Char Kuey Teow is one of the most iconic street foods found in Penang, Malaysia. This noodle dish comprises of flat rice noodles, bean sprouts, egg, Chinese sausage, shrimp, bloody cockles, and a chile-infused soy sauce all stir-fried together. The smoky aroma is crucial for this dish and comes from cooking everything in a searing hot wok. Because one can find Char Kuey Teow all throughout Malaysia, each region has its own variation on the dish, but many people agree that the Penang version is superior.
Char Kuey Teow was a dish originally meant for laborers because it was cheap and provided lots of energy due to the high fat content. Now, these stir-fried noodles are a casual meal, almost like an equivalent to fast food in the United States.
The recipe calls for making each serving separately. This is crucial! DO NOT try to cut corners and make both batches at once. Trust me, I have already tried. Granted if you do, it won’t be the end of the world, but cooking everything at once in a wok prevents all the ingredients from getting even exposure to the high heat. While the ingredients seem pretty standard, it is this cooking technique that gives the Char Kuey Teow its signature flavor, and high heat plays a crucial role in the flavor of the dish.
The recipe gave a strange tip of soaking the peeled shrimp in ice water with a couple tablespoons of sugar. While I usually would have skipped steps that seem unnecessary, this particular step piqued my curiosity. I noticed that after soaking the shrimp, they cooked with a firmer texture and a hint of sweetness. This step isn’t necessary, but it makes enough of a difference where I would do it again.
Another tip is to use fresh rice noodles. When tossing the noodles with all the other ingredients, you want them to be completely dry but fully cooked. Do NOT use the dried rice noodles. Even if you cook them and let them dry, the noodles will clump and become very difficult to stir-fry with.
Last note! While you can make this dish using oil, lard is essential for the authentic Penang flavor. Use lard if you can, but oil will do.
This recipe is adapted from Rasa Malaysia.
1 oz. seeded, soaked dried red chilies
2 fresh red chilies, seeded
3 small shallots, peeled and sliced
1 teaspoon oil
A pinch of salt
Sauce (mix and blend well):
5 tbsp soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp fish sauce
2 pinches white pepper
12 peeled and deveined shrimp (tip: submerge in ice cold water plus 2 tablespoons sugar for 30 minutes)
1 lb. fresh flat rice noodles, dry with no clumps
1 lb. bloody cockles (extract the cockles by opening its shell)
2 Chinese sausages, sliced on the diagonal
A bunch of fresh bean sprouts, rinsed and drained
A bunch of Chinese chives, sliced on the diagonal
3 cloves garlic, minced
Blitz the chili paste ingredients in a food processor or blender. Stir-fry it in a hot wok with 1 tsp of oil until fragrant. Put it on a plate and set aside.
Clean the wok and heat over a very high flame until it starts to smoke. Add 2 tbsp lard or oil into the wok and add half the portion of garlic, giving it a quick stir.
Place 6 shrimp and half the sausage into the wok. Stir until the shrimp changes color and the sausage becomes aromatic. Then add half the bean sprouts and half the rice noodles. Add 2 ½ tbsp of the sauce and toss to coat all the ingredients.
Push the noodles to one side of the wok, add some more oil to the empty area and crack an egg on it. Scramble the egg and then add about 1 tbsp of chili paste (if you like it spicy, add more) and some cockle clams into the wok.
Stir-fry for a couple more seconds, making sure everything is fully cooked. Add the chives at the last minute, give it a good toss, and then dish and serve immediately.
Home, Dreaded Home
I hate that place, I think as I get off the bus, dragging my feet down the main road that eventually leads to the coffee shop my family ran and lived in. This thought crosses my mind every time I have to come back from boarding school, and I’m filled with dread. As the oldest son, my father expects me to continue to run this business, but that’s far from what I want. I want nothing to do with that place.
I’ll be honest, we are flat out dirt poor. Business isn’t good, and my father, step-mother, three siblings, and two half-siblings have to live in the one room above the coffee shop. I used to have to live in there too before I was admitted to a boarding senior high school. I was lucky. I did extremely well on my placement exam after primary school that got me into the elite boarding school on full scholarship.
