Sungai Petani (Population: 450,000) is the largest city in the state of Kedah. It’s only about 50 km (less than an hour’s drive ) from George Town (the capital of the state of Penang to the south) than its own state capital, Alor Star, which is 70 km to the north. Until last weekend, my previous visit to Sungai Petani was 46 years ago!
Following the 1909 Bangkok Treaty, Kedah, together with three other former Siamese states: Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu, were ceded by Siam’s King Chulalongkorn to Great Britain, in return for the latter’s non-interference in Siam’s internal affairs thereafter. Thus, the four states were incorporated into Malaya as British protectorates. Sungai Petani’s riches was built on natural rubber, and the town only came into being in 1912, founded by Singapore-born Englishman, Sir William George Maxwell.
Sungai Petani was also known for being the base for the British Royal Air Force Aerodrome which was bombed by the Imperial Japanese air force’s high altitude bombers on the very first day of the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941. Malaya subsequently suffered great hardship under 4 years of the Imperial Japanese army’s brutal occupation where tens of thousands were killed, before the Allied forces returned and liberated Malaya. So, it’s rather amazing that today, modern Sungai Petani is actually a manufacturing hub with many multinational corporations which included quite a few Japanese ones.
Our lunch was at the spartan, old Cantonese eatery, Sin Yik Wah, which was opened by the Cantonese Lee family before World War II, nearly 80 years ago.
Coming from Penang, we thought the food here tasted rather bland, as the cooking had been adjusted to cater to the palate of the local population here, who are mostly Teochew. The Teochews prefer their food to be lighter and more subtly-flavoured, compared to the other Southern Chinese.
What we ordered:
Sambal belacan prawns - this is an odd dish as we could not taste the chilis (sambal), and it only had a faint whiff of the fermented shrimp paste (belacan). At one point, I actually forgot what dish it was that I’d ordered, asking my lunch companion, “What’s this orange-sauced prawn dish again?”. We both tasted the sauce and were trying hard to identify what it consisted of, before detecting the ghost of a belacan which had floated through the plate. The shelled prawns were fresh, though.
Foo yong tan (prawn omelette) - this was perhaps the only dish that I liked: it’s fluffy and fragrant.
Char-siew pork - the BBQ caramelised pork had been given an old-fashioned treatment, unlike the newer, better versions nowadays that see more smokey caramelisation of the pork loin.
Batter-fried fish fillets with taucheo sauce - the “taucheo” or fermented bean paste flavour was so faint that the dish ended up rather bland!
Stir-fried kai lan with fish-cakes and pork - also pretty bland, and could do with more garlic or salt.
None of the dishes carried any assertive flavours or, in fact, any flavour that we can really discern. But we do think that local Sungai Petanians practically grew up on these food, and the place was absolutely packed with diners.
Sin Yik Wah opens 11am till 3pm daily, except Wednesdays. But one needs to come early - we were here at 11.40am this morning but its popular roast pork (“siew yoke”) and roasted pork sausages (“siew cheong”) were already sold out!
Come here for a taste of retro dining and old world atmosphere, Sungai Petani-style, if not for the food itself.
Sin Yik Wah Restaurant
35-40, Jalan Dewa, Taman Pekan Baru
08000 Sungai Petani, Kedah, Malaysia
Tel: +6012-474 2097
Opening hours: 11am to 3pm daily, except Wednesdays. Note: Come early! By 11.30am, some of the more popular dishes would’ve been sold out.