In the hope of making a better living and finding a means to support their family, many Chinese migrants left their home and found their way to Nanyang (南洋) or other words Malaya. Some left their loved ones behind and some came with their family.
The Hainanese was the last Chinese dialect to have found their way to Malaya back in the 1920′s. Being late comers to the Peninsular, they found themselves having to adorn the aprons of kitchen helpers, cooks, chefs, domestic helpers for the British and Peranakans (Baba and Nyonya). Thus, the Nanyang Hainanese has inherited the skills and knowledge of their employers in dining etiquette and cooking methods, and therefore gave birth to the Hainanese cuisine in Malaya.
While growing up we found ourselves having the opportunity to savour and experience what Nanyang Hainanese food were and used to be, flavourful, passionate and filled with respect. I still remember having celebration in Hollywood Restaurant at Tanjung Bungah, snacking on Western delights in Tip-Top cafe in Pulau Tikus and eating simple meals at Loke Thye Kee on the junction of Burmah Road and Penang Road. Sad to say good times doesn’t last long, many of these establishments have faded into the sunset and those who are left still standing might not last any longer due to the unforgiving-ness of time and the lack of understanding by the later generations.
Treasure that is splendid and flavourful, once lost it is forever gone. Having said that, the traditional Hainanese Pork Satay or “Satay Babi” served with the sweet potato sauce and toasted bread is one aged old favourite that is slowly loosing its battle with time. Being exceptionally different from the usual Malay or pork-free satays that are in abundance in Malaysia, it is definitely unique to the Malaysian and Singaporean Hainanese community.
Satay itself is myth-ed to have originated from Indonesia, Malaya Peninsular, Middle East and even China, be it where it is from it is one of the much celebrated meat on skewer in the Malay Archipelago. The traditional Hainanese Satay consist of two (2) pieces of evenly sliced lean pork loin and a piece of pork fat skewered in between on a “lili” (in Hokkien) or the midribs of the coconut leaflets, at present it has been replaced by the mass manufactured bamboo sticks/skewers. The lean meat and fat is marinated in a dry rub that consist of turmeric powder, garlic and other secret ingredients that we cannot reveal due to a promise made.
The ready prepared skewers of sinful porkiness are grilled over a charcoal fuelled open heat a-la-minute. Each skewer while being grilled is basted with a glaze mix that contains freshly squeezed coconut milk, water, turmeric and some seasonings.
The other important part of the Hiananese Satay is the dipping sauce which is distinctively different from the usual spicy and nutty peanut sauce that is widely available. Traditionally it is served with a sweet potato base dipping sauce made from mashed sweet potatoes, water, sugar, tamarind, chilli and seasoned to taste.
Back then, the Hainanese Satay is served with only charcoal heat toasted bread baste with the basting concoction that gives it that yellowish tinge and that sweet and savoury taste. The toasted is still being served on the side as an additional condiment to the new addition cucumber and onion wedges.
In Penang, there are two (2) Hainanese Satay vendors that still practice the recipes and methods that their grandfather and father have handed down to them. They are the third (3rd) generation of Hainanese Pork Satay vendors that have witness the change that time has on their traits. During the day there is Uncle Tong or “Ah Aun” who is already 67 and still burning strong and caters to the upper market that drives by his tricycle stall in their big cars for their weekly fix of satay. He now only opens on Tuesdays and Saturdays from as early as 7:30am until everything is sold off, which may be by 12:00pm or so. The best is to be early!
In the evening 59 years old Uncle Wang or “Ah Chye” as we like to call him can be seen at the junction of Carnavon Street and Chulia Street manning his tricycle stall that caters to the dinner and supper crowd, and promote our Penang food heritage to visiting foreign tourists that walk along Chulia Street sampling some of the hawker street foods available. Ah Chye operates daily from 7:30pm onwards and only rests on Sundays. He too need to be early, sometimes his satays finishes by 10:00pm or even earlier.
Other than the traditional sweet potato sauce, Ah Chye also prepares and provide the usual peanut sauce that he makes with his secret recipe that he has yet to share with us. He also sells the chicken version of the Hainanese Satay if you are not a pork-person. Both Ah Aun and Ah Chye are good friends who we have met and befriended for our food research project. They used to sell satay made from pig’s small intestine or “hoon cheang” which requires more preparation effort and time, plus the decline of demand from the younger generations. Ah Chye once said, going further back in time roughly before 1971, his father and grandfather also sold satay skewers that were made of a piece of pig’s liver, small intestine and lean meat.
Time is unforgiving, savour what we have at present before it is lost to history.