[Penang, Malaysia] Teochew lunch at Goh Swee Kee, Sri Bahari Road

Goh Swee Kee is the go-to restaurant in George Town for Teochew cuisine, with some Penang-Nyonya dishes thrown in for good measure. The restaurant moved to its current location here on Sri Bahari Road in Nov 1996, operated by Teochew siblings, Goh Swee Chiew and his sister, Goh Swee Keow.

Goh Swee Kee’s beginnings went back about 70 years, to the original restaurant called Goh Kee Hup, which was started by a Swatow-born émigré, Goh Chuan Thiam, on Kimberley Street in the 1950s . Kimberley Street is known as “Swatow Kay”, meaning “Swatow Street” to the Penang-Chinese for the number of Teochew (Mandarin: Chaozhou, Cantonese: Chiuchow) immigrants who came to settle in Penang from Swatow (Shantou), Guangdong Province in China.

Goh Chuan Thiam also brought an adoptive son, Goh Leng, from his home village in Swatow to help him run Goh Kee Hup restaurant. Goh Leng later started his own restaurant, Goh Swee Kee, on 110-E Transfer Road in the 1960s, before moving to Sri Bahari Road. The restaurant’s current owners, Swee Chiew and Swee Keow, are Goh Leng’s offspring, the third-generation of the Goh family to run the business.

Our lunch consisted of:

  1. "Hae cho - deep-fried minced shrimp-pork dumplings in tofu skin wrappers. The ones here were absolutely delicious, as the chef deftly added chopped water chestnuts into the filling for extra crunch, and also made the dumplings lighter.

  2. Teochew braised cabbage with mushrooms - my fave Teochew vegetable dish of all time. It’s their equivalent of ratatouille to the French, or bubble-and-squeak to the Brits - a homely dish that seems to have been there forever. The version here was good, though I won’t be coming back here just for it.

  3. Curry Kapitan pork-rib - the Teochews are not into spicy or strongly-flavoured dishes, so I surmise this is their nod to the Penang-Chinese’ love for chilis and curry spices, a result of having settled in South-east Asia for over two centuries.

The Curry Kapitan is a classic Penang-Nyonya dish - one can’t find it anywhere else in Singapore, Malaysia or anywhere in the world, for that matter. Kuala Lumpur has a brace of Penang-run Nyonya restaurants that offer this dish, but it’s never authentic, or even palatable.

Here, Goh Swee Kee’s Teochew chefs produced a mild version. I wouldn’t recommend having this dish here (for a real taste of Curry Kapitan, just walk next door to Ceki for a mind-blowingly good one).

But, my dining companions need to have their chili fix here, so we ordered it. The chili paste/belacan (shrimp paste) or lemongrass were hardly discernible, whilst the “limau perut” lime leaves were practically non-existent!

  1. Steamed siakap (seabass), Teochew-style - Teochew-style steamed fish has a sour-ish quality to it, usually by the addition of salted mustard leaves, or tomatoes, or sour plum. The version here at Goh Swee Kee used a combination of tomatoes and sour plum, with julienned ginger and fresh coriander leaves strewn on top for added crunch and flavour.

  2. Siakap (seabass) asam pedas - this is another Penang-Nyonya dish which also has all the requisite flavours, but still paled in comparison to what we can get in a real Nyonya restaurant. Love the freshness of the fish but, other than that, a bit too muted for our Nyonya-conditioned palates.

  3. Tau-kwa cha sua-nah (braised tofu with leeks)- this was done pretty well - a classic, though simple, Teochew vegetable dish.

  4. Ku-chai cha sua-nah - this is a variant of the earlier tofu-leek dish, but with crunchy stalks of chives taking centre-stage. The tofu, mushrooms and shrimps completed this traditional dish.

  5. Oh chien - the oyster omelette is one of the dishes which the Teochew have in common with their Hokkien neighbours. The version here was absolutely spot-on: fluffy and moist, with none of the excessive greasiness one finds in this dish done by lesser chefs.

  6. Dessert: Orh nee (yam paste with gingko nuts, sesame seeds and orange peel) - the not-that-memorable meal ended with a bang! The orh nee was, in one word, sensational! The sweetened taro paste was silken smooth, sweetened to just the right level, topped with boiled gingko nuts for that added textural contrast, and for the nuts’ slight bitterness to offset the sweetness. I grew up on this dish, and I never missed ordering it at every Teochew restaurant in Singapore, Hong Kong or Bangkok. This one delivered utter bliss. All is forgiven! :joy: - I am willing to come back - even if it’s just to try out other dishes on the menu … plus this must-order orh nee dessert.

