Hop over to Joo Leong Kopitiam for some frog porridge.
I DON’T know about you, but after the last few months of overindulging and imbibing rich foods and drink, there’s nothing better than a dose of some plain stuff to set things right.
One fallback is good old congee, or as we call it here, porridge. There’s something about this simple yet filling rice dish which is very reassuring, probably because it harks back to those days when we were kids and it was our staple diet. It’s still the sort of food we look for when we are under the weather and just want something digestible yet sustaining.
Joo Leong Café in Sungei Tilam, Penang, has become an institution and is famous for this local comfort food. You’ll be able to spot the old black wooden house on the busy Bayan Lepas Road leading to the airport from the large number of cars parked outside.
It’s one of those old cafés, with mismatched tables and plastic stools squeezed in wherever possible, with not a designer cup in sight. Run by husband and wife team Law Kok Peng and Ai Geok, it’s a place you go to just for the food.
“My father-in-law started this place over 40 years ago,” explained Ai Geok, 56, who used to be the Laws’ neighbour. In a classic girl-falls-in-love-with-boy-next-door romance, she and Law got married a few decades ago, and the whole family now helps out with the business.
It’s a long day, as service actually starts with breakfast from about 7am when the local village folk and office workers from nearby factories come in for some sustaining breakfast: packets of nasi lemak and economy fried beehoon, together with their trademark perfectly cooked soft-boiled eggs that are steeped in hot water just long enough that the white is as downy as cottony clouds and the yolk a mellow, yellow round. Add a dash or two of light soya sauce, a sprinkling of their home-ground white pepper, and dip in a few squares of their crispy, buttered roti bakar (toast) made with fluffy Bengali bread and you’re set to face the day.
This is served with a fragrant local coffee made from beans that are specially roasted for them by the same people who used to supply it to Law’s father. The brew is thick and black, sweetened with a good helping of condensed milk, and will certainly coat your teeth, tongue and probably your innards with a layer of caffeine to keep you alert.
After the rush dies down at about 11am, they take a well-deserved break during which they recoup and prepare for the next session which starts at 6pm. Although toast and eggs are still available, it’s actually their famous pork-free Teochew hai xian (seafood) porridge or noodles that the evening hordes come for.
Whilst Law prepares loaf upon loaf of pre-sliced bread and dairy spread, Ai Geok is busy ensuring that all the raw ingredients that are required for the evening are washed and ready for the rush.
Everything is neatly laid out on ice: fish head or fish meat, either fresh or fried; springy white fishballs, hard-boiled quails’ eggs, crab, fish maw, vegetables, noodles and, if it takes your fancy, a skinned chooi kay (frog) or two.
“It is one of our most popular items,” she added. All I can say is “to each his own”. Personally, I prefer to stick to their fish congee, the precooked rice boiled in a light broth so that it is soft but still in individual grains, as good Teochew porridge should be. Sliced white fish is added and the congee is served with a host of condiments sprinkled on top: sliced spring onions, chopped garlic in oil and of course, the (for me) compulsory cili padi. It’s light and tasty, and as each order is individually cooked, it’s served piping hot and guaranteed to bring out a sweat.
I also rather enjoyed their Fried Fishhead Beehoon, again cooked in a light stock flavoured only by the fish itself – and it would appear so do many others because there was already a long queue of hungry patrons waiting outside, who flooded in as soon as the doors opened at 6pm to grab a table and place their order before the real crowds came!
In the evening there’s satay, kangkong sotong and salted chicken available as well.
Joo Leong Café, 179-H Sungei Tiram, Bayan Lepas, Penang (012-423 7894).