Universally the Noodle-World is typically divided into two distinct camps: soupy or fried. Every great noodle-eating culture has its own unique fried classics – in Thailand the ubiquitous pad thai reigns supreme, whilst yakisoba proudly flies the flag for Japan, but in both Malaysia and Singapore the undisputed king of fried noodles has to be Char Kuey Teow.
Literally meaning “fried flat rice-noodle”, Char Kuey Teow enjoys enduring popularity through-out both Malaysia and Singapore, manifesting in many delicious guises, accommodating a variety of tastes and dietary restrictions. Sliced fish-cake and bean-curd are popular variations, especially with halal interpretations of the dish, but Char Kuey Teow is at its best when eaten in its most authentic form – Penang-style! Like all hawker-fare in Penang, everyone has their favourite Char Kuey Teow stall, the most popular of these can immediately be identified by the snaking queues that lead to them. In Malaysia one should never be put off by a queue for food – invariably they end in a tasty delight that is always well worth the wait!
Stripped back, Penang Char Kuey Teow is a very simple dish made with just a few well chosen ingredients. With the exception of the noodles, the dish is made up of just 6 vital ingredients: prawns, beansprouts, Chinese chives (garlic chives), egg, Chinese sausage (lap cheong) and blood cockles (see hum), although the latter is often omitted locally due to health concerns (and many a runny tummy!). Lap cheong is an acquired taste and is therefore sometimes left out at the request of the customer. Whilst some of the ingredients may sound intimidatingly exotic, they are easily found at most well-stocked Asian supermarkets, although the blood cockles can be trickier to source. These can be left out altogether or substituted with a less exotic mollusc! I often use tinned clams as a substitute.
Another important component of the dish is the cooking sauce. Even though only a few teaspoons are added to the noodles, the sauce can make or break the dish. Given that Char Kuey Teow is classic hawker-fare, authentic recipes for its soya-based sauce are hard to come by, as the exact quantities and ingredients are often a fiercely guarded secret! I have tried a myriad of recipes over the years, but the nearest I have found to the real thing is from Rasa Malaysia, although I prefer to use slightly less dark soya sauce. Although the below recipe’s quantities are for a single serving, the sauce recipe will yield enough to make at least 10 plates of Char Kuey Teow and can be kept in the fridge until needed.
Ingredients aside, the key to making a decent Char Kuey Teow is technique and a hot, hot wok. A wide, well-seasoned wok needs to be kept searing hot throughout and as a result, only individual portions can be cooked at a time. Given the dish’s ferociously short cooking time (just a few minutes per portion), preparation of all the required components is vital – everything needs to be ready and to-hand when you start cooking. A moment’s hesitation can be the difference between success and ultimate noodle-failure!