Overall, an okay meal. The Teochews are traditionally dominant in Penang’s famous street food business, but are surprisingly under-represented in the restaurant/fine dining stakes. But Goh Swee Kee holds itself up pretty well - though not exactly in the same league as Bangkok’s Tang Jai Yoo, Sin Kwang Meng, Je Ngor or, the oldest Teochew (called “Taechiu” in Thailand) restaurant in Bangkok, Yim Yim.

In Singapore, where we’d lost a good number of old Teochew restaurants over the years (the last one was Hung Kang, which closed in April 2020, after 58 years), my favourites are Huat Kee and Chui Huay Lim. A new favourite of mine back in Singapore is 1-Michelin-starred Imperial Treasure Fine Teochew Cuisine.

In case one wonders why I’m mentioning Teochew restaurants in Bangkok or Singapore - well, both cities have the best Teochew restaurants in South-east Asia, and probably the most authentic versions outside Swatow, China, itself. Teochew cuisine is close to my heart as my maternal grandparents were both of Teochew descent from Bangkok, before they got married and moved to Singapore back in the 1930s.

Address
Goh Swee Kee Teochew Restaurant (吳瑞記菜館)
5, Jalan Sri Bahari, 10050 George Town, Penang
Tel: +6012-429 6736
Opening hours: 11.30am-2.30pm, 6pm-10pm daily.

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Why don’t they have a spicier version as an option? I’d go next door to the other one.

Maybe they didn’t want to alienate their old Teochew clientele too much. The Teochews are much more conservative in their tastes compared to the Hokkiens or even Cantonese.

My Teochew first-cousins balk at even food with too much ground pepper, let alone chili! :joy:

The Hokkiens, who formed the overwhelming majority in Penang, tend to be more adventurous because the first wave of Hokkiens came down to this part of the world as early as 500 years ago. The early settlers married the local Malays and this gave birth to the Baba-Nyonya culture, a fusion of Chinese and Malay. Because the Babas and Nyonyas are of Hokkien extraction, the later waves of Hokkien immigrants who came - especially during the1800s during the British East India Company and British colonial era, and then the 1940s/50s to escape the Chinese civil war - were able to accept Malay culture and cuisine better than other Southern Chinese dialect groups, no doubt influenced by their acculturated Hokkien-Baba/Nyonya brethren.

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I am Teochew, grew up in Singapore and now reside in Southern California. My ancestors are from Swatow area. I must say, from klyeoh’s pictures of Teochew food in Penang, I think they all look really good. Have to make a trip to Penang once this pandemic situation is under control. Reading klyeoh’s post always remind me of the great food in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Keep up the great work!

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Make sure you call me if you do come to Penang - I can show you around.

My maternal great-grandfather was from Swatow, and was one of the thousands of Teochew men who went to Siam (today’s Thailand) in the 19th-century to seek their fortunes. He became a goldsmith and owned three shops in Sampheng (Bangkok’s Chinatown), and married a local Siamese wife. My maternal grandfather was born in Bangkok and, when he was of schooling age, was sent back to Swatow for his education - staying with my great-grandfather’s first wife in the family home back in Swatow, China. Apparently, it was a common practice amongst Teochew men in Bangkok at the time to send their sons borne by their Siamese “lesser wives” back to Swatow for their education, and immersion into their Chinese/Teochew culture, all under the auspices of the elder/1st wives!

My maternal grandfather returned to Bangkok when he was in his mid-20s, to be trained to take over his father’s business. My grandfather was match-made to marry my grandmother, who’s Bangkok-born of Swatow-Teochew parents, and whose family also owned a couple of goldsmith shops in Bangkok. So, I guess it was as much a cultural, as a business decision by their parents for them to be married. My grandmother was only 16 at the time.

However, my grandfather made an unusual decision - he wanted to become a banker, and moved down to Singapore with his young wife in the 1930s. Singapore’s Teochew community at the time came largely from Siam/Bangkok . When Stamford Raffles founded Singapore in 1819 and wanted to attract the mercantile Chinese to settle there en masse, he found that the acculturated Teochew community already in Bangkok was more willing to make the move, than Teochews from the old country. Of course, by the 1900s, many Teochews came directly from Swatow to Singapore.

I still remember my grandparents being able to read/write both Chinese and Thai. My grandfather was also literate in English. When we were young, I also remember they’d suddenly switch to speaking in Thai, if they wanted to discuss something confidential since we youngsters couldn’t understand the language. :joy:

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

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