Roti Babi At Song River Cafe

Roti babi from Song River cafe
Roti babi – Song River Cafe, Gurney Drive, Penang.

My quest for delicious roti babi saw me discovering a stall selling roti back in my hometown in Penang. This island is also where I first grew a dislike for this dish of Hainan and Peranakan origin. I was barely in my teenage years then. My mother used to make it once every few months. I was only allowed to eat only one half portion of the roti babi because she considered me too young to be eating too much of such oily food.

That was no great loss to the young me. The greasiness of the deep fried egg-coated bread dipped in the weird tasting “ang moh tau eu”, the Hokkien name for Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, and eaten with sliced red chillies, always made me nauseous. I guess the shredded cabbage bits contributed to that malady as well. As a kid, I was already a fussy eater and cabbage was one of the vegetables that my taste buds were greatly averse to. To make a long story short, over the years, I have gradually come to love it and have been having cravings for roti babi in recent years.

We made our way up to Penang on Tuesday morning, dropped the cats off for boarding in Ipoh Garden and had a late lunch with Wuan’s parents at Ipoh Old Town. We checked in at about 7pm at the Gurney Resort Hotel & Residences, our journey delayed by intermittent rain along the North South Expressway. We were tired but not that hungry and decided on Song River Cafe which was just a short distance from the hotel. I was delighted when I saw that the lor bak stall also served roti babi and duly ordered one.

Lets just say that I have eaten more delicious roti babi elsewhere. There wasn’t any hint of crab meat, potato or carrot in the filling. Perhaps, they were well mixed into the minced pork. The Worcestershire sauce also tasted bland, none of that nauseous-inducing flavour that I have come to like. One serving costs RM3.50. My cravings are definitely not satiated. The quest continues.

Chai Boey – Heaven In A Pot

The most appetising dish in Chinese cuisine can neither be found in the Imperial menus nor famous Chinese restaurants anywhere. Although the ingredients used may sound disgusting to some, it is those very ingredients that make the soup of this unique dish tasty. Chai boey, literally translated from the Chinese Hokkien dialect, means leftover food.

That is exactly what is used – food leftover from a feast, and stewed in a big pot the next day, or on the next weekend. The leftovers can be anything from abalone, scallops, roast pork, roast duck, lor bak (5 spice pork roll), lup cheong (waxed sausages) to chap chai (mixed vegetable dish). When Dad was around, we usually celebrated his birthdays with scrumptious steamboat dinners. The remaining soupbase after the dinner would be used together with whatever else that was still available like fish maw, quail eggs, Shiitake and button mushrooms, baby corns and carrots to make chai boey.

Apart from the leftovers, roast pig trotter, kiam chai (salted vegetables) are usually added to make the soup even tastier. Kua chai (Chinese mustard, gai choy) is a must have. The cooking of this dish is sometimes held back until the availability of this important ingredient. Asam jawa (tamarind) juice, pickled plums, dried chillies and pepper corns were added to the pot to enhance the flavour of the stew. It is spicy, sourish and very tasty at the same time.

Chai boeyChai boey.

No two chai boey are the same. The recipe differs from one family to another. How they taste are very much dependent on the leftover food used. My favourite chai boey is usually during Cheng Beng (Tomb Sweeping Day) in April, Phor Tor (Hungry Ghosts Festival) during the Chinese seventh month and Koay Tang (Winter Solstice Festival) in December. There would be generous amount of roast pork, roast duck and best of all, jiu hu char. The stir-fried sengkuang (yam bean) made the soup extra delicious.

A few weeks back, Wuan gathered the main ingredients for chai boey. They included roast pig trotter, Chinese mustard, salted vegetables, pickled plums, tamarind, carrots, sengkuang, carrots, fresh red chillies, dried chillies, onions and Shiitake mushrooms, among others. Although it tasted nice, it did not have that chai boey character like those that I used to eat back in Penang. Chai boey without jiu hu char just does not taste the same. To illustrate the importance of jiu hu char, whenever Mum wanted to make chai boey in between festivals, she would cook jiu hu char a few days earlier for one of the meals. The leftover is then used for chai boey.

In the Klang Valley, this stew is called suen lat choi, sour and spicy vegetables in Cantonese, as the majority of the population speaks this Chinese dialect. It is also known as choi kiok which also means leftover food. The ingredients would be more or less like those that Wuan used. The cooking style is also the same although the leftover food may differ.

Ingredients for chai boeyIngredients for chai boey.

Basically, the recipe calls for the Chinese mustard (2 heads) to be thoroughly cleaned as a lot of soil is trapped between the leaves. It is then cut in quarters and kept aside. Water is added to 4 tablespoonful of tamarind pulp and the liquid sieved. This is poured into the pot together with 3 onions (quartered), 2 large carrots (cut into chunks), 1 medium size sengkuang (cut into large cubes), 2 portions of salted vegetables (cut into quarters), 4 pickled plums, 20 pepper corns (cracked with the side of chopping knife), a handful of dried chillies and 5 fresh red chillies cut lengthwise and the seeds removed. If the leftovers do not include Shiitake mushrooms, 10 can be soaked the night before, halved and added at the same time.

