Sunday May 22, 2011
‘Squatty’ good porridge
By JEREMY TAN
Photos by GARY CHEN
It’s back-to-basics for those who want to savour a bowl of piping hot porridge in old George Town.
PATRONS of fine dining will be horrified at the idea of squatting to eat but for more adventurous foodies visiting Penang island, it is definitely an experience to boast about to friends.
While this island food paradise may have eateries on every street corner, the Teochew porridge stall along Magazine Road is one that definitely stands out for its unique seating arrangement.
A relic of days gone by when neither grace nor etiquette was a prime concern while dining, squatting to eat has always been the norm at this open-air eatery in inner George Town.
Long benches line the stall, with wooden stools placed on top of them. To eat, one simply mounts the “throne”, adjusts the stools accordingly and makes oneself comfortable. It is a delicate balancing act in itself, one that regular customers have seemingly turned into a graceful art.
Popular now with those from the working class, the place in the old days was often frequented by trishawmen. Back then, customers simply wanted to enjoy cheap and good food comfortably (though the uninitiated might beg to differ on the comfort aspect), and the practice has persisted to this day, becoming somewhat of a curiosity.
The back-to-basics simplicity is a winning formula that has seen the family-run establishment thrive for the better part of seven decades. Neither signboard nor advertising is needed here. It has never failed to catch the attention of tourists while most locals of a certain age know about it. Come lunch time, they’ll find their way here and pack the place to the brim.
They all come for one thing – a piping hot bowl of plain porridge, which is dished out from one earthenware pot after another. According to Tan Joo Hong, who now helps his elderly father, Jin Hock, run the place, they normally sell in excess of a hundred bowls of the moy (Hokkien for congee) each day.
For accompaniments, there are around two dozen side dishes, ranging from vegetables to fish and meat, all freshly prepared in the simple and basic kitchen mere footsteps away by a team of helpers.
Once these are cooked, they’re scooped into trays and placed on the counter. With so many side dishes coming out and so little space, some are stacked on top of the other. Thus, ordering a meal can be akin to a treasure hunt to see what morsels lay beneath.
“We try to prepare as many dishes as possible until there’s nowhere to put them,” Joo Hong says.
The side dishes come in small servings, allowing one to try a little bit of everything. With the plain porridge providing a neutral base, items like the tau yew bak (braised pork in soya sauce) or stir-fried clams with garlic and chilli can be added for flavour.
Another, the humble fried fish, has a crispy texture that is in stark contrast to the mushy porridge. And then there are the many types of stir-fried vegetable items and eponymous salted duck egg and salted fish, which are also popular with the crowd.
With such an array of accompaniments on offer, the combinations are almost endless. Patrons are literally spoilt for choice, and when they come in, they simply point to their desired item and these are scooped and ready in no time at all.
That, combined with very affordable prices, is what keeps the customers coming back, enabling the business to withstand both the test of time and competition from the many eateries at Komtar, Prangin Mall and 1st Avenue shopping complexes.
A security guard who shares the surname Tan, has been a regular for almost a decade. A resident nearby, he goes to the stall several times a week but never gets tired of it.
“It’s delicious, cheap and good. What more can one ask for?” he asks as he clambers off his stool, makes his way to his motorcycle and rides off, back to work.
Delivery man Chen Ah Huat is another who never fails to stop by for a meal whenever he’s making rounds in the area. It’s a routine that he has followed for as long as he can remember.
“With Penang’s hot weather, a soothing bowl of porridge is the best option,” he says.
Those interested to try the squat-and-eat porridge should take note that the stall (located opposite Traders Hotel) is only open from Thursday to Sunday, from about 11am until the final morsels of food are sold out between 4pm and 5pm.
When quizzed on why they’re not open on the first three days of the week, Joo Hong nonchalantly shrugs his shoulders before replying, “It’s always been like this since my grandfather’s time.”
Another popular Teochew porridge haunt can be found at the heart of George Town’s heritage area, Muntri Street, directly opposite Cititel Penang.
Known as Tai Buan Porridge, it is located in a prewar shop lot close to the intersection with Leith Street.
Locals wax lyrical about it, and similar to the above mentioned one on Magazine Road, the porridge comes with a variety of condiments, though not as many. Also, fret not as you don’t have to squat here - there are proper chairs and tables.
Within a steaming cauldron, pieces of duck meat, pork innards, pork belly and tofu gently braise away in soy sauce, while others are neatly displayed, a definite eye-catcher for anyone passing by.
Those with adventurous palates might find the duck liver, gizzards, pig’s ear and intestines to their liking, but it is an acquired taste. No part of the animals goes to waste, that’s for sure. Regardless of which you choose, it seems that the savoury items are tailor-made for the mild porridge.
This place is open from around 1.30pm to 8pm daily except Sunday. For takeaways, be sure to bring your own containers as the owners have long practised a go-green, no plastic bag policy.