Comfort Food in People’s Court

06 July 2017

Boey Chong Kee in George Town serves hearty Cantonese food accompanied with a trip down memory lane.

Wander off Lebuh Cintra into an unnamed lane, where the famous youtiao (Chinese cruller) stall is, and you’ll find yourself in People’s Court, Penang’s oldest public housing project built in 1961. Tucked in a ground floor corner of this four-storey flat is an unassuming restaurant serving simple, unpretentious and nostalgic Cantonese cuisine, considered to be Penang’s best kept secret by the locals.

Founded in the early 1960s by Boey Chong Kee, the restaurant’s namesake, the business was eventually inherited by his granddaughters, the Chan sisters. This women-run business is the last one remaining of the four Cantonese restaurants set up in People’s Court, all originally from Shunde District, Guangdong, China.

At Boey Chong Kee, watch the sunset in the gentle breeze while activities at People's Court wind down.

Housing no more than 12 plastic tables and minimal decor, the restaurant exudes authenticity with the backdrop of neighbourhood chatter and sounds of mahjong from the flats above. The usual wait could stretch from 45 minutes to an hour and a half; potentially agonising, especially to older folks who frequently dine here. But families with grandparents and toddlers keep coming back for more.

“The best time to dine here is just before 7pm when you can watch the colour of the sky change as the sun goes down. It really is a scene to remember – dining under the purple sky,” Wei Ming, a restaurateur and a loyal customer, shares his fondest moments at Boey Chong Kee. His first visit to the restaurant was as a child with his family. He dines here almost once every week since, often inviting his friends to try out this local gem.

Even with the long wait, Boey Chong Kee is still a local favourite among families and older folks.

Boey Chong Kee is not only known for its delicious meals but also for the generations of personal relationships established by the Chan sisters with their regular customers. Given their oftentimes stoic expressions, especially during peak business, a casual visitor might not expect the proprietors to be the warmest of people. But their casual friendly exchanges with customers in between their busy service prove otherwise.

This ’60s public housing, suspended in a time capsule, gives customers a sense of nostalgia.

The restaurant’s popularity travels by word of mouth. Regulars would whisper to keep it on the hush in fear that Boey Chong Kee would become a tourist attraction. At the time of writing, the Chan sisters declined to be interviewed as they didn’t want more publicity than they already have. Wei Ming agrees: “This place is best kept as a secret for locals to ensure the authenticity is preserved.”

Gaik Cheng, another regular customer, was caught by surprise to see her late father’s memorial invitation pinned to the wall at the restaurant. “The invitation was sent to people who have regularly been part of my father’s life,” she recalls. “Our family had stopped frequenting the restaurant, his favourite dining place, since his passing.” Returning after quite some time, Gaik Cheng found it heart warming to know the sisters still recognised the family despite her father’s absence.

The sweet and tangy sauce of their Gu Lou Yok (sweet and sour pork) is pleasing to the palate.

Of course, the food served here is the main appeal amidst the restaurant’s unique ambiance and the Chan sisters’ reputation. It is no small feat to find a restaurant that serves ngao chap (stir-fried beef offal with ginger) in Penang and the Chan sisters make it as close to the Cantonese original as possible.

You may not find this signature ngao chap dish anywhere else in Penang.

Another signature dish not to be missed is their Hoong Siew fish – deep fried fish head immersed in flavourful gravy with leeks, mushrooms and fried beancurd. The braised duck is also well known for its tenderness and absence of gamey duck meat flavour, and is a popular Teochew dish prepared in traditional Cantonese style.

Boey Chong Kee’s dishes may look simple and effortless but they are packed with authentic flavours attesting their labour of love for cooking. One may wonder if these simple flavours are worth the long wait, but a sip of their flavourful broth will take you back in time to comforting home cooked meals at family dinners. You’ll find yourself back here for seconds and thirds in no time.

Address: C-6, People’s Court, Off Lebuh Cintra, 10100 George Town, Penang (04 261 7672). Open daily, 6.30pm-10pm.

Text by Stephanie Kee
Photos by Adeline Chua

This article is related to FOOD CULTURE PENANG CHINESE FOOD

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