Flavours reminiscent of Penang

Penang Assam Laksa. — Photos: SIA HONG KIAU/The Star

WHEN you have customers who request for dishes that remind them of childhood, you may need to source the ingredients from their hometowns.

For Choo Choon Keong and Kuek Chian Kiong, who used to operate at Chung Ling Alumni Club Restaurant in Petaling Jaya for seven years, this meant relying on friends and family to bring essential ingredients from Penang.

They have continued this practice at their newly renovated eatery called Restaurant Ai Jiak (which means “love to eat” in Hokkien) in Sea Park, Petaling Jaya.

But due to the movement control order, they now hire a lorry to bring the goods.

The duck egg char kuey teow features ingredients specially brought in from Penang — light soy sauce and rice noodles.The duck egg char kuey teow features ingredients specially brought in from Penang — light soy sauce and rice noodles.

Among the items that are brought in every fortnight are beancurd sheets, prawn paste sauce, black vinegar and light soy sauce. These are for their lobak, chee cheong fun, stewed pork trotters and braised pork belly.

Even the small prawns in the deep-fried fritters for the lobak set are from Penang. The shells of this particular prawn are soft enough to be eaten with the flesh.

The ingredients are from traditional makers located in George Town and Jelutong, said Choo.

Comprising small but well established family businesses, they support many hawker stalls and coffeeshops by not only supplying condiments, coffee powder and beverage mixes, but also essential accompaniments such as blood pudding for white curry noodle and fish balls for kuey teow th’ng.

To find a food maker that would satisfy their requirements (and hygiene standards), Choo and Kuek ate their way through the products of several suppliers before finding a match. It took them eight years to find the flat rice noodles used in their duck egg char kuey teow.

To preserve the authentic Penang taste, Choo and Kuek forego serving a dish if an ingredient is not available.

Wheat porridge with gula melaka (back) and bubur cha cha.Wheat porridge with gula melaka (back) and bubur cha cha.

“If we don’t have the light soy sauce, we will not serve Penang Hokkien fried noodles.

“In the early days, this was known to our regulars and they would ask us what we were serving for the day before ordering, ” said Choo.

Choo and Kuek started with a cafe offering set lunches at Phileo Damansara, Petaling Jaya before moving to the Chung Ling Alumni Club Restaurant. They moved to Sea Park last January. In total, they have been in the business for 11 years.

The new venture sees two new partners, a husband-and-wife team in Eddie Long and Evon Tan, who have been in the food and beverage business for four years.

Banking on the saleability of Penang food, Ai Jiak’s menu is extensive, offering evergreen favourites from the island as well as Nyonya dishes.

Popular main dishes at Restaurant Ai Jiak are (clockwise from left) fish head curry, otak-otak and Nyonya fish.Popular main dishes at Restaurant Ai Jiak are (clockwise from left) fish head curry, otak-otak and Nyonya fish.

There is otak-otak made with snakehead fish, chosen for the swimmer’s soft, silky texture and thinly sliced pickled fish stomach, cooked with wild betel leaves and sour pineapple.

There is sourish and spicy garoupa cooked Nyonya-style with turmeric and unripe pineapple. Diners can request for the garoupa to be replaced with pomfret if it is in season.

There is also tamarind prawn, which really brought back memories of my grandmother as she often made this dish for us. Tossed in a fiery wok, the tamarind gives the prawns a smoky, lemony aftertaste. Kuek said sugar in the marinade gives it this effect when it caramelises in the heat.

Popular mains are garoupa fish head in a tamarind curry, pineapple prawns and chicken kapitan with thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves.

They also have the Nyonya version of curry chicken that is unlike stronger flavoured Indian curries that contain spices like cardamom and cloves.

Some of the signature dishes are stir-fried turnip with cuttlefish (top) and the lobak set which comes with prawn fritters.Some of the signature dishes are stir-fried turnip with cuttlefish (top) and the lobak set which comes with prawn fritters.

The version here only contains dried chillies, onions, curry leaves and lemongrass. The meat of the two chicken dishes is cooked just right so that even the breast parts are tender to the bite.

But what really impresses in addition to the good food is the finishing garnish.

There are generous sprinklings of crabmeat on the Penang-style Hokkien fried noodles, pie tee, stir-fried turnip with cuttlefish and duck egg char kuey teow.

Sweet peanut soup, bubur cha cha and wheat porridge with gula melaka are on the dessert list.

As much as the owners of Ai Jiak would like to preserve their concept of all things Penang in their menu offering, they had to make an exception with the palm sugar used in the wheat porridge. Their gula melaka is from Melaka, or else it would not taste as authentic, they said.

RESTAURANT AI JIAK, 9, Jalan 21/12, Sea Park, Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Tel: 011-2778 8428. Business hours: 11.45am to 3pm, 5.30pm to 9pm. Closed on Mondays. Non-halal

This is the writer’s personal observation and not an endorsement by StarMetro.

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