Consider this a friendly warning- allowing yourself to go on foot through a lane of hawker stalls on a busy food street will have noticeable effects on your senses and it will indeed, raise your appetite to a whirling degree.
The cling clang of pots and the scraping of woks along with boisterous chatter are the usual sounds you will hear in this scene. But it’s what you are bound to see and smell that will have you salivating at the mouth as you go through the rows of hawker stalls set up to deliver you a different kind of culinary heaven. Street food is something that can be found all around major cities in this country and you can bet that we Malaysians love a quick and easy single-dish meal. Not something alien to hawker stall operators who know how we ache and will readily whip a fast one up in just a few minutes. It is within these streets that you can find the Char Kuey Teow.
This noodle-based temptation is the pearl of the island state of Penang. While Penang is in itself the hometown of many great Malaysian dishes especially street-styled ones, it is the Char Kuey Teow that is among the top contenders for being the best. Not so notoriously known but certainly notoriously loved by the locals. So much so that Penangites have done the rest of Malaysia a great service by traveling out of the state to set up shop in other parts of the country so we can all have a taste of this toothsome gem without having to cross the Penang bridge. Although many will still argue that you can only really get the crème de la crème on the island itself.
" Some may like their Char Kuey Teow with extra yoke "
Char Kuey Teow is a Chinese food that is made from flat strips of white rice noodles known locally as Kuey Teow or Hor Fun. This type of noodle is used to make a number of different dishes as it is very versatile to cook. Char Kuey Teow is what happens when you take some Kuey Teow and stir-fry it in lard with juicy prawns, chewy cockles, cuts of Chinese sausages, luscious eggs, crunchy bean sprouts, chopped garlic chives, chili paste and soy sauce. Often the chili paste and soy sauce is a special concoction made by the cooks themselves and may or may not contain a “secret ingredient”. These condiments are essential components of the dish as it sits at the heart of it. Without it, the Char Kuey Teow will not be able to yield that taste of something special. The cooks usually make a batch of the condiments and put it to the side. Every time they need to cook up a plate, the condiment is taken with the ladle to be tossed with the other ingredients in the wok.
Speaking of woks, where one is used for cooking there will certainly be a distinct smell that a wok will emit. The older and well-worn the wok is, the stronger the smell. Even more so when the wok has a charcoal black bottom, a result of a proper beating from intense flames. Believe it or not this will add to the flavor of the dish being cooked. This smell comes from the heat rising from the wok and is called “wok hei” in Chinese. It is one of the subtle but important details that bring Malaysian street cuisine its uniqueness in flavor. In the case of the Char Kuey Teow, it’s a must to fully hit the high note in taste. This is also the reason why you should always have a street-stall meal steaming hot straight off the wok.
There’s also a halal version of this meal which is sometimes known as the Malay Char Kuey Teow. This type omits the pork from the dish and is moister in texture with a whole lot of gravy too. The Malay version can be a bit sweeter than the original Char Kuey Teow and a little less oily as lard is substituted with cooking oil. But this version is still quite tasty, suitable for Muslims and pescatarians.
The Char Kuey Teow can be tweaked here and there according to preference. With an expert cook, even if you add or hold one ingredient or other, it will still come out right. Some may like their Char Kuey Teow with extra yoke. In Penang, it is not uncommon to replace the chicken egg with a duck egg to achieve more gooey gravy. Personally, I like to leave out the cockles simply because I don’t like the texture. In my humble opinion, it doesn’t jeopardize the dish in the least because most of the flavoring comes from the prawns anyway.
This dish however is not all praises and no cons. Some locals recognize it as a rather unhealthy choice because of its high cholesterol content with the egg, oil and lard. But if you take it in moderation (provided you don’t already have a doctor or wife warning you to lay off fatty food for the sake of your heart), one plate should be moderately enough to have once in awhile and shouldn’t cause that big of a protest from your body. I can surely tell you that you won’t hear your taste buds complaining at the very least. You just need to exercise some self-restraint because the aroma alone can test you and make you crave for it all the time. But note that Char Kuey Teow tends to taste super good after a long dry spell without. So when you feel you deserve a fatty treat of something spectacularly palatable, then it’s time to chow down some Char Kuey Teow.