Dining Out 4 minutes 30 May 2024

Behind the Bib: Ghee Lian in Penang Serves a Unique Take on Green Tom Yum

We sit down and have a chat with Oung Kok Ghee of Bib Gourmand stall Ghee Lian in Penang about his specialty Green Tom Yum Noodle Soup, and finding hope and happiness in life.

History looms large at the old Esplanade in Penang. More than two centuries ago, on this very spot, British adventurer and soldier-of-fortune, Captain Francis Light, waded on-shore to claim the island on behalf of the British Crown. Greeting him as an emissary of the Sultan of Kedah was Koh Lay Huan, the inscrutable Kapitan China (Chinese headman) of Kuala Muda. The Chinese kapitan held out a fishing net as a symbolic welcome gift to his British counterpart — in his Zhangzhou-Chinese dialect, “hee bang” (“fishing net”) was a homophone of “hope”.

Today, where 19th-century British red-coats once patrolled, local families stroll to watch the sunset and catch the evening breeze. They will then eat at Medan Ranong, a bustling food complex perched on the edge of the historic promontory.

Seafood looms large in the offerings of Ghee Lian, right at the epicentre of Medan Ranong. The brainchild of chef-owner, Oung Kok Ghee, 52, and his wife, Ho Ai Lian, 51, the Bib Gourmand-listed noodle stall has the longest queue each evening — a line starts to form long before it opens for business at 6:00 p.m.

The husband-and-wife duo behind Ghee Lian: Oung Kok Ghee (left) and Ho Ai Lian (right)
The husband-and-wife duo behind Ghee Lian: Oung Kok Ghee (left) and Ho Ai Lian (right)

The tall and good-looking Oung was a restless sojourner who’d lost his mother at the tender age of six. Escaping a Dickensian childhood, he left school at the age of 13 to work and fend for himself. He travelled far and wide in pursuit of his love for cooking, always harbouring the “hee bang” — hope — that he will find happiness in life.

In Brunei, the fates finally smiled on him when he met his future wife. Ho Ai Lian was a petite, pretty Sarawakian lass who was to give Oung the love and stability that were previously missing from his life. He was 19 and she was 18 when they tied the knot. The couple moved back to Penang after marriage, where Oung continued to pursue his love for cooking at various dining spots in town, whilst Ho worked as an accounts manager at a famous seafood restaurant.

In 2012, they decided to start their own business. Located initially in the working-class neighbourhood of Perak Road, the Oungs quickly decided to move to the Esplanade, to catch a more high-spending clientele.

While the main offering of Ghee Lian is the Green Tom Yum Soup, other dishes are also available such as Fish Noodle Soup and Fried Bee Hoon with Fish.
While the main offering of Ghee Lian is the Green Tom Yum Soup, other dishes are also available such as Fish Noodle Soup and Fried Bee Hoon with Fish.

Can you tell us how Ghee Lian started?
We went through so much to get where we are right now. We initially started Ghee Lian as a noodle stall within a coffeeshop on Perak Road, offering three types of noodle dishes: one with spicy green tom yum broth, one with a clear broth, and fried noodles. That was back in 2012. But business was slow in that neighbourhood, so we decided to move here the following year.

Why did you choose to offer this range of dishes? And why did you decide to focus on green tom yum noodles?
I have worked in some of Penang’s top Cantonese and seafood places and mastered most banquet-style dishes. But I choose these three dishes because they are what I do best.

The Green Tom Yum Noodles attract many customers. I originally wanted to call it "Green Laksa", but Penangites have this knack of regarding laksa as a “cheap” dish, so I chose to call it Green Tom Yum Noodles instead.

Who came up with the recipe for the Green Tom Yum Noodles? Can you share with us what goes into the recipe?
The green tom yum recipe is my very own creation — all I can say is that eight types of vegetables went into the green paste that forms the base for the broth. I cannot divulge anything more as many parties are trying to second-guess my secret recipe.

Any secrets to your Green Tom Yum Noodles? How is it different from the Thai version?
The main difference is that we use evaporated milk for our soup; whereas Thai green curry uses coconut milk. As I have said, my recipe remains a secret, known only to my wife and I.

The best way to enjoy our Green Tom Yum Noodles is to opt for all three seafood add-ons: prawns, squid, and fish. We use fresh, high-quality seafood, which makes all the difference to the flavour of our dishes.

03 Ghee Lian Storefront.jpg

What were the challenges you faced when you got started? Any present challenges, or which you foresee for the future?
Initially, when we moved here, the majority of diners in this area are beer-drinkers, and they prefer finger foods that complement their beer-drinking. But over time, as more and more people tried our food, they began to develop a taste for my cooking. Nowadays, we have a lot of regular customers who come here specifically for noodle offerings.

Who does the cooking mainly? Do you ever disagree about how a dish should be cooked or served, and, if so, how do you resolve it?
I am the only chef here, as my wife doesn’t cook. Instead, she takes all the orders, collects the payments, and manages all the financial accounts. We have never had any disagreement, ever.

L-R: Ghee Lian's Fish Noodles and Fried Fish Bee Hoon
L-R: Ghee Lian's Fish Noodles and Fried Fish Bee Hoon

What are the other dishes that you recommend from your stall?
We also do a clear Fish Noodle Soup, with a choice of thin or thick bee hoon (rice noodles) or Maggi instant noodles. The soup broth is prepared by slow-simmering chicken parts for added sweetness.

The other popular dish is Fried Bee Hoon, served with crisp, batter-fried fish fillets. The seasoning for the fried bee hoon is my special own blend of different sauces and condiments. Our fish batter seasoning contains a “rempah” (spice mix) which elevates the taste of the fish fillets.

How does Ghee Lian's MICHELIN Bib Gourmand recognition make you feel?
We are very grateful to be recognised by the MICHELIN Guide, as it is a much-respected brand name internationally. We have always had a large local following; but now, with the MICHELIN Bib Gourmand recognition, we began to see a rise in the number of international tourists patronising our stall. Overall, we experienced a 30% increase in our business volume as a result!

05 Oung Kok Ghee.jpg

Can you share what are the lessons learnt from running your business? Anything you would want to change or do differently?
I have gone through many F&B establishments before setting up my own business. I always stick to what I can do best.

In a previous place of work, I noticed how the customers all tended to gravitate towards the Green Tom Yum noodle dish, almost to the exclusion of all other items on the menu. So, I decided to make it my specialty.

For me, the important lessons for one’s business in order to succeed are: one, always work within one’s strengths; two, know your customers; and three, always give them what they want.

Dining Out

Keep Exploring - Stories we think you will enjoy reading