I suppose I am lucky in some ways. My father and mother escaped China and fled to Malaysia before Mao Zedong took over, and I was born in Malaysia. If they hadn’t, I would probably be a Red Guard right now. It’s hard to think that the life I’m living right now is better than the one I could be living, though I don’t know how much. I’m going to one of the best schools in Penang. If I didn’t get in and get the scholarship, I could be working in the coffee shop every day rather than just when I have to come home.
But then again, I’m also unlucky in many ways. My mother passed away after having my three other siblings. My father remarried to a woman who’s too pretty, too pampered to do work in our shop, and they had two more kids when it’s not possible for us financially. My uncle, who was more of a father to me than my real father ever was, died two years ago.
I don’t fit in at school, partially because I don’t bother to. I don’t try to make friends because having friends means spending money. Money that I don’t have. Most of the students there are well off. They have luxury to waste time, socialize, spend money. At first, I got made fun of because of my appearance. The few clothes I had are old, worn, and a couple sizes too big. I have to roll the bottom of my pants, and even my belt can’t properly hold up my pants because I’m too skinny. My hair is always a mess. I am always looking tired. Little do they know that I’ve had these same clothes for years, and they are all my father’s. Little do they know that I cut my own hair because I can’t afford a decent haircut. Little do they know that I always look tired because I’m up all night working to earn money. But I don’t want their pity.
My classmates quickly learned that I couldn’t care less about their opinion of me, and their teasing had no effect on me. The only thing I care about is getting an education because that’s my ticket out of here. I’m one of the smartest students in my third year class. I earn the top marks in my math class. I can speak Hokkien, Hokchew, Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. I’m head of the judicial board. This is what I do because I’m desperate. Getting into university in the United State with a scholarship is the only way I can leave Malaysia, and I’ll do anything to get there.
I break out of my thoughts as I smell the familiar scent of oil, meat, and spice wafting from all the street vendors. I grew up around this smell and reminds me of home and all the bittersweet memories that go along with it. I stomach twists painfully as my mouth water. When was the last time I’d eaten? I didn’t have anything today.
I stand there, trying to convince myself to just keep walking, to go straight back home, that buying any food was too much money. But I can’t make myself leave. I know that if I go to the coffee shop, there won’t be food. At least not enough to feed an extra mouth. After a few more minutes of debating, I give up and approach the vendor selling char kuey teow.
“One char kuey teow, uncle,” I say in Hokkien, the Chinese dialect everyone around here speaks. I hand him three ringgit, the typical price for a single serving.
He eyes me up and down before she nods and turns to prepare the noodle dish in a greasy-looking, black wok. My stomach rumbles as the air fills with the aroma of pungent garlic, the sweet Chinese sausage, and the salty soy sauce. A few minutes later, he waves me over and hands me a larger than normal portion of the stir-fried noodles. As I reach into my pocket for another ringgit, he shakes his head and places the food into my hands.
“Eat up. You need it,” he orders.
“Thank you, uncle,” I bow gratefully before sitting by the side of the road to eat my first meal of the day.
I am so hungry that I am half done with the entire plate before I even think about my siblings and how they would love some char kuey teow. They probably haven’t had any in years. I immediately feel guilty. I’m enjoying the food all by myself while my siblings are probably at the coffee shop waiting and hoping for leftovers.
Ignoring my still-hungry stomach, I pick up the rest of my char kuey teow, bow again to the vendor, and take off at a faster pace to the coffee shop, now motivated to bring my siblings the food. After a couple minutes of walking down familiar roads, I stop in front of our shop. It is past dinner time, and I can see a few straggling customers through the window. That is a good sign.
As I step into the shop, the doorbell dings, and my father and siblings’ eyes dart to the door, hopeful for another customer. Father quickly nods a brief hello and immediately gets back to washing the dishes. My step-mother is nowhere to be seen. My younger brothers give me a grim smile saying that they are glad I’m back and tell me that my sisters are cleaning upstairs. I hand them the rest of the now-cool char kuey teow, and their eyes widen in surprise, their smiles turning a little brighter.
I touch their heads affectionately and smile, attempting to hide how much I loathe coming back, how every time I see them, they remind me of how selfish I am being for wanting to abandon this life and be free of my family burdens. But there is no way I can stop myself from wanting freedom.
I am leaving, I firmly told myself. The thought of my submitted university applications bounce around in my head. And I won’t ever have to come back to this.