Thursday, March 03, 2011

Penang Char Kuey Teow (炒粿條)

The last time I ordered Char Kuey Teow (fried flat noodle) at our Yishun neighborhood food court from an unfriendly and grumpy looking Penang hawker food stall owner (who I seriously doubt is from Penang), the episode went like this.

"Uncle, can I add extra chili and 50 cents more kuchai?" I ventured.
His faced twitched slightly, with what I thought was annoyance. "50 cents? No 50 cents! Add one dollar only can."

Too tired after a day's work and a long train journey back to argue over the price of chives, I concurred feebly and with much hope, looking forward to two packs of hot, steaming flat rice noodles, loaded with the gentle garlicky aroma of kuchai.
"That'll be 10 dollars, 2 dollars for extra kuchai."


I paid, went home, opened the packages and then said something which would be inappropriate to mention here. With a mere few strands of limp looking Chinese chives almost lost in the tangle of noodles and bean sprouts, one can forget about any expectations of flavor they were supposed to contribute to this timeless Chinese street food fare. That was the last straw for me as I threw up my hands and asked Vijay with much exasperation, "Do we have to cook everything ourselves around here?"

You see, chives skimping issue aside, we've been hunting for a good Penang char kuey teow here for awhile now, following the recommendation of a certain highly regarded Singapore food guide. There was that very old uncle at Serangoon Gardens who has been doing it for so many years, his no-longer-so-strong arms required his entire body to sway left, right and center as he dished out plate after plate of noodles whole day long. When his wasn't quite what we were looking for, we ventured further to Outram, seeking a version closest to the ones we've had in Penang. Weary of the sweet dark soy sauce which seems to plague all the char kuey teows we've eaten here, we asked for it to be omitted. That didn't work so we ordered another plate with less dark sauce and got a plate of sweet, charred noodles, a far cry from the savory type we so badly craved. Further excursion to another hawker center at the East brought more disappointment as we were given a plate of stirred but hardly fried, wet, slushy and wait for it...

... sweet kuey teow.

Why go to such lengths just for a plate of salty instead of sweet fry-up you may ask? Can't you just live with it and adjust your taste buds to that of the locals? Well, we grew up with what we tasted as good char kuey teow and the blueprint of that taste is etched in our minds. Like Singaporean Shirley and her Malaysian partner sometimes still favor the food from their respective homelands, we tend to gravitate towards what we ate as a child, from the morning stalls of the wet markets we frequented or the eating shops behind our parents' homes.

There are definitely good adaptations of Penang char kuey teow out there in this island of food paradise. It's just that we have to cook it ourselves to get the sweet dark sauce out of the way. That, and the fact that Bee has this authentic, rock-and-roll and step by step recipe which I've bookmarked for ages since my friend Najah first referred to it. So last weekend I pulled my first hawker fare stint in our kitchen because there was really no more excuses not to. The ingredients were easy to find (although I stuffed up by using Ipoh flat rice noodle instead of the wider normal ones), I have not one but two full-size woks (one is for steaming) and a huge stalk of Chinese chives goes for 85 cents at our supermarket. The cockles were on the tiny side but Vijay didn't mind and I don't eat them but the prawns... oh the prawns, they were fresh, springy and fat.

Bee's recipe provided all the necessary tips for success but may I add just a few more. First, always make your own chili paste. That bowl there cried hot and sexy to me, I love my chilies. I admit I was tempted to eat a bit of the chili paste on its own before frying up the noodles. Vijay noted that it looked potent - his bowels has a weak defense against chilies - but he would willingly polish off a plate of spicy char kuey teow and suffer later. Next, control the portions of noodles when cooking. I was too enthusiastic to prepare Vijay's normal serving size at one go, I forgot about the recipe. The egg versus noodles ratio went out of whack and he preferred the version my plate with less noodles. If one portion of this recipe is insufficient, cook the individual plates of the expanded recipe separately to be shared later. Controlling the quantity of ingredients in the wok allows you to quickly fry up the noodles with the already limited domestic stove wok hei (鑊氣) and not overcook the seafood.

