Penang

Penang Hokkien Mee/Har Mee (Prawn Noodles)

When I eventually rule the world, one of my first decrees would be to outlaw throwing your prawn shells away – to do so should be nothing short of criminal! Along with pork and chicken bones, prawn shells are the humble building blocks of that lifeblood of cooking: stock.

A prolific and self-confessed Bone Collector, I freeze every scrap that comes my way; and reckon any home-cook would be remiss if they didn’t have at least one bag of bones lurking in their deep-freeze! For all my boney odds and ends, by far my most prized is my horde of prawn shells.

Pure crustacean gold, these precious cast-offs are where the flavour is really at, and are the foundation of one of my all time favourite dishes – Penang Hokkien Mee. Also known as Har Mee in the rest of Malaysia, this simple prawn noodle dish is a masterstroke of hawker food. Made with a combination of bee hoon (rice vermicelli) and yellow noodles, Penang Hokkien Mee is actually all about the broth.

Made with a base of fried prawn shells and heads, the stock is then lightened with either pork or chicken stock. Add to that a dollop of sambal goreng for kick, and crispy shallots for depth, the broth is almost akin to a bouillabaisse on Asian crack, and its just as addictive!

Like all good stocks, the broth takes its time; but other than that, Penang Hokkien Mee is a surprisingly easy meal to make at home. Though the ingredient list may seem intimidatingly exotic, the dish is actually achievable with even a limited Asian pantry,      I was able to reconstruct this hawker classic without needing any specialist ingredients. Other than substituting the traditional topping of kangkong with watercress, the only challenge you might have is the sambal goreng, but this can easily be made at home. There was a time when crispy shallots/onions were difficult to find in South Africa, but thankfully these days they can be found at Woolworths, saving us the effort of frying our own. The hokkien noodles can be sourced from Checkers, but if you can’t find them, feel free to just use the rice vermicelli on its own.

Aside from that, I suggest you start collecting as many prawn shells and heads as soon as you can – because once you’ve tasted Penang Hokkien Mee, there’s no going back!

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For other noodles recipes from The Muddled Pantry, please click here

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Penang Wonton Mee (Dry)

It’s no secret that I absolutely adore noodles, I could eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner – in fact, I’ve done so more times than I care to admit! To my mind they’re the ultimate fast food and I just can’t get enough of them. I would be hard-pressed to pick my favourite, but if I had to chose, wonton mee would perhaps rate as my ultimate noodle, making this the perfect choice for my 100th post!

Wonton Mee DryA childhood favourite and made up of a medley of distinct components, wonton mee is a master-stroke of combined flavours. Rather unsurprisingly, wontons are key, along with addition of char siu and sliced pickled chillis, but there are no hard or fast rules. The interpretation of what constitutes wonton mee is notoriously diverse; the wontons can be boiled or deep-fried, the dish can be served wet (in a soup) or dry (with a sauce). It all comes down to individual preferences and finding a hawker who meets your expectations! Personally I like mine dry with soft wontons, lots of pickled chilli and white pepper – naturally my recipe reflects my own preferences, but you should feel free to adapt it to your own tastes!

Everybody in Penang has their favourite hawker centre and mine was at the back of Pulau Tikus Market. Sandwiched between the textiles stalls and the darkly fragrant meat section, this was the home of my ultimate wonton mee. The mee here had all the elements I loved, plus it was topped off with an enriching thick sauce that was, as far as I know, unique to this particular vendor. I’ve tried to replicate this sauce over the years, but never quite got it right – I guess somethings should be left to the professionals!

Midway on my daily cycle between home and school, stopping at the market for a quick bite was part of my morning ritual. Dressed in my school uniform I would sit perched on one of the many battered tin stools; my feet raised above the ever-wet concrete floor, knobbly teenage knees strained against my ill-fitting khaki school trousers. My order placed, I sat eagerly awaiting my wonton mee fix. The meal was always short lived, devoured in a matter of minutes and washed down with a glass of sweet kopi-o ice – there was no better way to start the day! After checking for specks of errant sauce on my white shirt, I would continue on to school, sated and ready to face the high-school dramas that that invariably lay ahead. I can’t say that I miss my school days, but I certainly do miss those morning pitstops at the market!

So this is my muddled take on a true Penang classic!

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Penang Char Kuey Teow 炒粿條

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.

Penang Char Kuey Teow 炒粿條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!

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