[Penang, Malaysia] Hawker/street food options at Jin Cafe, Siam Road

The 85-year-old coffeeshop on the corner of Anson Road and Siam Road, previously known as Hock Ban Hin, has been renamed Jin Cafe, and is now run by Toong Teik Jin, the earnest 30-something year-old grandson of the founder. Like many traditional Chinese coffeeshop owners today, they are of Foochow (Hockchiew) descent, and have been slowly replacing the Hainanese as the main owners of traditional coffeeshops/kopitiams in Penang. A similar trend has also happened in Kuala Lumpur, where many older coffeeshops previously run by the Hainanese have been sold to Foochow/Hockchiew owners.

  1. Siam Road has always been synonymous with “char koay teow”, and the “char koay teow” stall here, run by 66-year-old Lee Seng Seng, actually served a great version which I now prefer over the famous version by the legendary Tan Chooi Hong, down the same street.

Char koay teow - fried rice noodles with beansprouts, chives, cockles, shrimps and Chinese sausages, flavoured with a complex sauce consisting of light soysauce, dark soysauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce and other “secret” ingredients.

  1. The “lam mee” here by 65-year-old Raymond Teh is one of the best on the island, and a personal favourite of mine at the moment.

Lam mee - a mixture of yellow Hokkien noodles and thin rice noodles (“bee hoon”), drenched in a light pork-chicken broth, garnished with shrimp, pork-strips and shredded egg omelette, garnished with coriander leaves and scallions.

A small dish of “sambal belacan” - spicy chili paste, pepped up by toasted, fermented shrimp paste, is perfect for adding another taste dimension when stirred into the broth of the noodle dish.

  1. Wantan mee - this classic Cantonese wantan noodle dish is by Madam Toong, the septuagenarian paternal auntie of the cafe owner. It’s old-school, with its old-fashioned “char siew” tinted red instead of charred at the edges like present-day ones. Her wantan minced pork/shrimp-filled dumplings were large and juicy, though a bit too salty for my taste. Penang-style wantan mee is usually served tossed in a soy sauce-based dressing, with sesame oil and drippings from the “char siew” BBQ pork.

Pickled green chilis is served on the side, similar to that in Kuala Lumpur, and unlike Singapore or Malaccan versions with their spicy chili paste.

  1. Cantonese “dai bao” (steamed, large pork bun) and “lor mai kai” (steamed glutinous rice topped with marinated chicken) - these were utterly delicious here. Externally, the two offerings looked no different from those offered in other cafes or traditional kopitiams around town, but they hit you with a flavour punch from the first bite. Amazing - do not miss these.

  1. Hainanese kaya-butter toast - no self-respecting traditional kopitiam in Malaysia/Singapore will fail to produce a good kaya-butter toast, preferably grilled over charcoal flames. And the one here at Jin Cafe ticked all the boxes.

This place is a keeper.

Address
Jin Cafe
110 Siam Road (corner with Anson Road)
10400 Penang, Malaysia
Operatng hours: 7am to 4pm, Mon to Sat. Closed on Sundays.

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I’m usually in awe of your food photos. But, this morning, I’m actually more taken by the building. Love the columns and the balcony. Any idea what it’s original purpose was? I’m presuming offices of some sort with the boss having the room with the balcony.

Actually, you’ll be quite surprised - it’s purpose built to be a traditional Chinese coffeeshop or what we in Singapore & Malaysia call “kopitiam”! Most of these kopitiams date back to the 1920s and 1930s, when the Great Depression hit the aristocratic families and British planters who employed the Hainanese-Chinese as personal chefs and houseboys, who then lost their jobs. Subsequently, many of these Hainanese turned to opening their own food-related businesses.

The period in question also meant that many of these “kopitiams” took on Art Deco features, albeit localised. Here’s another one - Eng Loh kopitiam, a couple of minutes’ walk from the Penang Heritage Trust office on Church Street, George Town.

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Wow. I’d never have considered that such impressive buildings would have been constructed just for a coffeeshop.

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Coffeeshops were the main social meeting places for early Malayans, so they weren’t only feeding the masses, they also functioned the same way as, say, English pubs to the locals.

The Chinese lifestyle is different from the British one where men, at the end of a work-day, meet their friends for drinks. Here, the men go straight home - but they meet their mates in the mornings instead, before they start their work-day.

The Cantonese in Hong Kong will inadvertently do their yum cha, literally, “drink tea”, but you do more than that - you meet your friends to chat over dim sum. In Hong Kong, as in Singapore or Penang till as recent as a couple of decades back, dim sum is a breakfast food - and it never failed to fascinate me that in London Chinatown, restaurants offering dim sum only opened at lunch-time.

In Malaysia & Singapore, it’s inadvertently the kopitiams, i.e. traditional Chinese coffeeshops, where men meet for breakfast and chat over their coffee, tea and toasts. Here’s another coffeeshop, Rio, near where I currently am at the Penang Heritage Trust, on the corner of King Street and Bishop Street.

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Back to Jin Cafe today for breakfast - my first time back here ever since the COVID lockdown started back in late-March this year.

The char koay teow by Mr Lee Seng Seng was still just as good - fresh prawns, chives, beansprouts and Chinese sausages went into his flat rice noodle stir-fry. Perfect balance of flavours from his condiments, and expert handling of the fire to ensure that elusive wok-seared fragrance and texture:

We actually came for Raymond Teh’s lam mee, but his stall was closed today - cafe-owner, Toong Teik Jin informed us that Raymond is nursing a hand injury, so took the day off.

So, we opted for the wantan mee instead. Pretty respectable version here, although I’m still of the opinion that Penang wantan noodles, in general, paled significantly to those in Kuala Lumpur.

Cafe-owner, Toong Teik Jin’s octogenarian paternal aunt, who used to run the wantan noodle stall, has retired since the COVID lockdown began in March. In her place were two younger family members. The taste of the dish has been faithfully retained.

My other two must-orders here are the lor mai kai (steamed glutinous rice with chicken), and the siew mai (steamed pork-shrimp dumplings), both made in-house and tasted much superior to those I’d had elsewhere.

Jin Cafe opens Monday to Saturday, and is closed on Sundays. The various opening times of the different food stalls are displayed on the wall:

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I could eat this any time of day or night. Much better than the previous Italian and Japanese meals :smile:

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There’s no beating Penang street food. :grin:

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

― Jonathan Gold