Finally, watch that fish sauce. Just a little too much will render your char kuey teow to taste more like pad thai than its Malaysian cousin, not that that is a bad thing, but then pad thai would call for some lime, cilantro, peanuts, tamarind juice and its own respected place at Life is Great.

Now just in case if you're wondering how the Singaporean version of char kuey teow would taste like, why not give this or this a try?
Penang Char Kuey Teow (炒粿條, Penang Fried Flat Noodles)
Adapted barely from Bee's Rasa Malaysia. Head over for the step by step photos if you're trying this for the first time.
Serves 2

Note: Changes to the recipe - I added garlic to the chili paste and omitted the Chinese sausage in the noodles. The cooked noodles should remain moist (but not wet) and just slightly charred. The prawns should be done just as the noodles and eggs are so avoid using prawns which are too small. If you like your cockles to be cooked more, put it in before adding the egg. The quality of soy sauce also matters so do get the higher grade of light soy sauce if it's available to you.

  • 12 shelled prawn, submerge in ice cold water plus 2 tablespoons sugar for 30 minutes

  • 1 pound fresh flat rice noodles, completely loosened and no clumps

  • 1 pound (weight with shell) bloody cockles, shelled

  • a bunch of fresh bean sprouts, picked, rinsed with cold water and drained

  • a bunch of Chinese chives, 1 inch of the bottom section removed and cut into 2-inch lengths

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced finely

  • 4 tablespoons oil for frying

  • Chili Paste

  • 1 ounce dried red chiles, seeded and soaked in water

  • 2 fresh red chilies, seeded (I kept some seeds in for more heat)

  • 3 small shallots, sliced

  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced (optional)

  • 1 teaspoon oil

  • A pinch of salt

  • Sauce

  • 5 tablespoons light soy sauce

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons dark soy sauce

  • 1 tablespoon sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce

  • Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 2 dashes white pepper powder

Mix all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and blend well. Set aside. Blend all the ingredients of the chili paste in a mini food processor until fine. Heat up a wok with 1 teaspoon oil and fry the chili paste until fragrant. Dish out and set aside. Clean the wok thoroughly and heat it over the highest heat your stove allows until it starts to smoke. You will be cooking with this high flame throughout the entire cooking time.

Put 2 tablespoons oil into the wok and add half the portion of chopped garlic. Do a quick stir. Transfer six prawns out of the ice water into the wok. Stir quickly with the spatula until the prawn starts to change color. Add half the bean sprouts into the wok. Immediately follow with half portion of the flat noodles. Add 2 1/2 tablespoons of the sauce mixture into the wok and stir vigorously to blend well. Push the noodles to one side and add a little oil on the empty area. Crack an egg on it. Break the egg yolk and stir a little to blend with the egg white. Flip the noodles over to cover the egg and wait for about 15 seconds.

Add about 1/2 tablespoon of chili paste (add more if you like it spicy) and half the cockles into the wok. Continue to stir-fry, making sure the egg is cooked through. This should take just a few seconds over high heat. Add in half of the chives. Do a couple of quick stirs, dish out and serve immediately.

Repeat the same to make another serving of the noodles using the remaining half of the ingredients.


  1. As a Malaysian, I much prefer Penang CKT! That's the one I grew up with and am still chowing on! I remember when I first tasted the SG version in SG, I was like, "Why is it so sweet geh?" I can't stand the sweetness! Even the wanton noodles there ... OMG, so sweet!

    Yea, it's nice to note the portion of food to be flash-fried in the wok. Really can't overcrowd the space there. That was why my CKT experiments failed when I was in the U.S. Haha!

    Great post! Penang Char Kway Teow is still dearest to my heart. Must be our stubborn palates! Haha!

