Hai Ching is the rustic seafood eatery featured by Anthony Bourdain in his “No Reservations” episode on Penang. Located in Pulau Betong, a tiny fishing village on the “other side of the island” of Penang, about an hour’s drive from George Town, Hai Ching is one of two popular eateries located near a pier lined with fishing boats.
Hai Ching, as it appeared in Anthony Bourdain’s episode on dining out in Penang in 2012:
Hai Ching last weekend - time seemed to have stood still in this little hamlet, for the last 50 years.
Dining at Pulau Betong is an interesting experience - both seafood eateries, Hai Ching and Jia Siang, do not stock their own seafood. Instead, customers will be directed to the fish market a few paces away to select some of the freshest seafood, brought in mere hours ago by the fishing boats.
I bought one large pomfret, 4 flower crabs and 4 large prawns for MYR61 (US$15). Bring your bag of seafood to the eatery, and they’ll cook those up for you. No menu, you simply tell them how you like your seafood done.
I find that the best way to have a wonderful meal is to leave it to the cook, omakase-style. Both eateries are run by Hakka ( 客家) families, so their cooking style, whilst largely Penang-Nyonya, does have Hakka influences here & there.
Our lunch today:
- Steamed pomfret, Nyonya-style. This was the freshest piece of fish I’d ever had - firm-fleshed and with no fishy smell. It’s cooked perfectly - topped with a light, spicy-sourish blend of spices and steamed till just cooked. It’s served topped with finely-julienned cucumbers ad raw onions.
- Tamarind prawns - another Nyonya-influenced dish, but the rendition here blew away any of the tepid versions I found in George Town. A combination of sour (from the tamarind) and sweet (from the palm sugar), complemented by dark soysauce-based “secret sauce” and some bashed-p lemongrass stalks and dried chilis, this dish was simply to-die for.
Chili crabs. I miss Singapore-style chili crabs tremendously since moving to Kuala Lumpur in 2011. In the next 6 years, I was not able to find any “proper” chili crab in KL’s multitude of Cantonese “dai chow” (traditional Cantonese dai pai dong-style) eateries or seafood restaurants. The version in Malaysia uses a blend of spices which I found to be too pungent, bordering on the noxious, for my taste. Even in Penang, one gets poor imitations of Singapore chili crab at well-known restaurants like Ocean Green or Hollywood.
But here at this ramshackle, tin-roofed eatery, they produced the most beautiful chili crab sauce I’d had in a long, long time: spicy, sour, sweet and aromatic. Perfect for my taste.
- Sweet-sour pork - Hai Ching, just like its rival eatery Jia Siang, offers a limited number of meat dishes, and we opted for the “gwoo lo yook”, which is as traditional as they come. Unfortunately, the version here was pretty tepid - more sour than sweet, and with the batter-fried pork pieces lacking any crispness at the edges, but more like soggy lumps of over-cooked meat. Avoid this dish.
- Stir-fried Green Dragon vegetables with shrimps - we ordered this as we wanted some greens on the side.
- Dessert was bee koh moi, which is Penang-speak for what we call “pulut hitam” in Singapore: black glutinous rice porridge, sweetened with sugar and topped with coconut milk. The version here is pretty decent.
- The restaurant serves a range of cold drinks and local beers. We opted for chilled fresh nutmeg juice.
Very satisfying meal - the eatery charges MYR10 (US$2.50) for each dish which they cook - an absolute bargain considering the skill with which they cook the seafood we brought in, and the wonderful in-house blend of spices and sauces which they used.
Kedai Kopi Hai Ching (海景茶室)
414, MK7, Pulau Betong,
11020 Balik Pulau, Penang.
Operating hours: 1.00pm-9.00pm Mon-Fri, 12noon - 9.00pm Sat-Sun.