Get off the highway and explore old towns for the best food in Penang.
UNLESS they are in the know, outsiders would make a quick beeline to George Town, eager to try the island’s famed hawker fares. Most visitors think they are privy to the state’s best food offerings because there are endless social media postings on what and where to eat.
But there is another part of the state that has remained under the radar, its hinterland. Penang’s mainland – the newly anointed city of Seberang Perai – is divided into the northern, central and southern region. Travellers on the North-South Expressway usually bypass the southern district of Seberang Perai, exiting at the second Penang Bridge after Batu Kawan or the Penang Bridge in Seberang Jaya to get to the island.
The specialty in these parts is traditional Teochew cuisine, a refreshing change from the predominantly Peranakan and Hokkien food popular in the rest of Penang.
Without a doubt, the best dish in Nibong Tebal is the crab porridge at Law Cheang Kee on the town’s main road. It’s not mushy Cantonese-style porridge but soupy cooked rice. The crab broth is light but deeply flavourful, and balanced with tong chai (preserved vegetables) and fragranced with ground white pepper and coriander. This is an old-fashioned dish done honestly, by a cook who kept so faithfully to his father’s recipe.
He also would not serve his dishes if he couldn’t get fresh catch. That’s why we didn’t get to have the other signature dish here – blanched octopus with a homemade chilli sauce.
Nibong Tebal may be a sleepy hollow with shuttered shophouses but there is always a queue at Law Cheang Kee, so come prepared to wait as the owner does not relinquish the cooking to hired help.
Another family member has also opened a restaurant, N.T. Cheang Kee, which you see as soon as you enter Nibong Tebal after exiting the highway. You can try both restaurants, but my preference is the original outlet.
At a side road opposite Law Cheang Kee is a traditional Teochew biscuit shop, Chop Cheng Guan. They make wedding biscuits, and still do pink packages filled with traditional favourites to be presented to family and friends with invitation cards. The traditional biscuits include gong p’eah (peanut brittles), nui t’ng (sticky biscuits made with molasses), and la peah (a flaky pastry with a filling of sweet nutmeg strips).
Although some processes such as mixing and blending are now done by machines, the biscuits are still made mostly by hand. The workers do it at the shop premise, and it’s fascinating to see them meticulously forming and shaping the biscuits using tools aged by time and use. My favourite biscuit is the flaky kong t’ng, or kacang tumbuk, made from ground peanuts and sugar.
In the neighbouring town of Sg Bakap, my favourite is the chives chai kuih at Soon Lee Restaurant on the main road. The Lim family has been making these dumplings for almost 100 years, and their chai kuih is the best. The silky translucent dumpling skin falls apart at the tiniest bite, and the freshness and flavours of the chives burst forth. They only use locally grown chives here.
Opposite Soon Lee is Wah Seng duck rice, another old shop. They used to rear their own ducks but these days they get their supply from a farm. But they still use the family’s 100-year-old recipe which yields subtly marinated duck that’s moist and tender. If you come early enough, grab their duck’s web stuffed with liver and gizzard.
Law Cheang Kee
113, Jalan Atas, Nibong Tebal.
Opens 12-2pm, 5-10pm
Chop Cheng Guan
80 & 81, Jalan Pengkalan Rawa,
Main Road, Sg Bakap
Wah Seng Duck Rice
112, Main Road, Sg Bakap
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