  2. Just found your blog and its great! i'M ALREADY MOUTH WATERING! Great job! and the pics are amazinha!


  3. Kayla @ Fitter Than ChocFeb 2, 2012, 3:46:00 PM

    I remember having Penang Char Kuay Teow when I was living in Malaysia. When my family moved to Singapore, it became something that I yearn for every now and then. That said, I am happy with the Singaporean Char Kuay Teow. I can't wait to have it when I go back to Singapore.

  4. Love CKT penang style! KL style CKT is the one with lots of dark sauce, much prefer Penang style. I've never tried SG style though, but I can imagine it being sweet. I tried Hokkien noodles in SG once and it was really sweet!


  5. Pei Lin: We're generally OK with the Singaporean dishes here as we accept that they evolved based on the taste of Singaporeans. It's just that when some places market themselves as Penang CKT or Penang hawker food stalls we expect the food to taste close to if not exactly the same as what Penangites are eating. I have been here for over 4 years now and am happy to report that you can find decent wanton noodles which are not sweet and void of tomato sauce. Also a lot of neighborhood chi-char stalls are operated by cooks from Malaysia.

    marta: Gracia.

    Kayla: There's also the KL char kuey teow - like Singaporean but minus the sweet dark sauce. I grew up with that as most of my weekend breakfasts.

    Ann: Don't get me started on Hokkien Mee in SG. That's a whole other issue I have here and will probably talk about in another post. I like both Penang and KL char kuey teows. When I was in KL I had no problem finding good versions of both. Can't say the same here, so that's why we fried up some ourselves even though it caused our whole flat to smell like the chi-char place downstairs.

  6. I do like both Singaporean and Penang CKT. Both have its own distinct character... Luckily even my BF recognizes that the Singaporean version has a nice caramelized finish to it . There was once when I was in Penang and I had CKT every day! Devoid of the sweet dressing, wok hei plays such a important role for the Penang version. One mouthful and the fragrance from the wok hei lingers... Looking at your creation, it tempts me to try making this myself too...

  7. I've got to make this. What a great recipe! Isn't it crazy how much better we can make dishes at home?


  8. I have to make this. What amazing flavors! And I understand that disappointment when finding out food isn't what it should be like your episode with limp chives Fabulous recipe. It's on my list.

  9. Beautiful photography! This looks like a tasty dish!

    Great blog; happy I found you!

    Mary xx


  10. Shirley: We are a bit picky when it comes to food I must say - I don't always think that's necessarily a good thing. After 4 years for me here and 7 years for Vijay, we still constantly look for nasi lemak, CKT and other dishes close to our versions - most of the time cooked by Malaysians. That said, I love the sliced fish soup and bak chor mee here done the Singaporean way. Like you said, we can discuss about Singaporean versus Malaysian versions of food and not come to any conclusion other than it's just a personal preference yes? Regarding the highly coveted 'wok hei', Vijay actually mentioned we should get one of those larger single stove hobs that hawkers use to achive a higher BTU (his mum's house in KL has one, used to cook feasts during Diwali etc.) I highly recommend that you fry this CKT as soon as possible.

    Laura: Yup, nothing beats making it yourself at home with fresh ingredients. The only downside is we can't really create that pit-style stove 'wok hei' at our tiny HDB flat.

    kellypea: Thanks to Rasa Malaysia for the recipe. Head over for more Malaysian dishes.

    Mary: Thanks for dropping by. Do try the dish.

  11. Penang CKT is always the best (in my heart, mind and soul). That's what I grew up eating. I love mine with some Chinese sausage. Thanks for sharing your experiences in finding a great PG CKT in Singapore. Guess I can only get my CKT fix when I'm back for holidays.

  12. Lai Kuan, thanks for dropping by. Where in KL do you get your CKT fix? I don't know the famous places because I like what my late father always bought from his Sunday wet market.

