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Char Koay Teow

From the streets of Fujian and then to Penang Island and the world - the char koay teow (stir fried rice noodles).

This iconic dish must be stir fried hot and piping before being served - and consumed immediately, for the full effect of flavour and bite.  Unlike those cooked noodles that are prepared hours before and sit in warmed up containers, the char koay teow is a personalised concept - and you can decide what you wish to drop off as ingredients and add as other options. The purist dictates that there must be slices of Cantonese sausages, fresh chives, bean sprouts, a good chili condiment, eggs, garlic, cockles off their shells and fresh prawns. Practicality allows some modification, but essential sauces - soy sauce  in both light and dark versions - are non-negotiable.  Away from Malaysia and Singapore, cockles are usually absent.

Along the streets and in food courts back in south-east Asia, this dish only costs around a tenth of what is whacked to eager beavers in Australian joints.  This could be  a misstatement due to differing costs of living and the quality of ingredients. Still the dish is not deemed kosher in many circles, due to the  use of pork lard when first frying and if added with the lap cheong or Cantonese sausages. The selection of flat rice noodles can be critical as well, for one does not want such noodles to get sticky on the hot wok - and some such shelf produce do.

The right heat level of the cooking oil is vitally ensured before the garlic, pork fat bits and chili paste are simmered to provide the aroma in the very first place.  Rice noodles are separated in looser strands before they can be thrown on to the cauldron.

Why does this dish taste better when sourced from different outlets? Is it because of the way the chef handles the wok and stir, as the cooking heat then affects the bouncing noodles and condiments in a special manner?  Maybe the speed and savvy of the cook when stir frying the noodles can be important. At times, I also reckon it is the pan roasted chili paste that significantly plays a role, for even if we do not want any of this garnish, this dish does taste better with at least a hint of it.  Garlic, sugar, pounded chili paste and dried shrimp paste are mixed in essential proportions to enhance aroma and kick.   There are also many ingredients to prepare before any wok is used. The portion of ingredients for one plate serve is not much, but they must be sorted, sliced and cut in a particular way to provide maximum play and you must never run out of eggs. Like scrambled eggs, the way one throws in the egg contents can be decisive. Fresh eggs are cracked off their shells over the hot wok and then contribute to the final outcome of this dish.  One can never try to stir fry too much in one go.

The ingredients are purposefully prepared in sliced and small versions, so as to absorb the full flavours and make them mouth biting with a texture.

To Penangites and most hailing from Malaysia, char koay teow is comfort food.  Its cousins may be pad thai or south Indian styled fried Hokkien noodles, but they are not the same.  To baby boomers and Gen Y alike, they still form the stuff of roadside suppers on balmy late nights in the home country. I know that this dish is cooked on the streets of Georgetown and somehow get packaged up for the drive to Kuala Lumpur or on a flight to Singapore or Hong Kong.  Such gestures would be met by sniffer cute dogs on arrival at any Australian airport.
Such obsession with food - and casualness of carrying them as airline hand luggage - just lets fly in the face of Australian and New Zealand restrictions on bringing food into their territories.

Back on Penang Island, I do head straight to Ah Leng's along Dato Keramat Road in Georgetown.  In Sydney city centre, the Sayong Curry House at Woolworths Town Hall basement food court and Ipoh on York both have decent versions of this dish.  The best servings of this food item can  be found in many home kitchens I reckon dotted across where the Malaysian Chinese and Singaporean diaspora now are scatted throughout the world.


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