Feb 13, 2015 Cheap Eats
One mouthful of the Malaysian noodle dish char kuey teow and you’ll crave it forever.
Illustration by Tane Williams.
Char kuey teow literally means “stir-fried rice cake strips”, which is a far less romantic sounding kind of lunch than char kuey teow, and so I prefer to think that “char” is somehow a kind of universal word, a descriptor understood in multiple languages, and the “kuey teow” just adds a sort of melodic addition to the whole thing.
The emphasis is on the char. The key to this most simple of dishes is that wonderful smokiness, just a slight char to the noodles, that you get from a very, very hot wok — in Malaysian, they call it the “breath” of the wok, and I sort of know what they mean. There’s not much to it: wide, flat rice noodles, soy sauce, egg, a little bit of chilli, bean sprouts and Chinese chives; as a dish, it exists in multiple cultures around Southeast Asia — though it’s in Malaysia, and particularly in Penang, that it has reached its pinnacle.
It’s all in the skill of the cook, that lovely dance of wok and metal spatula and, consequently, the intersection between smoky noodles, salty eggy sauce and crunchy bean sprouts. You don’t want the noodles too soft — the whole thing goes gloopy otherwise. It should be a light brown from the soy, never dark brown — and you should be able to taste just a touch of fish sauce. And, just quietly, it’s best when it has slices of Chinese sausage in it — though this is a frustratingly rare addition in Auckland.
One of the best I ever ate was made by a man on the street in Penang, outside a dishevelled old merchant house. He had a cart and a wok and one gas burner and a couple of plastic tables and stools, and between orders he’d wipe out the wok and when you were done, he cleaned the plastic plates in a plastic tub which he emptied into the gutter. It was a masterpiece of salty and sour and charry bits.
It’s a dish I find myself craving often, usually when I’m up the road in Birkenhead — could you get any further from Penang than the Highbury shops? — going to the Post Shop or the drycleaners, and I walk past Chef Rasa Sayang (25 Mokoia Rd). I can smell the kitchen and hear the clank of the woks and it is all too hard to resist going in and ordering a big pile of noodles and sitting in the window in the sun: theirs has just the right level of smoke, though — sadly — no Chinese sausage.
I’m also particularly fond of the version at Laksa House (11 Kent St, Newmarket), which you’ll find tucked away in the food court below the Rialto carpark, just off a dark alley that smells like a Shanghai wet market — only here they call it “fried kuet tieu”. (They also do wat tan hor here, which is a bit like a char kuey teow, only it comes in a gloopy gravy which you cut through with chilli and soy sauce; it’s a lot better to eat than it sounds.)
At Mamak (50 Kitchener St) — the bustling, bright little shopfront in the CBD’s Chancery precinct — there’s a sign on the wall that says, We Make More Than Char Kuey Teow. Which is fair enough: their chicken curry is legendary as well. Though their char is pretty damn fine.
And then there is the char kuey teow from Blossom Court on Queens Rd in Panmure, where the chefs come from Penang — there’s a map on the wall — and the noodles are beautifully charred, with just enough colour (they’re not too dark) and there is pungent Chinese sausage and a good, strong hit of chilli. I’m guessing they don’t empty the dishwater into the gutter, but it comes pretty damn close.