  13. Ellie (Almost Bourdain)Feb 2, 2012, 3:53:00 PM

    Pick Yin, this CKT looks sooooo good. I love my CKT to be spicy. Really really spicy :)

  14. Ellie: Yeup, so do I. The chili paste from this recipe will only fry 3 plates for us. Do try it, I'm sure you miss it very much as well. Looking forward to your nasi lemak recipe.

  15. I can't wait to try it! Just hope I'll be able to find fresh flat rice noodles... Once I do, I'll get cooking :)

  16. Oh my goodness gracious! This is so droolworthy that it is beyond my words. Love chives, (whatever the issue is :D), love prawns and that spicy sauce looks lips smacking good - the kind that makes me want to dig my finger in and lick it. I could even just have the prawns and the chives and the spciy sauce.


  17. Louiza: Flat rice noodles are quite common in Asian markets around the world, get fresh ones whenever possible.

    Soma: I totally agree. The reason I like CKT so much is probably because of the chili and chives, definitely not the cockles.

  18. Hi, great post! I'm a Singaporean that abhors dark and sweet char kway teow, so I know how you feel, lol.

  19. Anon: Thanks, that's a new one for me. Hope you've tried the Penang and KL versions.

  20. Found your blog while researching for Char Kway Teow recipe and I must say you do have a very interesting blog with nice photos (kudos to Vijay, your loyal kitchen sidekick).

    Originally from Perak, Malaysia, I do like our style of CKT which is a bit darker, but the Penang CKT takes the cake! I used to live in Singapore for 10 years, never really took to the "sweet" taste of the Singapore style, not crazy about the yellow noodles mixed in (I was told it makes it easier to fry). But that is just my own personal taste, I guess.

    Keep up the good work and I will be reading your blog often!


  21. Anon: Thanks! Some people to like to have mee mixed with kuey teow for textural difference while eating. To me it depends on what kind of kuey teow you use for frying. Fresh and well oiled kuey teow is easy to fry.

  22. So inspired by this post that I made Char kway Teow (Malaysian style) yesterday for dinner. Smoked up the kitchen good, but the end result was worth it!!

  23. Hi, I'm Singaporean born and bred but have always preferred the Penang style of CKT. I remember as a child, the highlight of holidays to Penang was the CKT. I also prefer Penang laksa to Singapore/lemak laksa. But when it comes to Hokkien mee, it's the Singapore style for me.

    Have you tried the Malaysian hawker stalls at Resort World Sentosa? The Penang CKT there is pretty good.

  24. Lila: No I haven't. My current favorite in SG is from Gurney Drive, the place at T3 and AMK.

    Regarding Hokkien Mee, I only eat the KL version - black, fat, full of pork lard. Have you tried? The SG version with prawns and taugeh doesn't do anything for me. :)

  25. I tried to get my mom to make something like this when I was younger but it was to complicated for her. What restaurants can I go to that would serve this type of dish? Is Penang Char Kuey Teow a common dish ordered? I don't know much about non western foods.

  26. Hi Pick Yin,

    Haha just reading all the posts about how bad Singaporean char kway teow and Hokkien mee is compared to Malaysian ones. I'm Singaporean and I couldn't agree more! lol...

    Btw, been trying to figure this out and hope I haven't been misreading your blog- so you're actually Malaysian living in Singapore but mostly make your own food?? Just curious! Initially I thought you were Asian and living overseas in a western country, because it's normally people like that who have no easy access to al the good and tasty local hawker fare food that would make this kind of food from scratch. I must say I find you very intriguing! I'm Singaporean living in Sydney so you can imagine how much more worse it is for us to find authentic Malaysian/SG food here without having to do it ourselves. So you guys are v fortunate on that! Hehe. That said, I must try your dishes here. Will let you know how they went.

  27. This is great article
    Thank you for the recipe
    I will try to cook

  28. Just made this for dinner and it was amazing! Thank you for sharing. We had lots of leftovers and the chilli paste added an extra punch to the CKT. The recipe is a keeper!


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