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.
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
- 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
- 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.