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.

Teochew Porridge Condiment Recipe

This Teochew guy does not speak a word of the dialect. My father neither taught me the dialect nor the culture. From a young age, I spoke Hokkien, that being the predominant Chinese dialect in Penang where I grew up. I also learnt some Hakka from my mother and Cantonese from the landlady where we rented a room in Ayer Itam in my early years.

While I am as Teochew as a banana is yellow, I have an inherent love for the simplicity of Teochew cuisine, especially the porridge with its multitude of tasty dishes and appetizing condiments. Teochew moi, as it is popularly known, is light on the stomach yet filling enough to be considered a main meal.

Dishes for Teochew porridge uses a lot of preserved and pickled ingredients. The common accompaniments for the porridge I used to eat are salted duck eggs (kiam ark nui), braised salted vegetables, salted fish (kiam hu), canned fried dace with preserved black beans, canned pickled lettuce, preserved bean curd (tau joo), sweetened pickled mustard (kong chai), salted peanuts, stir fried beansprouts with anchovies and preserved radish omelette (chai por nui).

My favourite is a simple condiment of dried prawns, shallots, garlic, ginger and chilli marinated in taucheo and calamansi juice. I could finish entire bowl of porridge with just that dish. The taste is a mix of sweet, salty, tangy and spicy, its texture accentuated by the firmness of the dried prawns, crunchiness of the shallots and garlic and softness of the preserved beans.

It has been a long time since I last had a taste of this. I got Wuan to make the condiment for me today but could not remember all the ingredients needed. After I had my fill for lunch this afternoon, I suddenly remembered that we left out ginger. Nevertheless, it was appetizing but not something that I can eat often due to the high salt content in the taucheo. For now, my appetite for Teochew porridge is satiated.

Teochew porridge accompaniment - taucheo, dried shrimps and shallots condiment
Appetizing Teochew porridge condiment – taucheo with dried shrimps and shallots.

Taucheo with Dried Prawns and Shallots Condiment Recipe

6 shallots, slice thinly
3 cloves garlic, slice thinly
(3 slices young ginger, shred finely)
1 red chilli, remove seeds and slice thinly

1 tablespoon dried shrimps, remove shells, wash and drain

1 tablespoon whole bean paste (taucheo)

Juice from 1 calamansi (keat la, kat chai, limau kasturi)

Put all ingredients in a bowl, adding the calamsi juice last. Mix well. Serve with porridge.

*By the way, if anybody knows what this dish is called in Teochew, please let me know.

Penang Banana Leaf Char Koay Teow In Ipoh

Wuan had been telling me about how delicious the hawker food is at Restoran New Hollywood in Canning Garden. We passed it many times too on our way to Ipoh Old Town for lunch but have never stopped there for meals. This typical Chinese kopitiam is located along Jalan Lee Kwee Foh. It was only on last Tuesday that we finally dropped in for breakfast. Since we had a lunch appointment with her parents later, Wuan and I decided to share a plate of char koay teow. The signboard above the stall says Penang Banana Leaf Char Koay Teow.

Penang Banana Leaf Char Koay Teow, Restoran New Hollywood, Canning Garden, Ipoh
Penang Banana Leaf Char Koay Teow.
Restoran New Hollywood, Canning Garden, Ipoh.
GPS: N04 36.131 E101 06.564

Wuan paid RM3.30 when our order arrived. It came with vinegared chilli sauce by the side and had the usual ingredients of bean sprouts, cockles and prawns but no chives or sliced lap cheong (Chinese waxed sausage). I am a “mai hum mai koo chai” (no cockles no chives) char koay teow lover. It did not matter to me whether it had chives or not but I would have preferred a few slices of lap cheong to vary the taste. Wuan on the other hand loves si hum in her char koay teow which she happily picked off from the plate. Contrary to the stall’s sign, there was no banana leaf lining the plate. I felt cheated.

My disappointment immediately disappeared when I chewed into my first mouthful. It tasted good although a little on the salty side. The aroma was what I would expect from a good plate of char koay teow. There was no raw smell from the bean sprouts, evidence that it was stir-fried in a well-heated wok. The lumps of egg that stuck to the koay teow made it taste even better.

I did not find any bak eu pok (crispy pork lard) as I picked through the dish. I asked Wuan. It was only then that she told me the food in the kopitiam is pork free. No wonder there were no lap cheong slices as well. This shows that one can cook a good plate of char koay teow without pork lard. It is more important that the sauces are correctly blended and the koay teow stir-fried in a well-heated wok.

I could not get used to having vinegared chilli sauce with my char koay teow. Good thing that it was poured onto the side and not the top. I did not stir it in. That aside, I will definitely drop by again to savour another plate of this halal char koay teow and the other hawker fare in the kopitiam that I have yet to try.