As news of Tai Buan’s closure spread, George Town crowds come for a last taste of its Teochew porridge

Opalyn Mok
·5-min read
A long queue snaked from Tai Buan Porridge along Muntri Street to Leith Street as early as 11.30am in George Town. — Pictures by Steven Ooi KE
A long queue snaked from Tai Buan Porridge along Muntri Street to Leith Street as early as 11.30am in George Town. — Pictures by Steven Ooi KE

GEORGE TOWN, Feb 25 — Tai Buan Porridge on Muntri Street here is used to serving busy lunchtime crowds but the throngs of people who have descended on the shop after news of the shop’s imminent closure spread over social media has been phenomenal.

Owner Ong Tai Buan was throwing up his hands in apology while yelling out, “Sorry, sorry, please be patient” when we stopped by.

For the past two days, the 75-year-old has been kept busy from the moment the shop opens at 11am until it closes at about 3pm.

He was methodically dishing out and chopping the meat for side dishes, while his daughter and wife served customers as a long queue snaked from his shop down to Leith Street.

Ong Tai Buan prepares the side dishes to be served to customers at his stall placed prominently in front of the shop along Muntri Street in George Town February 24, 2021. — Pictures by Steven Ooi KE
Ong Tai Buan prepares the side dishes to be served to customers at his stall placed prominently in front of the shop along Muntri Street in George Town February 24, 2021. — Pictures by Steven Ooi KE

By 2pm most of the side dishes had already run out, leaving only some braised pork belly, preserved salted vegetables and fried dried turnips omelette.

Even with such a meagre choice, customers continued to queue in order to dine in at the shop as Ong had stopped selling to those who wished to order takeaway by then.

“This is madness, I can barely stop for breath and I feel so bad for those who came later when most of our side dishes have run out,” he said as he got ready to close the shop at about 3pm.

Even after 3pm, customers continued to stop by and Ong had to wave them away while telling them to try again tomorrow.

Two days ago, popular food blogging site Penang Foodie wrote that Ong was planning to close his shop on February 26 after 60 years of selling Teochew porridge.

Ong said the crowds suddenly turned up yesterday and today after the news of his closure broke and was shared on social media.

“Many of them came to order takeaway with their tiffin carriers... we initially allowed this but then we ended up with insufficient side dishes and disappointed many others who had queued to dine in so we stopped selling takeaways and only served those who dined in,” he said.

He said it is not fair for those who queued for hours to dine in at the shop only to end up with a poor choice of side dishes.

Tai Buan porridge is served with braised side dishes such as beancurd, pork belly, pork intestines and braised duck.
Tai Buan porridge is served with braised side dishes such as beancurd, pork belly, pork intestines and braised duck.

Ong serves a variety of traditional Teochew porridge side dishes such as braised duck, pork belly, pork intestines, pig’s ear, beancurd, duck liver, gizzard, preserved salted vegetables, salted duck egg and dried turnips omelette.

The last two days with its crowds are very different from the slow business Ong experienced when the second movement control order (MCO 2.0 as it is popularly referred to) was imposed on January 13.

When dine-in wasn’t allowed at the start, Ong said business was very slow as very few customers came to order takeaway.

“Even when dine-in is allowed, we have to spread out the tables to one metre and allow only two people per table how much can we make at this rate,” he said, gesturing to the widely spaced tables.

It has been several years now that Ong had contemplated retiring and closing shop for good so during MCO 2.0, it gave him time to revisit his plans to close the business.

“This old building is in very bad shape and the owner wanted to restore it a few years ago and I was thinking about closing even then but kept delaying the decision till now,” he said.

“I am an old man now, this is not an easy business...I have to wake up at 5am daily to prepare and cook, and I’ll be standing here till 3pm or 4pm daily,” he added.

Ong inherited the porridge business and the recipes from his father, but he is like many other original George Town residents who are conversant in Cantonese, Hokkien and Mandarin.

Ong Tai Buan dishing out the side dishes to be served to customers at his stall.
Ong Tai Buan dishing out the side dishes to be served to customers at his stall.

He can be heard giving instructions in Cantonese to his wife or daughter and switching smoothly to Hokkien or Mandarin when approached by customers who don’t speak Cantonese.

Ong started selling porridge at the age of 15 alongside his father when they were operating a roadside stall along Chulia Street back in the 1960s.

“I started cooking and selling porridge in 1962 when we were still selling from a stall by the roadside in Chulia Street and we moved into this shop here only in 2000,” he said.

He said his father started the porridge business many years before he started helping out so the business could have been around for over 80 years.

“These are all my father’s recipes which I had learnt from him,” he said.

On the closure of his business on February 26, Ong said it is time for the family to take a break before deciding on what they want to do next.

He was coy when asked if they will re-open at another space in town but insisted that he “is a tired old man.”

“The spirit may be willing but the body might not be strong enough,” he said ruefully in Cantonese.

He said the thought of another possible MCO is enough to deter him from immediately renting another shop to operate his business.

“The rental here is still manageable but the rental in other places around town are about RM4,500, how am I going to survive if there’s another MCO and we don’t make enough to cover the rental?” he said.

He said even if he wanted to reopen in future, they prefer somewhere near the current premises along Muntri Street as it would make it easier for most of his regular customers to seek him out.

A majority of Ong’s customer base are regulars who have been frequenting his shop for decades, some even from the days when they were operating at Chulia Street.

He said he didn’t have as many outstation customers compared to his loyal regulars who would come every other day or every week but the numbers dwindled since last year due to the pandemic.

“Let us take a break first for now, we will think about the future of the business later,” he said.

Tai Buan Porridge will be open for two more days and close its door for the last time on February 26.

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