Deliciously authentic Hainanese chicken chop at Hai Onn Restaurant
Hai Onn Restaurant at Jalan Burmah is one of the few Hainanese kopitiams (coffee shops) left in George Town. Although there are two original signages at the entrance of the kopitiam with "Hai Oan", the correct spelling of this restaurant is actually "Hai Onn". This only goes to illustrate how forgiving the owner was in agreeing to carry on with the typographical error in the company name.
At eighteen, Mr Cheah Sit Chuan set sail to Penang, escaping the horrors of war that ravaged his village in Hainan. Not looking back, he was determined to start life anew in this tropical paradise. He first worked at one of the wealthy Nyonya families in Penang where he honed his culinary skills. Together with some partners, they established Hai Onn Restaurant in the 1940s. Following severe disagreements, Sit Chuan eventually borrowed money and bought over the business. His eldest son Sze Phang was born in 1949. Learning all he could from his parents, Sze Phang only took over the business in 1996, continuing to serve authentic Hainanese and Nyonya dishes. He ran the kitchen for 22 years before passing on the helm to his younger brother Sze Phatt. Their sister Soo Moi, who takes orders and manages the front of the restaurant. recalled that their father was insistent that all the family members helped out in running the restaurant. Having said that, some did actually leave the restaurant to carve their own career paths.
My favourite dish at Hai Onn Restaurant is the Hainanese chicken chop. The boneless chicken leg coated with egg is deep-fried and then cooked in a caramel-coloured gravy with onions, sweet green peas, slices of golden-fried potato wedges and tomatoes. Tomato sauce and a dollop of mustard in Worcestershire sauce is served on the side. I highly recommend that one adds all these sauces to the chicken chop for a more robust flavour. Hainanese cooks are often gentle with seasoning, drawing out fresh flavours of the ingredients used. Dishes are often pale looking and they tend to shy away from using dark soy sauce.
One must also order some toast (here only Bengali roti is served) to soak up all the delicious gravy. Besides a knife and a fork, a spoon is also provided, enabling one to scoop up and enjoy the gravy.
At Hai Onn Restaurant, the chicken is not coated with batter or bread crumbs but only with beaten egg, resulting in a soft and tender finish. For the gravy, a roux is first made (a technique I learnt from Mum) before adding chicken stock, light soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and pepper. I can still remember Mum cautioning that the roux must be cooked thoroughly so that the taste of flour is absent in the gravy. When flour is cooked in fat, the fat coats the flour's starch granules. This helps to keep lumps from forming when the roux is combined with stock, yielding a silky-smooth gravy. Mum would first tumis (sauté) a cinnamon stick and some star anises to perfume the sauce. The Worcestershire sauce, which has that salty and sourish umami profile, is distinct in the gravy.
I have always enjoyed the chicken chop here since I was first introduced to it by my late father in the 1970s. I can still vividly remember heading down to town with Dad on his Velocette L.E. Mk motorcycle, clenching tightly onto his belt with my little fingers. Lunches at Hai Oan will always be special, rekindling fond childhood memories. After all these years, the quality and taste of the chicken chop have been consistently delicious. Today, my 20-year-old daughter has taken a liking to it as well and this local gem is her "go to place" for an authentic Hainanese chicken chop.
In the 1920s, the Hainanese were among the last Chinese immigrants to arrive in Penang. Since other dialect groups had already established control over most trades, the late comers ended up as cooks and houseboys (domestic helpers) in British homes and establishments. The Hainanese cooks were taught on-the-job to prepare British dishes and were also introduced to local ingredients and spices. They eventually evolved their cooking repertoire, infusing their creations with local flavours to suit the taste buds of Penangites and the colonial British. Thus, Hainanese cuisine in Penang, and at large, in Malaysia and Singapore, is unique in its own way and cannot be found elsewhere, not even in Hainan Island. This includes the Hainanese chicken chop!
Although common to the locals under the category of “Western food”, chicken chop does not exist in England or other European countries since it is a Malaysian/Singapore innovation. German schnitzel or chicken-fried steak in America are its closest cousins although there are notable differences in the toppings, side dishes and gravy. In the good olde days, local Western food were mostly Hainanese creations and ingenuity as fast-food chains only arrived from the 1980s onwards.
Dining at Hai Onn Restaurant takes one back in time into Penang's nostalgic past. Perhaps, this is why many elderly Penangites still enjoy dining here, savouring familiar flavours and tastes.
Besides the Hainanese chicken chop, other popular dishes at the restaurant include or bak (pork in thick caramelised black soy sauce), inchi kabin (fried chicken), choon piah (deep-fried spring rolls), sambal kangkung, gulai tumis (curry fish with lady's fingers), assam hae (tamarind prawns), stir-fried cabbage with egg, stir-fried bitter gourd with egg, tanghoon (glass noodles) mushroom soup as well as Hailam mee and roti babi.
If you intend to dine here during peak hours, come with a book, good company or a healthy dose of patience. Alternatively, you can make reservations and pre-order to save some time.
Hai Onn Restaurant
53-55, Jalan Burma, 10050 George Town, Penang
Open: 11.30 am to 5.30 pm daily except Mondays
T: +6017-575 6685
Hainanese chicken chop – RM15
PS: Soo Moi noted that she is already in her 70s and there is no future generation to carry on the business. As age is catching up, the Cheah family would eventually call it a day.
Photographed and written by Adrian Cheah
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18 April 2023