The leftovers are added together with roast chicken and duck parts, roast pig bones and roast pig trotter. The pig trotter should be chopped into large chunks. One can usually get the roast pork seller to do that. The pot is filled with water just sufficient to cover all the ingredients and brought to boil. The heat is then turned down to allow the stew to simmer for 1 hour. By then it should exude a mouthwatering aroma with a strong tangy aroma.

The Chinese mustard is added last to prevent it from being overcooked and becoming mushed. Water is added to cover the vegetable and allowed to simmer for another half hour until the Chinese mustard is thoroughly cooked and have soaked in the flavours of the stew. By then, the pig trotter should be very tender and the meat almost separating from the bones. If the soup is not sourish enough, tamarind juice or pickled plums can be added to taste. Chai boey can be served with rice or eaten as is.

Whether it is called chai boey or suen lat choi, I would be contented with just chai boey and rice for lunch and dinner on any given day. I would add a few ladles of the soup to my rice followed by generous portions of Chinese mustard, Shiitake and button mushrooms and roast pork. Those I would dip in soy sauce. No words can describe the pleasure as I slowly masticate the pork and the Chinese mustard and allow the flavours to titillate my olfactory senses. The chai boey is truly a piece of culinary heaven. No one can claim to have savoured the best tasting food in the world if they have not eaten this dish before.

Nibong Tebal Teowchew Dim Sum

Dad had heart problems by the time I was born. It was around that time that he got accredited as a supervising electrical engineer. Industries such as factories, hotels and cinemas were required by the National Electricity Board to engage the services of an engineer like him to inspect and submit a monthly report on the status their electrical installations.

Mum accompanied him on his rounds just to be sure he was all right. As most of the factories were off-bounds to unauthorised persons, Mum waited for him in the car outside the factory compound by the road shoulder. Some of these inspections took as long one 1 hour per installation. These factories were located mostly in the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone and the Mak Mandin Industrial Estate.

During the school holidays when I was in the primary school, they usually took me along. Dad went as far north as Chuping in Perlis to inspect the sugar factory there. Calling the sugar plantation huge is an understatement. Sugar cane dominated the landscape as far as our eyes could see. We had to travel a long time by car on a quiet road through the plantation to reach the factory. There was nothing to see except mile after mile of sugar canes on both sides of the road.

These trips with them left a deep impression in me as to how hard Dad, and for matter, Mum, had to work to put food on the table. He was already in his early-sixties by then. Most of these trips were boring as I had to wait with Mum outside the factories. Some were memorable nonetheless, like the inspection trips to a granite mine in Juru followed by another inspection at a knitting factory located in the midst of a rubber plantation in Nibong Tebal.

My favourite part of these trips were the time after we left Juru and before we reached the knitting factory. It would be midday when we pass by the town of Nibong Tebal. There was this eating place, located in a row of old shophouses on the right side of the road, that we usually stopped for lunch. According to Dad, it was operated by a distant relative, a great-granduncle, and was then taken over by his children and grandchildren.

Tables and chairs and decors in the shop were worn out and in desperate need of some sprucing up. A scent, neither off-putting nor pleasant, permeated throughout. Even the yellowed marble tabletop smelt of that. When we have settled down, Dad would to recite the order in Teochew to the waiter. Although I could not understand the dialect, I knew exactly what he was ordering. It was the same every time.

A pot of steaming hot tea was usually served first. It would come with a small plastic basin filled with tea cups and saucers. The ritual then began with Dad pouring the hot tea over the items in the basin. He would roll the tea cups in the basin one by one and then place them on the table. The cutleries and chopsticks were next. When all the washing were done, he would fill up the cups with the tea from the pot.

The chai kueh and koo chai kueh there were simply delicious. Both are steamed dumplings. Chai kueh has a filling of stir fried shredded sengkuang (yam bean) and dried shrimps while koo chai kueh comes with chives and dried shrimps done the same way. We ate them with chilli sauce. Little me could eat up to six chai kuehs at one go. The koo chai kuehs I ate less of as strips of chives tended to get stuck between my teeth.

Then there was the crab shell stuffed with minced crab meat, pork and coriander, and deep fried. I liked that too but could only eat one as it was greasy. Eating more would make me nauseous. The steamed pork ribs with black beans were tasty too but I was not fond of them. The meat would sometimes be too chewy to my liking. Dad and Mum seemed to enjoy them though.

Or nee (sweetened yam paste) served in a shallow bowl usually completed the meal. It did not look appetising, especially with a thin layer of lard floating on the top. This dish is a Teochew specialty and was not easily available anywhere else. It needed a lot of effort and time to prepare. Mashed yam is sweetened with sugar and slowly cooked in a kuali with pork lard. It has to be continually stirred to prevent the paste from sticking to the bottom and get burnt. This could take up to a couple of hours.

There is nothing quite like a spoonful of or nee with its aroma titillating the palate and its pasty texture swirling inside the mouth. Mum always stopped me from over-indulging this dish. She said that eating too much yam was bad for digestion. I have never gotten around to finding out if that is true yet.

On one of our trips to Penang recently, Wuan and I went to Nibong Tebal to look for the shop. I could not recognise the town. I could not even remember the name of the shop. So much has changed. We lost our way even with the GPS and had to drive around searching for road signs to lead us back to the North South Expressway. I wonder if the shop is still there. The last time I was there with Dad and Mum was more than thirty years ago. It would be great to eat there again and indulge in some or nee and chai kueh, just for old time’s sake.