People often bypass Nibong Tebal on the way to Penang island. But this small place has excellent food and interesting food factories.
CRABS in curry, spring onion chicken and sour plum clams (lala assam boi) – these are some of the delights of the town of Nibong Tebal (named after the estuarine nibong palm) on the southern edge of mainland Penang.
Apart from food, the countryside around here is dotted with pockets of industry, including charcoal kilns and belacan workshops (covered in two earlier instalments of this Glutton on the Go column). Another engaging stop is to see how a critical ingredient of Malaysian cooking is made – soy sauce.
We are on a whirlwind weekend bus tour of this region, organised by a guide named Green John Chan. As we approach the Thein Heang Yoon soy sauce factory in Nibong Tebal, I feel some trepidation – my idea about such places had been scarred long ago by some sensational reports in a “consumers’ newspaper” of cockroaches and flies crawling about rotting soy beans in some dingy backyard.
However, instead of a messy morass, what greets me is the sight of a neat factory where large earthern vats are laid out in rows under the blazing sun.
“The food industry has been cleaned up over the years,” says the owner Loh Kok Seong, who says his family’s business has been running for 53 years. “The rules are stricter nowadays especially when it comes to edible products.”
The actual production process begins when soy beans are steamed and then mixed with wheat flour and aspergillus mould. The beans are then left to germinate, and ferment, on round woven bamboo trays for a week.
Once the mould has grown, the beans are poured into the vats and salt water is added. The correct amount of salt is measured by a little marker floating inside a small bottle, a larger home-made equivalent to the device used to measure the correct acidity in car batteries.
The vats are covered up and left to ferment under the hot sun – a temperature of 30 to 35 degrees Celcius is ideal for this process. Malaysia is lucky to have a tropical climate for this; in colder countries, the vats have to be kept warm artificially.
After a few months, the beans turn brown and this is (or should be) the natural source for the characteristic colouring of soy sauce, rather than any artificial chemicals.
“The makers must keep checking on the beans as they ferment,” explains our local guide, Tan Eng Chong. “The ideal colour for soy sauce is light brown. But if the colour turns out to be too dark, then it’s used as the base for rojak sauce. Hawkers add in their own sugar and prawn paste or heh kou.”
After a few months, when the mould has worked its magic on the beans, the soy sauce is ready. Just as the first pressing of olives produces the most pristine “extra virgin olive oil”, the first draining of the vats gives the best soy sauce that contains all the goodness of fermentation. If our food marketing was better, we’d call it “virgin soy sauce”.
More salt water can be added to the beans for a second round of fermentation, although this produces a lower grade of soy sauce.
The leftover beans after that second round can be turned into a bean paste (commonly called taucheow in Hokkien or taucheong in Cantonese) which can then be used to cook everything from stewed pork to steamed fish. It also forms the base to make the sweet sauce to garnish yong tau foo and chee cheong fun.
However, buyers should be aware that some factories take shortcuts. Instead of a long drawn out fermentation process, the protein in the soy beans is broken down by hydrochloric acid in just a few days and then neutralised with an alkali agent to produce so-called soy sauce.
This is more correctly known by its industrial term of “hydrolysed vegetable protein” (HVP) sauce. In Malaysia, the label of such products should be written as “Sos P.S.H.” which stands for Protein Sayur Hidrolisis, the Bahasa Malaysia equivalent for HVP.
Hydrolysed vegetables definitely do not sound appetising, but in reality, many of the cheaper soy sauces are made of this. Nonetheless, when natural fermentation is bypassed, something’s gotta give. So, instead of a complex smell and taste, one gets a rather more one-dimensional bouquet and palate.
In contrast, a solid, naturally-brewed soy sauce should have a distinct aroma of organic fermentation and a harmonious balance of salty, sour, sweet and even some bitter overtones.
No product tastings are offered at this factory, but visitors are welcome to buy bottles of soy sauce which are marked as “Sebatian P.S.H.” – this means that naturally brewed sauce is in a mixture (sebatian) with HVP sauce. Think of this as blending top quality Bordeaux wine with cheap table wine and hoping that the results average out...
After getting all saucy, we descend upon Law Chang Kee restaurant in downtown Nibong Tebal for lunch. It may not look posh, but it’s the kind of place where you have to stand around waiting for a table at lunchtime on a Sunday.
The specialties here include: ginger spring onion chicken and sour plum clams (lala assam boi).
The first dish has its chicken flavours overlaid with a mild ginger flavour, which is an interesting twist on the normal taste found in chicken rice (or the Cantonese pak cham kai).
As for the clams, the slightly pungent, briny taste of the fresh, springy clams is enhanced by the sour plum flavours – the analogy is of oysters enhanced with lemon juice.
But what I love best is the crab in curry powder. The bright, bouncy flavours of the fresh crab meat are transformed into melt-in-the-mouth heaven by the thick, robustly fragrant curry sauce.
Then imagine, if you will, generous chunks of crab roe swilling about your mouth at the same time, and perhaps you may understand why this dish is simply divine.
> Andrew Sia likes to combine his two hobbies of travel and eating. If you have some suggestions for him, write in to firstname.lastname@example.org