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Snapshots from Malaysia: Char Kuey Teow in Penang
"There's a particular drama to vendors who come out at night."
We could smell the char kuey teow stand before we saw it. And we could see the smoke as soon as we smelled it—a smoldering, sultry cloud wafting down Kimberley Street, a prime street food strip in Georgetown, on the Malaysian island of Penang.
You'll find char kuey teow vendors at almost every hour of the day. (Not too many hours after these photos were taken, we got up early to drive out of town for a breakfast of... more char kuey teow).
But there's a particular drama to those hawkers who come out at night. Particularly those still cooking over charcoal fires, rather than gas.
Their fires sputter and spark, fingers of flame licking up the sides of the wok, illuminating the face of the vendor—whose posture is always alert, his movements precise, handling his gear with the exacting care of an athlete or an acrobat. His arms seem impervious to the almost visible heat of the wok. His concentration is both intense and effortless; tossing noodles at this breakneck speed doesn't leave room for distraction, but his movements are so practiced as to seem automatic.
Ah Sean, who mans the wok at this nighttime stand outside the Sin Guat Keong coffee shop, has made a life of char kuey teow, as has his father before him—the older man first set up shop fifty-five years ago. A family business of the purest, simplest sense.
Their trade is in noodles, and nothing else. Add up the number of hours Ah Sean has spent stir-frying this single dish and his practiced ease starts to make sense.
I can't think of a more welcome sight when walking down Kimberley Street at night, after a few beers, dinner a distant memory once you smell noodles frying. In Malaysia, meals tend to be smaller, which suited us nicely. Because there's always opportunity for more.
Char kuey teow shows up all over Malaysia and neighboring countries, but those in Penang claim that their hawkers serve the best. All versions will get you rice noodles stir-fried with soy and chili paste, egg and shrimp, bean sprouts and, often, cockles and sausage. Good versions anywhere are deeply savory and just a bit spicy, the rice noodles tender, the shrimp fresh and sweet. But the best versions are marked by wok hei (or "wok air"), the smoky depth the tremendous heat of the wok imparts—a signature flavor that's impossible to replicate any other way. Ah Sean's are as deliciously smoky as that sparking fire would suggest.
That charred flavor is unforgettable—though given how the charcoal smoke clings to your hair and clothes as you wait in line, you're not likely to forget this meal too quickly. (It's like sitting next to a campfire or a charcoal grill in a backyard cookout. You don't realize how much you smell like smoke until you sniff your sweater the next day.)
Some vendors use pork lard to fry up their char kuey teow, while others use oil. (Devout Muslims, who make up about half of Malaysia's population, don't consume pork; but many noodle hawkers tend to be of Chinese descent, and the Chinese do love their pig.)
Ah Sean doesn't use pork lard. I'm usually not one to take pig-free noodles over those cooked in succulent pork fat. But his stall takes a different savory, fatty approach—they fry the noodles in oil that's already been used to fry seafood. He's famous for deep-frying mantis prawns, and the oil he uses, he claims, picks up some of that flavor.
Whether you attribute it to the oil or to the actual shrimp, Ah Sean's char kuey teow is big on the seafood flavor, the little guys themselves taut and tender, their distinctive, fresh sweetness creeping into the noodles.
Each round is a lightning-fast stir fry—egg, noodles, soy, sprouts, lime, shrimp, done—within less than a minute. Out come the noodles, in go the next round. They're shoveled onto a plate, if you're settling down at an outdoor table...
... or into paper for a more mobile snack. The palm-sized portion fits in your hand just right. It's perfectly portable as you visit nearby vendors (duck soup with pig's blood, anyone?)—or as you just walk down Kimberley Street slurping, completely contented.
I can't think of many better uses of RM3.40. (About a buck twenty-five.)
Char Kuey Teow and Mee Vendor
Outside Sin Guat Keong Coffee Shop
Lebuh Kimberley, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia (map)
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