Thursday, January 10, 2008

Mainland appetizer

Penang Post #1. By the time we had arrived at Restoran Cheang Kee in Nibong Tebal, it was 3 pm and we already had lunch in Ipoh (more on that in a later post) on our drive up from Petaling Jaya. J was at first reluctant to stop in this old-style Teochew restaurant, eager to hit the island proper and its wonderful street food. But I had eaten here some years back on the recommendation of my food-obsessed family, and was sure it would not disappoint.

There was one problem, though. We were a little full and were in no shape to sample all of Cheang Kee’s specialities, including a mouth-watering crab and seafood soup; steamed pomfret with sour plum, fresh chillies and salted vegetables; as well as mussels, manila clams and other types of shellfish and snails cooked a variety of ways.

We settled instead for their boiled octopus and Teochew porridge with frogs’ legs.

The octopus is boiled just right – still tender and juicy. It is topped with a modest amount of lard that added a bit of richness to this simple dish. You could also take it up a notch by dunking those lovely tentacles into the peanut-topped chilli sauce, flavourful and restrained in its heat level.

I guess our stomachs were less stuffed than we thought, because when our porridge arrived, we attacked it with a vengeance and finished half of it before realising that bloggers interested in posting about food should whip out their camera before their chopsticks and spoons. So, in the absence of a picture, use your imagination, lah.

In Teochew porridge, rice is not boiled until it becomes mushy, soaking up most of the water. Instead, each grain of rice should ideally be fully formed, collectively resting at the bottom of the bowl, topped by the broth (plain or flavoured). Cheang Kee’s savoury porridge, available with any seafood (crabs and prawns are the most popular), was as ideal as it can get.

Having been sated with a, to quote J, “transcendent” seafood meal a few days previously, we opted for frogs’ legs instead of crabs in our porridge. The light broth had the depth and complexity of a stock that had been carefully made over many hours using bones and shells of various kinds. Lightly salted so as not to overwhelm the flavours, the broth, topped with scallions, was easy to drink. The rice grains were delicious, having absorbed some of the broth. The comment often heard about frogs’ legs is that it tastes like chicken (what doesn’t?), but ours had the texture of steamed fish.

What we liked about this small restaurant is that despite its relative fame, it has not become overrun with tourists or out-of-towners, but continues to faithfully serve this bustling, working class town. Locals having a simple bowl of noodles or porridge, or out with the family for a full meal crowd the joint. Sitting on the five-foot way, a provision shop and a taxi stand flanking us, we felt a little like anthropologists (but without the theory) on a field trip.

Restoran Cheang Kee
113 Jalan Atas, 14300 Nibong Tebal, Seberang Prai, Penang.
Tel: 604-593-4768. Noon – 10.30 pm, closed Mondays.

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