Saturday January 5, 2013
Yee family sells authentic Cantonese treats in Penang
Story and photos by CHRISTINA CHIN
The Yee family continues to serve up delicious traditional treats.
THERE’S really only one place to head to in Penang if you are on the hunt for authentic Cantonese traditional delights, ham chim peng (salty fried dough bread) and pak thong ko (steamed rice cakes).
The Yee family’s stall is located on Cintra Street, right smack in George Town’s backpacker haunt. As students, Yee Kok Heng, 44, and his seven siblings were part-time kitchen helpers who picked up the family trade the hard way.
“I only studied until Form 3. So, although I didn’t quite enjoy the hard labour, I was a poor student. So what else can I do but take on the family business?
“Looking back, I am glad that I now have that to fall back on. Continuing the family trade has allowed me to provide for the family,” he shares.
There are three types of ham chim peng - the plain one and the ones with tau sar (red bean paste) or chu bee (glutinous rice) fillings.
The family business was started by Kok Heng’s grandfather more than 60 years ago when he left China for the greener pastures of Penang. Kok Heng now runs it with his wife Tan Bee Khim, 34, and two other siblings.
Despite the stall’s fame, Tan humbly credits its popularity to its longstanding record rather than their skills at making the snacks.
“We can’t complain as business is okay. We are lucky that people know us from before and keep coming back as our stall has not shifted through the years,” she says.
The hardworking mother of three holds a part-time job in the day, and rushes home in the evening to help her husband.
Tan zooms in on the plain ham chim peng as her favourite.
“I love the plain pancake (which is our best selling ham chim peng variety) because I enjoy dunking it in coffee and having it with jam or even peanut butter. I also like mine extra crispy,” she says.
The plain ham chim peng sprinkled with the five spice powder is aromatic and utterly irresistible. When eaten piping hot right out of the wok, it is a most satisfying treat.
The explosion of sweet and salty flavours of the simple ham chim peng is sinfully good. Even tourists like it, Kok Heng quips.
The ham chim peng, which takes longer to prepare and is more labour intensive than the pak thong ko, is only made at about 4pm.
While the dough is being kneaded, the choo bee filling is steamed. Vegetable oil is used to deep fry the ham chim peng because it’s healthier and vegetarians can enjoy it too.
Kok Heng’s younger brother, Kok Fai, 42, who usually handles the wok, stresses on the importance of the oil, before saying in jest: “I am bored of eating what we sell but I will ‘indulge’ when anything gets burnt.”
About two years back, the former cook suggested adding sesame balls with peanut, coconut and bean paste fillings to the stall’s offerings.
“The oil needs to be changed often otherwise the colour of the ham chim peng and sesame balls will not be nice. The heat must be just right - too hot and everything will turn black instead of golden brown, not hot enough and they will be flat instead of fluffy.
“We’ve also switched from using kerosene to gas - the latter is better as it does not cause the food to smell,” he says.
Because the heat is so high, Kok Heng takes over when the wok gets too hot to handle.
Kok Fai remembers how as youngsters, they had to take their tasks seriously or risk being caned.
“We were very disciplined, not like kids today,” he says.
Tan though admits to shying away from frying duties as it causes her to break out in pimples.
Steamed rice cakes
These days, not many kuih sellers make the pak thong ko and those who do, don’t quite get it right.
The appeal of the traditional rice cake lies in its fluffiness and springy texture.
The family used to grind the rice themselves but has since opted to buy their flour from a reliable supplier to ensure taste consistency.
“It’s actually quite easy to make - just mix the rice flour, yeast, water and sugar and steam it. Kok Heng says they have also cut down on the amount of sugar used.
The rice cakes are in high demand especially during Taoist deities’ birthday celebrations or other religious events.
Usually, the temple committees or devotees would request that the rice cakes be dyed pink.
Although the pak thong ko is made in the morning, it is only carefully cut into diamond shapes hours later. The rice cakes have to be left to cool first otherwise it will stick to the knife, Tan shares.
This is how we do it
Each family member has a designated task, which they complete as though on autopilot. During Star2’s visit, 80s music was blaring from the radio in the background and as Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine come on with ‘The Rhythm’s Gonna Get You’, the crew picked up speed.
“It’s okay, go ahead and ask us. We can work while we chat,” Tan says, shooting me a quick, friendly glance before getting back to work.
The traditional pancakes and sweet treats are made at the family’s shoplot at the People’s Court flats nearby.
Every evening at about 6pm, Yee’s 14-year-old daughter Ean Shan and Kok Fai load the pushcart stall up with silver trays of piping hot ham chim peng and sesame balls and freshly made pak thong ko to Cintra Street (just opposite the Tai Tong dim sum shop) - the main road in front of the flats.
The delicacies are covered with pieces of clean, white cloth to keep them warm and protect them from dust.
The duo man the stall right up to about 11pm, but Tan and Kok Heng usually come around to help after taking a short break to freshen up.
“Our regulars normally come to the shop to make their purchases even before we push the cart out but we are lucky to still get a steady stream of customers every night,” Tan says.
A family legacy
The price of the ham chim peng and pak thong ko used to be 10 sen during Kok Heng’s father’s time but today it’s sold for 70 sen per piece. Tan says many labourers buy from them as ham chim peng is cheaper and more filling than bread.
“Ingredients are more expensive these days so we can’t sell it for any less.
“It may be less work for us if we hire foreign workers to help but we cannot afford to compromise on the quality of our products because this business has been around for so long.
“I don’t even let the kids help with the actual preparation of the dough because the shape and quality need to be consistent, otherwise we would be letting Kok Heng’s grandfather down,” she explains.
Although most stalls that sell ham chim peng also sells hua chee and eu char koay (fried Chinese crullers), Tan insists they are quite different from the ham chim peng.
The family also has no plans to add new items to sell or to come up with new fillings for their ham chim peng.
Tan says they are already too tired as it is.
“We are too old to think of expanding the business and creating new fillings for the ham chim peng would cause it to lose its traditional, authentic taste,” she points out.
Although their business is very much a dying traditional trade, the couple are not forcing it onto their kids to take over.
“It’s up to them if they want to inherit the business but if you ask me, I’d rather they concentrate on studying.
“Nonetheless, if they are not academically inclined like me and their father (Kok Heng), at least they will still have the skill to earn a decent and honest living,” Tan says.
The family will carry on the business for as long as they can, until the kids complete their studies or if they suddenly strike it rich, Kok Heng says jokingly.
Tan says they practically have no rest.
When pointed out that they look very trendy with funky coloured hair and a string of ear studs, she says “we may look like party animals but we are home bodies”.
She said even if they had more time to themselves, they wouldn’t know what to do.
Looking youthful with a cap, Kok Heng who has a toned body says he doesn’t even have time for the gym.
He recommends dough kneading to sculpt the body.
“We don’t use a machine and everything here is done manually because the quantity is simply too small,” he says.
Come rain or shine, the stall is open daily except during Chinese New Year when they take a well-deserved break.