Ah Beng Best Penang Char Koay Teow

Char koay teow is an institution by itself in Penang. Every decent kopitiam, market, food court and pasar malam (night market) will have at least one stall dishing out greasy portions of this staple to diners from early morning till late night. Char koay teow stalls can easily be identified by the clanging of frying ladles against wok, the unmistakeable aroma and sometimes spicy fumes that could choke nostrils to the extent of inducing bouts of sneezing and coughing.

The basic ingredients are koay teow (flat rice flour noodles), taugeh (bean sprouts), heh (prawns), hum (cockles), koo chai (chives), lap cheong (Chinese waxed sausage), hiam cheo cheoh (chili paste) and eggs. What makes one char koay teow unique from another is the sauce and the add-ons such as crab meat, extra large prawns and mantis prawns. I must say that I am not a fan of extra large prawns in my char koay teow, preferring medium sized prawns with a generous portion of koay teow.

The hawkers have their own secret recipes for the sauce which they jealously guard from their peers. It will take more than a generous amount of money and persuasions, gentle or otherwise, to convince them to part with that secret. Apparently, from what I gathered from years of eating char koay teow, the sauce contains a blend of light soya sauce and fish sauce, among others.

Having said that, the clincher for an irresistible plate of char koay teow is, undoubtedly, how well the hawker is able to control the heat in the wok, which the Chinese calls “tiah khee” or “wok hei”, meaning “Qi of the wok”. Too much and everything in the wok becomes charred; too little will leave the dish with a “half-cooked” essence. Getting the wok to that right temperature is a skill that takes years of practice to perfect.

When I was growing up at Jalan Terengganu in Penang, I used to patronise the char koay teow hawker near the small roundabout at Caunter Hall. It was just down the road from where I lived. We all called him Ah Beng although we never knew for sure if that was his real name.

Ah Beng operated from a tricycle cart parked on the pavement. He used charcoal fire which is believed to make the koay teow more fragrant. Whenever he wanted a bigger flame he would tug on a cord to manually spin a small fan that fed more air into the mouth of the stove, and as a result stirred up sparks and embers that added more drama to his frying antics.

Those days, one could bring an egg or two from home to be added to the koay teow without extra charge even though the hawkers had eggs by the trayful at their stalls. That was exactly what I used to do then to get 20 sen off for a plate of Ah Beng’s char koay teow. Try that now and the hawkers would give you dirty looks and may even refuse to serve you.

I have never had a liking for cockles and chives. My usual order would be “mai hum mai koo chai”. And Ah Beng was always generous with bak eu pok (crispy pork lard) which made it even more palatable. There was little space to sit and enjoy his char koay teow where he plied his trade. I usually ordered take away. He would wrap them in used newspaper lined with a piece of banana leaf.

It has been more than two decades since I last had a taste of Ah Beng’s char koay teow. One day, he just did not open for business. Rumour swirled around on the reasons of his sudden disappearance. I was more concerned with not being able to get char koay teow that I grew up eating anymore. I have since moved on to appreciate char koay teow from other stalls. Like they say, the first is the best. No other char koay teow in Penang can quite compare to Ah Beng’s charcoal fired char koay teow stirred in with an egg brought from home. That was simply delicious beyond words.

Live Life Well

It took one and left many shattered in its aftermath. The irreplaceable lost will be felt for a long time. Some cry, some are stunned into silence but the innate agony of even the strongest will inevitably be brought to the surface. Tears will flow freely, whether out of sadness, out of guilt or for affections that will never be felt again, ever.

Death – I have been through six of people who are dearest to me. With each one, I thought the experience would progressively make me stronger in facing the next. I was wrong. With each, I grieved deeper. Now I am the only one left from my parents’ lineage. I try not to think too much about it but with my progressing frailty in health, I could smell it lurking around every turn.

There was a funeral last week. The patriarch of the family that I have known for more than twenty years passed away on Monday. I was privy to the intense grief that followed. Uncannily, I felt detached from all that. Perhaps death does not scare me anymore. I have come to see it as a process of life, which it truly is. We come into this world, we live, and then we die. That is an irrefutable fact.

Amidst all that grieving, a funeral should also be a celebration of a life well lived. For one last time, it should be a gathering of family and friends, coming together to honour the memory of that one person who had touched them one way or another. It should be a time of thanksgiving, sharing gratitude that our lives, whether we realise it or not, have been enriched by the deceased when he was alive. Death may be the end here but it is also heralds another beginning somewhere. A funeral should be a joyous occasion on that account.

