There’s an exquisite touch of Japanese to be discovered along the bustling strip of Batu Ferringhi, writes Alan Teh Leam Seng
“OH no!” the wail of utter dismay escapes from my mouth as I clap eyes on the shutters that had descended on the clinic on Beach Street. My decision to visit Penang was made at the spur of the moment as I’d assumed that my friend would be at his work place. Calls made to Dr Chua Hock Khoon’s mobile were left answered. “Could he be in Singapore visiting his daughter who’d just given birth to a baby boy?” the thought played in my mind as I dejectedly return to my car.
Just as I’m about to remove the ignition key from my pocket, the familiar sound of an incoming message on my phone is heard. It’s Dr Chua! His brief message reads: Cannot talk. Attending dental conference at Lone Pine. Ending at 5pm. I heave a sigh of relief. He’s in Penang after all. A flurry of text messages shuttles between us, concluding with an invitation to join him for dinner at Batu Ferringhi.
It’s not an easy task braving the notorious Penang after office hour traffic but I’m determined to persevere. It’s not every day that I get to have dinner with the man many consider an authority on Penang history. Dr Chua, a Singapore-trained dental surgeon, owns an impressive collection of old photographs, documents and postcards which he accumulated over a span of nearly 50 years. I remind myself that the long drive to Penang’s northern coast would be more than worth it if I can get him to talk a bit about his “barang”, a word he likes to use when referring to his prized possessions.
The sun is about to touch the horizon by the time my car grinds to a halt at the parking lot of Lone Pine Hotel. I find Dr Chua by the poolside happily looking at pictures of his latest acquisitions on his phone. He swipes the screen to show me several photos of early Japanese citizens living in Penang in the 1900s. “I just got these rare images but let's get something to eat first. I’m in the mood for some good Japanese food,” quips the 66-year-old Penangite while gesturing towards a four-storey building near the hotel entrance. “My wife and I always eat here when we’re in Batu Ferringhi. The food is very good and fresh.”
JAPANESE CULINARY MAGIC
Matsu is the only fully fledged Japanese restaurant along the famous Batu Ferringhi tourist belt. Open only for dinner from 6.30pm till late, it boasts an extensive menu that offers a good representation of authentic Japanese cuisine. The selection here includes evergreen favourites like sashimi, yakitori and tempura.
“Since this is your first visit, I suggest you try the Chef's Kaiseki Set which allows you to sample a bit of everything available here. We must also have some Unagi Kabayaki. The Japanese consume a lot of these freshwater eels during summer as their high protein and vitamin content help to cool the body,” recommends Dr Chua, before proceeding to order two more side dishes.
The restaurant, with its contemporary concept, is pleasant and spacious. Oversized windows offer patrons a nearly 360 degree panoramic view of the lovely surroundings. This is especially advantageous as guests can get to enjoy the stunning sunset without having to leave their tables.
The Japanese, according to Dr Chua, formed a small but yet significant portion of Penang’s early population. He hands me a 1910 census card which shows that there were only about 200 Japanese people living in Penang at that time. Their occupations were very diverse. Some worked as doctors and dentists while others operated photo studios and silent movie theatres.
The Japanese doctors and dentists were very popular in the past. These professionals were well patronised by Japanese as well as locals because they had a western outlook and yet charged much less than their European counterparts. Dr Chua's interesting revelation is interrupted by the arrival of the first dish.
The Chef's Kaiseki Set is substantial, comprising seven separate courses. The first is the Zensai Santenmori which consists of three Japanese hors d’oeuvres. This selection varies and guests are served what the chef prepares for the evening. I’m fortunate to find an oyster among the trio. The mollusc has been skilfully baked to just the right degree, allowing the flesh to remain soft and succulent. The accompanying garnishes enhance the flavour enormously.
The second and third courses arrive in quick succession. The Otsukuri Sashimi Moriawase is attractively arranged and the seafood looks very fresh. I like to adhere to a strange ritual when it comes to this dish. I always consume some shredded radish before moving on to the next piece of raw seafood as I find that this helps to clear my palate and allow me to fully appreciate the different flavours properly.
Tempura lovers will adore the Agemono-Sakana Ebi Futamiage.
The vegetables pieces are evenly coated in a light and crunchy batter. In between mouthfuls of deep fried eggplant, Dr Chua brings me back to the time when Japan became the first country in the Far East to embrace the Industrial Revolution. This giant leap forward happened during the Meiji Restoration period (1868–1912) where western inventions and ideas were well received by Japan. The Japanese were among the earliest to introduce cameras and silent movies to Penang when they first arrived during the turn of the last century. No wonder Japanese brands like Nikon and Canon are industry leaders even until today!
Dr Chua calls time out when his favourite is served. Beef lovers will enjoy the yakitori-styled Gyuniku Aspara. Each skewer has three beef slices, each wrapped around several green asparagus stalks. Well marinated, they’re grilled to perfection. The meat is tender and juicy while the asparagus adds a nice crunch.
Meanwhile, for something a little unique try the California Uramaki. It’s literally a reversed California roll where all the ingredients have been placed on the outside. This way diners get to enjoy all the goodies like soft avocado and spicy ebi eggs first before reaching the rice and seaweed.
An order for the Gindara and Ika Naruto Age side dishes is made soon after. While enjoying the silky smooth cod fish and springy octopus, Dr Chua continues enlightening me with more Japanese trivia. “The older generation in Penang refer to Cintra Street and Kampung Malabar as Little Japan. The Hokkiens call these streets Jipun Kay (Japanese Street) and Jipun Sin Lo (Japanese New Road) because a sizeable Japanese community lived there during the early days. Business was good and soon the Japanese population grew. This huge increase prompted the formation of the Japanese Association in 1915.”
The final two courses in the Kaseiki Set complete our meal at Matsu. The Sirumono Osuimono or bonito-flavoured soup is swimming with fish cake, vegetables and seaweed. The broth is light and helps clear my palate before I move on to dessert, Matcha Tiramisu with an orange twist. This attractive dessert, comprising a layer of green tea mousse on top and a portion of orange-flavoured tiramisu cake below it, is delightful with the citrus taste of the orange complementing the green tea flavour really well.
A Caucasian couple walks in while Dr Chua and I wait for our bill. I overhear them ordering the Matsu bento to enjoy by the seaside. This take away box, I’m duly informed, comes in the form of an attractive red lacquer container filled with delicious goodies such as potato salada, sashimi, tempura, saba shioyaki and tamagoyaki.
I thank Dr Chua for the sumptuous meal and also for sharing his knowledge about the early Japanese in Penang. It has certainly been a delightful surprise to discover this wonderful slice of culinary magic from the Land of the Rising Sun in the Pearl of the Orient.
Matsu at Lone Pine Hotel, 97, Batu Ferringhi, Penang.
Opening hours: 6.30pm till late
Tel: +604 886 8555
Go to www.lonepinehotel.com for info