An authentic Hakka luncheon in Balik Pulau
In Penang, where do you go for classic home-cooked Hakka favourites? To answer that, I ventured to the village of Balik Pulau, where about 30 percent of the Chinese are presumed to be Hakkas. Perched on a hillock in Pulau Betong is a restaurant located at Balik Pulau Lodge. Some recognise it as the "Hakka Village".
To lunch here, reservations must be made in advanced. Each person would be charged a fixed price which includes a return trip (by jeep) from the base of the hill up a steep and narrow road to the restaurant, situated at an altitude of approximately 300 feet above sea level.
At the dining hall, information on the dishes offered is listed on the walls. A no-frill luncheon served six dishes and a soup with steamed rice and a free flow of nutmeg juice.
Stir-fried bitter gourd with chicken was one of the Hakka dishes available that afternoon. The bitter gourd was soft and the flavours, enhanced with fermented black beans, were scrumptious. The chicken must have been well marinated prior to cooking to achieve such depth in its tender meat.
The pork trotters in black vinegar got two thumbs up from me. The combination of sweet, sour and savoury taste were beautifully balanced. The moist and tender cuts of pork trotters were such a joy to indulge in.
This traditional Chinese dish is a must-have in the repertoire of confinement offerings. It is believed to aid post-natal recovery. Nevertheless, it is a dish I relish and would sometimes cook at home. I would use both young and old ginger (young ones, for aroma and consumption; old ones, for extra spiciness and "burning heat") By the way old ginger is not edible as it is too fibrous.
The Hakka-style stuffed tofu with minced pork was very good too.
At times, my mum would cook this at home. She would add minced prawns, water chestnuts and salt fish to the minced pork for extra flavours and textures. She would also fill the stuffings into bitter gourd rings. The stuffed tofu and bitter gourd pieces would then be deep fried for a quick minute before being braised.
Braised pork belly with taro is a treasured Hakka delicacy, probably the best-known dish of them all. The alternating layers of tender pork and fluffy taro with a distinctive seasoning result in an amazingly rich and tasty dish. During marinating, the ingredients – from tau ju (red fermented bean curd), tau cheo (soy bean paste), five spice powder as well as dark and light soy sauce – are given ample time to penetrate the meat and taro. It also takes at least two to three hours of steaming for the meat to be so tender as to melt in every mouthful.
Kudos to the cook, Ah Yin "jie" (sister) for putting such great care in perfecting this distinct dish.
Even the fluffy omelette with chai poh (preserved radish) was simply delicious.
This is one dish that I have enjoyed since childhood especially with a warm, comforting bowl of porridge. When I cook this at home, I would use both versions of the preserved radish (sweet and salted) with a 50:50 ratio. I would also add a little chicken stock to the beaten egg to obtain a fluffier texture. Knowing how to cook this dish well, I was happy that it was done just right here.
The stir-fried cabbage with a generous amount of dried shrimps had the smoky breath of the wok. Although such dishes look simple to prepare, it would take a good cook to "wok up" something that memorable. I was glad I made the trip up the hill. I had the opportunity to sample all these comforting dishes that were of great taste and quality including the cabbage soup.
Next to the table I was dining were five young adults who left almost half of the dishes untouched. I just had to ask why. They claimed that the generous portions were just too much for them, although that could have only been a polite respond. It was such a sad sight seeing good food (to me) being wasted. Being a Penangite, if the food is good, I would polish up everything as a mark of appreciation (even if I am bursting at the seams).
If after the meal you have ample time to spare, take in some cool mountain air and explore the grounds as the last jeep ride down is at 5:00 pm (although you can leave anytime before that). Keep an eye out for a few scenic spots overlooking the village below.
Some basic exhibits in the vicinity provide an insight into Hakka heritage including a wall filled with pictured of noted Hakkas such as Yap Ah Loy, Tan Sri Wong Pow Nee, Lee Kuan Yew and Cheong Fatt Tze.
Accommodation is also available at the Balik Pulau Lodge for recreational camping, physical strength challenges and group training recreational activities.
The biggest draw for me here is the food. Having said that, I hope the classic Hakka yam abacus beads make it into the menu as well as a dessert (such as the “zhi pa” rice cakes) to conclude the meal perfectly.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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31 August 2020
Balik Pulau Lodge (Hakka Village)
61, Jalan Bukit Kebun Kha, Pulau Betong, MK 7, 11020 Balik Pulau, Penang
T: +6016 411 6666, +604 866 9992
Note: dishes might vary from day to day