette was large, fluffy, moist, and packed full of flavours. When Mr Lim died, his son had initially taken over, but then decided to sell Chin Chin and emigrate to Perth, Australia, in the late-1990s. I’d mourned its passing then. But then, in the early-2000s, the Lims decided that life in Australia did not suit them and returned to Singapore and resurrected Chin Chin, this time on the neighbouring Purvis Street. But, somewhere along the way, they must have lost something, because the shrimp omelette tasted nothing like what I’d remembered it to be.
I found that lost taste here in Ocean Green. And over here, it’s served with a generous splash of chili-lime dressing which is not spicy, but lent a nice spike to undercut the richness of the omelette. It was perfect for me.

  1. Inche Kabin - this is the traditional Penang-Nyonya fried chicken dish which every food aficionado to Penang simply has to try. The version served here is 100% authentic - small chicken pieces marinated overnight in spices (cumin, coriander, fennel, turmeric, etc.) and the coconut milk (to lend a unique richness). The chicken pieces are usually twice-fried to achieve the desired crispness on the outside, whilst the insides remain moist. It’s also always served with a Worcestershire sauce and cut red chilis dip.

  2. Baked cheese crab - this is a Hainanese classic, dressed crab in a cheesy mornay sauce, usually baked in its own crab shell. We were very sorely disappointed that Ocean Green had done away with the little flower crab shells and used disposable tin foil pie dishes instead. The dish still tasted fine, just the presentation, which looked simply awful.

  1. Steamed Marble Goby, Cantonese-style - this Cantonese classic is achieved by ensuring that very fresh fish is perfectly steamed a la minute, before good quality soy sauce and vegetable oil are heated and poured over the fish just before serving. The Ocean Green version was excellent.

Par-blanched rice vermicelli was also served on the side - perfect for dipping into the tasty sauce:

  1. Four Heavenly Kings - this is a Chinese-Malaysian spicy vegetable dish that has become de rigeur in Malaysian-owned restaurants around the world: if you see this dish on the menu inside a Chinese restaurant, whether you are in London or Sydney or New York, HK, Shanghai or even Singapore, then you know the owner, or at least the executive chef, is a Malaysian. Essentially a stir-fry of 4 different types of vegetables - the original consisted of long beans, wing beans, stink beans and aubergine - bound together by “sambal belacan”, the classic tongue-searing Malay chili-fermented shrimp paste, much-loved by Malaysians of all races including the Chinese and Indians, it’s addictive and sweat-inducing at the same time.

It’s actually a “new-ish” dish - my first time having it was around 2009 in a newly-opened Chinese restaurant on Orchard Road in Singapore. I was lunching with a cousin, and the waiter, after taking our orders asked, “Would you like to try the 4 Heavenly Kings?”. We were bemused and asked, “What is that?!” And he started explaining that it was very popular in Malaysian Chinese restaurants - at that time, we had not heard of such a dish in Singapore. Much later, in 2012 thereabouts, I was at New Fook Lam Moon restaurant in London Chinatown when I saw “The 4 Heavenly Kings” on its menu, and knew immediately that there must have been a change in ownership - true enough, I found out that the previous HK owners had sold out to the present Malaysian owners.
Ocean Green’s rendition consisted of long beans, wing beans, lotus root and cashew-nuts. Its sambal belacan was delicious and carried the dish.

Overall, we had a fabulous dinner - whilst not exactly as perfect as we’d have wished for. Even as Penang’s restaurants have re-opened and operate with the necessary social distancing requirements in place, the place is quieter than normal. Ordinarily, getting a reservation at Ocean Green can be a real pain - perhaps requiring a few days, or a week’s advance reservation. These days, it’s still three quarters empty. Malaysia still closes its borders to all foreign visitors, so only locals are now dining there. Quite an opportune time to go now, actually, as one won’t get the noisy hustle-and-bustle which normally characterised dinners at Ocean Green.

Address
Ocean Green
48-F Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (Northam Road)
10050 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +604-227 4530
Opening hours: 12 noon-3pm, 6pm-10.30pm

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A fantastic, if huge, meal. Not a fan of oyster omelette but I would eat it there. I ate popiah in Xiamen. Left me cold. Much prefer the fish balls. There are so many types and they are all delicious.

Always nice to learn the background story of a dish or restaurant. Thanks.

This is exactly me. Why I don’t have “friends”.

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Looks excellent, on my list when I am back up in Penang.

The cheesy crab has to be a legacy of the colonial days?

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For once, I’m more taken with the photo of the city rather than the food. Although the food looks and sounds really great. I would happily eat my way through that meal. Like the idea of the Worcestershire sauce & chilli dipping sauce - I’ll be trying that at home soon.

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The restaurant would be at the bottom-right corner of the first picture in my old post of the Penang International Food Festival, where you can see a cluster of tiny fishing boats:


Here:

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It is - very common, from HK to Singapore, it’s the British legacy.

It’s a dish we could do with bringing home. You just don’t see baked crab in restaurants. Here’s a recipe for home baked.

Although there was no need to mention it for the intended UK audience, it’s important mention that the brown and white meat needs to be mixed together before it goes back in the shell. I know Americans tend not to use the brown meat, but it really does improve the flavour of any crab dish.

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

― Jonathan Gold