Hai Nan Town is Hainanese restaurateur, Bok Jee Seem’s flagship eatery. The Hainanese, above all other ethnic Chinese communities, have a much-vaunted reputation for culinary excellence since the late-19th century in Malaysia and Singapore, and it’s no different here in Penang.
Back in the post-war years, Bok Jee Seem’s father, Bok Pin Kee, was one of the chefs in Penang’s legendary Loke Thye Kee, the iconic dining destination by the Loy brothers, Kok Boon & Kok Dai, which dated back to 1919.
Bok Jee Seem’s grandfather had also owned a traditional Hainanese coffeeshop on Prangin Road. For over a century, from the late-19th century to almost the entire 20th-century, Hainanese chefs ruled the kitchens of most restaurants & cafes in British Malaya: in the grand hotels, palatial mansions of the British colonial masters and wealthy Baba-Nyonya families, royal palaces of the local sultans. They cook for mess halls in army bases, hospitals, buffet coaches on board trains or galley kitchens on warships - in fact, anywhere where there was a kitchen or where a chef or cook was required.
Aristocratic Baba-Nyonya households were often ruled over by old matriarchs who insisted on proper and precise preparations of the complex, labor-intensive Nyonya dishes for elaborate dinner parties which they’d often throw. And perhaps the only people the fussiest Nyonya matriarch would trust, besides herself (and her oft-intimidated younger Nyonya/family members who were often pressed into a lifetime of servitude in the household kitchens), would be the Hainanese master chefs. For the Hainanese, above everyone else, were renowned for their cooking excellence, and their renditions of Nyonya food were often so good, Hainanese caterers were always entrusted in preparing large wedding or any celebratory banquets for the Baba-Nyonya high society.
Today, Bok Jee Seem and his wife, April Yeoh, run Hai Nan Town, offering traditional Penang-Nyonya dishes.
We last lunched here just before the current phase of COVID lockdown in Penang that began on May 12. Our lunch:
Jiu hu char - stewed, shredded jicama/yam bean, dried cuttlefish, carrots, shallots and, a unique Hai Nan Town addition: fresh coriander prigs. The dish was served with Chinese lettuce wraps. The jiu hu char here was gluggier, and a shade darker (use of thick soy sauce) than the ones served in other Nyonya restaurants around town.
Lor bak - Hai Nan Town is a non-pork eatery, to appeal to the Muslim market, so its lor bak (yuba-wrapped meat rolls) were made using chicken meat instead of pork. Quite tasty all the same, though pork-lovers can detect the lack of porky richness and sweetness.
Gulai tumis garoupa - pretty good version here, with a good a balance of chili-spiciness, fresh herbs and spices used (lemongrass, galangal, fresh turmeric) given a spike of sour flavors with the addition of tamarind juice. The fish was fresh, and well complemented by okra & tomatoes. The dish was generously garnished with mint leaves, finely-chopped torch ginger flower, and, rather oddly, raw onion rings.
Inche kabin - fresh, spice-marinated chicken pieces. This is a Penang-Nyonya classic, where chicken pieces were marinated, often overnight, in a spice mix and coconut crème. The chicken would be deep-fried upon order, and served hot - crisp on the outside, deliciously moist on the inside.
Inche kabin chicken pieces would usually be garnished with crisp prawn crackers, and served with a Worcestershire-freshly-cut birds eye chili dip.
Asam prawns - fresh shell-on prawns, marinated in tamarind paste, then stir-fried. The ones here were delicious -with a piquant sourness from the tamarind marinade.
Dessert: Bubur cha cha - the creamy, coconut-rich sweet dessert soup, with boiled taro, pumpkin, cassava and colorful blue, purple and red-tinted tapioca flour strips known as “cha cha” in Malacca’s ancient Portuguese-Creole Cristão language.
Hai Nan Town Restaurant
8A, Pengkalan Weld, Tanjung City Marina, 10300 George Town, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: 604-263 8633
Opening hours: 11.30am to 10pm Tue to Sun. Closed on Mondays.