Detached I may be from the grief; my being a spectator to the mourning was enlightening in many aspects. Living one day at a time is just not sufficient anymore. That one day must be well lived. It must be infused with meaning and purpose. Death – although it still lingers in my mind and is one leech that is difficult to shake off, it is also an impetus for me to make the best of what I have. Hopefully when I leave, mine will be one that celebrates a life well lived.

One Portrait and a Pipe

Every bend, every tree, every bridge on that road had been embedded in my tender mind. Dad and Mum had taken me on this windy country road many times. I was about five or six. My memories of those times were mostly of whitewashed milestones, inanimate objects, towering durian trees and bamboo clumps rather than of people. The greenery was refreshing. Streams gurgled and birds chirped. I loved it, except for the motion sickness. The windy road made me nauseous.

That evening was different. Mum spoke in a hushed voice. I have never seen her looked that anxious before. Her eyes, they reflected sadness. The road looked different in the dark. Smell, I remembered the smell, of the PVC car seat. I was edgy. It irritated my nostrils. I was getting ill. The only illumination came from the car headlights. Occasionally the flickering glows of fireflies broke the monotony of the dark sheet of black that enveloped everything, everything.

The trees seemed unfriendly, vicious. They rose up like enormous monsters that threatened to swallow us with a single gulp should we stray from the road. All was silent except for the constant whirring of the engine and the incessant eerie screeching of the cicadas. It was all silent. Mum did not say a word. I wondered why, why we were making that journey in the middle of the night. She could have waited till Dad came back from work.

The hike down to the house was a harrowing one. Rocks that were stacked into steps were sometimes loose. I do not remember if I was carried or climbed down by myself. I do not even remember the fifteen minutes journey down. Did Mum cry? I cannot recall. Maybe she did. Did I see the body? I truly cannot remember. But I remember the casket, the edges, the colour, the trimmings. The corners, those sharp corners of the casket, they kept popping up in my mind.

I remember running around the casket in a game of catch. There were flowers. I had to wear black. They were sewn on the spot. The sewing machine never stopped churning out shirts and pants and shorts. I hated how it smelt, how I sweated and how the sweat made the clothes smell worse. It was stiff and tore easily. My cousins all had to wear black too. I was punished by Mum. My cousins complained to her that I threw stones at them. I do not remember the pain but I remember the rotan, thin and supple, and Mum wielding it threateningly at me.

The hearse was a big vehicle. Did I accompany the casket in it? I am not very sure. Maybe I did. We passed Titi Kerawang. We passed the Sungai Pinang town. We passed paddy fields, stilted kampong houses, orchards. These are all a blur as we raced to the church. There was Mass. I did not understand what the priest said. It was taking too long. I shifted uneasily on the hard bench.

At the cemetery, slabs and slabs of granite, polished, stood erect in rows. Some had small portraits. They looked old. At the front row, freshly dug red earth piled up high by the edge of a hole. The casket was put in. It was deep. There were tears, some sniffles too. I did not cry. I did not even feel anything. It was just another unusual adventure. Throwing stones at the other kids was fun. Maybe I will do that again when Mum is not watching.

Those are very scant recollections of the first death that I ever experienced. The emotions of the moment were lost on me. I was too young to understand. What is death? What is life? I hardly knew him, save for the few days that he came to stay with us. As I think back, I mourn for the fact that I did not get the opportunity to know him better. I would really love to be pampered by him, to be patted on the head, to sit on his lap, or just sit beside him and inhale the fragrant aroma of his pipe tobacco.

Pipe, I have that, passed down to me from Mum. The pipe that he had used is one that I will fondly remember him by together with a portrait that was probably enlarged and used for his funeral. A careful scrutiny revealed engravings on both sides of the pipe. On the left is “Invicta Finest Briar” and the right “Allegro Hand Made.” Those are the only precious possesions I have that are his.

He was a war hero too. He helped some British soldiers evade capture by the Japanese during World War Two. He was given a certificate of appreciation. It is a cloth scroll framed and displayed proudly in the house that has become my uncle’s now. That is all I can remember of my Ah Kong, my maternal grandfather. May his soul rest in eternal peace.