I've always had a great affinity for Penang food - after all, my great-great-grandfather made his fortune in Penang back in the 19th-century, way before the Singapore chapter of our clan started.
For two cities barely an hour's flight apart, Singapore and Penang (both pre-dominantly Hokkien-Chinese, and with significant Peranakan-Nyonya populace) can have surprisingly different interpretations of similarly-named dishes and street food items. But Singaporeans, because of shared cultural and historical (both old British colonies) roots with Penangites, have always had a special fascination for Penang food. Hence, we see people touting "Penang fried koay teow", "Penang laksa", etc., here in Singapore.
Back in 1965, when Singapore first became an independent nation (after breaking away from Malaysia), many Penang-born executives stayed on to help build our new country - these included Tan Boon Teik (Singapore's 1st Attorney-General), Yeoh Ghim Seng (S'pore's 1st Speaker of Parliament), Wee Chong Jin (S'pore's 1st Chief Justice), etc.
In the mid-70s, Copthorne King's Hotel (then, simply King's Hotel) sarted its now-legendary Penang buffet, featuring Penang street foods like assam laksa, Penang Hokkien prawn mee, popiah, the ever-popular Penang char koay teow, etc. plus an array of traditional Nyonya kuehs. The pioneering chefs were Mary Yeoh and Yeoh Teng Chye, who now run Sedap, a Nyonya-themed restaurant in London.
I'd been going to the Princess Terrace for its buffet everynow & then ever since it first started (as a kid, accompanying my parents). In the past couple of decades or so, I'll be back there at least 4-5 times a year. Princess Terrace has its fair share of regulars - I understood that some of them (the older folks) actually dined there every week - and at least one couple actually treated the restaurant like their own lunch venue and dined there no less than 3 times a week!! I don't know how they did that - Princess Terrace's Penang-Nyonya cuisine is good, but can be very rich and heavy to the uninitiated, with its liberal use of coconut creme (santan), lard-cloaked stir-fries nd meaty main options.
Anyway, I was there again for dinner last night. The buffet, despite its changing of chefs over the past 35+ years, had maintained its line-up of dishes and kept the quality amazingly constant. These include:
- Penang char coay teow (definitely the most authentic-tasting version in Singapore)
- Sweet-sour fish
- Penang chee cheong fun (hard-put to find this anywhere else in Singapore)
- Pig's stomach soup (too thor th'ng) - another hard-to-find dish. This one tweaked to suit Singapore's Teochew-influenced taste for a more peppery version than those one can find in Penang.
- Penang Nyonya Nasi Kunyit (turmeric-tinged glutinous rice) with the amazing Chicken Curry - my fave in all of Singapore!
- Chicken satay - with its super-rich peanut sauce
- Otak-otak (Penang-style, which is more mousse-like than Singapore's drier version) - I noticed for the first time that the otak-otak was not baked in a large casserole dish, not individually-wrapped in banana leaves anynore like in the 0old days :-(
- Kerabu bee hoon and Nasi Kerabu - too herbal, spicy Penang-Nyonya concoctions that's almost impossible to find anywhere else in Singapore;
- individual cooking stations preparing Penang assam laksa, Penang Hokkien mee, duckmeat mee suah soup, popiah and kueh Pie-Tee, upon order a la minute. Only the popiah tasted bland to me, whilst the others were authentic.
- a mind-boggling array of very high-quality Nyonya kuehs - the BEST ever in Singapore!!
Always ate too much when I'm there. So good to know that some things (in ever-evolving Singapore) never change :-)
Copthorne King's Hotel
403 Havelock Road
Tel: 6318 3168
Princess Terrace at Copthorne Kings Hotel
403 Havelock Rd, Singapore 169632, SG