A living legend
64 Lebuh China, Georgetown
Chuan Bee Cafe has become something of a living legend in Penang. The story goes that an Australian couple once chanced upon it, loved it and spread the word about it, and in-the-know travellers have made their culinary pilgrimages here ever since.
This only goes to prove the power of the backpacker grapevine, because unless you already knew that this unassuming cafe is one of the best places in Penang to try old-fashioned, home-style Hainanese food, it is unlikely that you would ever stop here. The fact that it is difficult to find, hidden behind rattan blinds and lacking any form of obvious signage, only adds to its mythical qualities. If in doubt, houses 62 and 66 are numbered on either side, and there is a discreet sign above the door.
The Hainanese were one of the last Chinese dialect groups to settle in Penang at the end of the 19th century, when poverty and ensuing violence of the anti-Manchu uprisings in China forced a mass exodus south. As latecomers, there were limited jobs available for the Hainanese when they arrived in Georgetown, but they soon made a name for themselves as expert cooks and cafe proprietors, a reputation that they still maintain to this day.
Chuan Bee is part of that legacy, although there are no pretences here and the decor is what it is: fairly uninspiring, basic but clean. You get what you’re given when it comes to the food, too, depending on what’s available in the kitchen. Since the menu is written only in Chinese and the waitresses have limited English, this may be a good thing and saves you wondering too hard about what to order, although the following dishes are house staples and should be available.
Start with a traditional roti babi (3.50 ringgit), which is, essentially, a delicious deep-fried sandwich of minced pork and onion with a hot, tangy dipping sauce. Follow this up with make-your-own parcels of joo hoo char (8 ringgit), which consist of stir-fried cuttlefish, mushroom, white radish, onion and carrot wrapped in a crisp lettuce leaf.
Kam heong (8 ringgit) is another quintessential Penang offering of deep-fried chicken in a spicy, crispy batter, served with the same beefed-up Worcestershire-style sauce as the roti babi. Finally, hokkien hai mee (4 ringgit), a fragrant dish consisting of both bee hoon and yellow noodles with prawn and chicken, and served with a fiery red chilli sambal, provides a contrast of flavours and textures to the other dishes.
Locals flock to Chuan Bee because it offers a real taste of home-style cooking and serves up many of the old Peranakan favourites. Meanwhile, travellers love the fact that the cafe is still a relatively well-guarded secret and finding it is a chance to experience something that many others won’t.
However, at the risk of giving the game away, we believe good finds should be shared so recommend that you, too, go in search of Penang’s very own holy grail of restaurants.
Chuan Bee is near the top end of Lebuh China, near the junction with Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling – also known as the Street of Harmony – and the Goddess of Mercy Temple, so is a useful pitstop if you are visiting either of these popular Georgetown sights.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 30th August, 2014.