Hainanese cuisine plays a big role in Penang’s food culture and heritage. Although some of the dishes are influenced by the Hokkiens and Peranakans, it is distinctively different. The influences are all due to the demographic changes and history. Many centuries back, a Fujian a.k.a Hokkien minister was sent to the Hainan Island to assume the responsibility of the local government, and thus the beginning of the exodus of Hokkiens to the island that was and is still inhabited by the local tribes. And thus, this gave birth to the Hainanese dialect and its cuisine.
Then at the start of the previous century (19th), many Chinese migrants came to the Malay Archipelago to escape the deteriorating living conditions and the Japanese invasion. And with them they brought their heritage and culture which was later merged with Peranakan and Western cooking practices to give birth to the Nanyang Hainanese dishes that are now part and parcel of the Nanyang Flavours.
The border line similarities of dining heritage in Penang are very thin and sometimes confusion occurs. Many people confuse Popiah (薄饼) which is a Fujian delicacy with the Nanyang Hainanese Choon Pheah (春饼) that is one of the popular dishes that is a must when dining in any established Hainanese eateries or restaurants. The difference is not merely in its outlook, but the taste package and texture and the dipping sauce that comes with it. We are lucky through our research journey to have found people who are equally passionate about their food heritage and were willing to share the treasure that they have amassed from their forefathers. Lim Jit Chuan (林日川), who is the head of the family, is an experienced chef/cook in the infamous Beach Corner that used to operate in a MPPP food court lot behind Park Royal Hotel, and now on a piece of land just next to Tarbush in Batu Ferringghi. His son, Wilson Lim 林方义 who runs a Choon Pheah stall in Long Beach food court off Jalan Batu Ferringghi had graciously opened up their kitchen to share with us the making of their Hainanese Choon Pheah which are well accepted by locals and tourist alike.
The making of a traditional Choon Pheah starts with its basic handmade batter, not dough as like Popiah, made from eggs, cooking oil, tapioca and glutinous rice flour and plain old H2O (water). The concoction is hand mixed to introduce air and also to bring out the starchy texture of the Choon Pheah skin. After the batter reaches the right consistency or viscosity, it is then moved to the cooking station where it is individually pan-fried with a thin coat of oil until the shape is formed or firms up. The batter when it is ready to leave the pan, it resembles a piece of crepe but with a more elastic texture. After it is deep fried, it has a crisp then springy mouth feel that is followed with a lightly sweet taste. The Popiah wrapper or skin is only crunchy to feel after being deep fried. Apart from the distinctive difference in taste and texture of the wrapper, the fillings of both Choon Pheah and Popiah also have their own flavour profiles. The main difference lies in the ingredients, seasoning and cooking method. The Choon Pheah filling has in it prawns, meat (can be chicken or pork, mince or chunks), crab meat, julienne cabbage, shredded jicama and carrots, wedged red onions, and seasoned with salt, sugar, pepper and most importantly 5 spice powder that makes it an authentic Hainanese Choon Pheah rather than a Hokkien Popiah. The Poppiah fillers are usually julienne jicama or yam bean (sengkuang), chopped green beans, diced bean curd (taukuah), and sometimes with crab meat without the 5 spice powder. After all the ingredients for the Choon Pheah is all julienned and chopped up, they are stir fired and braised until they are tender yet maintains the crisp texture with a sweet savoury taste. The batches of fillings are then left to cool down before being assembled into a Hainanese Choon Pheah. When the stir-fried vegetables and meats have cooled down, poached crab meat is added before the Choon Pheah is finally assembled by the gentle yet efficiently fast paced hands. For each individual Choon Pheah to be cooked evenly, all the assembled pieces have to have the similar size and weight. This will fasten the frying process with fewer complications. Each order of Choon Pheah is normally fried a-la-minute and served fresh from the fryer with a dipping sauce nicknamed “ang moh tau yew” which is roughly translated to “English Soy Sauce”. The dipping sauce is actually a concoction of chopped red onions, julienne red chilli, Worcestershire sauce and sometimes HP Sauce or some plum sauce. It shouldn’t be your common chilli sauce in a bottle with strong spicy and sweet tastes that will overwhelm the natural sweetness of the Choon Pheah. At the end of the day, the Choon Pheah should have a crisp texture on the surface with a soft springy layer of skin before the sweet and savoury tender vegetable and meaty fillings. And the dipping sauce should complement the sweet Choon Pheah with a slightly spiced and tangy taste that enhances the experience rather than colliding with each other.
The followings are some of the places that we know of where you can find Hainanese Choon Pheah on offer with their own interpretations:
- Long Beach Food Court @ Batu Ferringghi.
- Beach Corner Restaurant @ Batu Ferringghi.
- Hollywood Restaurant @ Tanjung Bungah.
- Lengkok Burma Hawker Area (Formerly at Senior Citizen Association)
- Hai Onn @ Burmah Road.
- Hainanese Delights @ 1926 Hotel on Burma Road.
Try them and let us know what do you think of them here. How authentic are they?