Sunday, August 31, 2014

Char Koay Teow


Penang is famous for its food--and that might be putting it mildly.  Part of the reason is the astounding variety: long being an important trade stop for merchant ships, the city's population is a grand mixture of cultures.  There are the native Malay peoples, Chinatown, Little India, as well as smaller groups from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Armenia, and Europeans from the days of British colonialism.  Added to that, Penang isn't too far from the Thai border... It seems on nearly every street you can find several of the above cuisines or an interesting combination thereof.

Besides seeing the famous mansions, temples, and colonial buildings, trying the local specialties is part of the traveler experience in Penang.  As I entered the old fort earlier in the day, I passed a rack of brochures and picked up one about Penang food.  It helpfully describes and shows pictures of various dishes, as well as giving a list of restaurants known to serve a delicious (it's hard for me to write that word seriously anymore; it's so overused by my Chinese students) version of each, and a map showing where all these restaurants are located. 

From the pictures, I chose Char Koay Teow for tonight's adventure.  After a bit of confusion (the map they so kindly provided wasn't exactly accurate...), I stumbled upon one of the recommended establishments, Ho Ping Cafe. It was little more than street food with tables and drinks in glasses instead of bottles. To save myself a bit of mental strain, I'll just quote the brochure's description:

"The ever fragrant, garlicky and rich Penang Char Koay Teow holds a revered place in the hearts of foodies all over Malaysia.  Around the world you can find Char Koay Teow eateries bearing the title 'Penang Char Koay Teow' in hopes of trying to woo in customers based on the promise of a morsel of Penang's famous street food.  The secret behind a plate of heavenly Char Koay Teow relies on the heat of the wok: the higher the heat, the tastier the koay teow.  The flat rice noodles are fried in an iron cast wok over very high heat to be able to achieve a slightly charred and smoky aroma.  Oil is added into the wok followed by a small amount of minced garlic and fresh prawns. Noodles are added in, followed by a dash of seasoned soy sauce, bean sprouts, egg and chives.  The last ingredient is the cockles.  Some outlets include crunchy bits of lard and slices of pork sausage in their Char Koay Teow, so look out for the halal sign [many Malaysians are Muslim, and thus don't eat pork] before making your order. With big prawns, each plate costs from RM7 to RM9."

I did enjoy mine, although it wasn't quite as flavorful as I'd hoped. I think it needed a bit more garlic and maybe a slightly hotter wok. Then again, I paid only 5 ringgits, less than the brochure predicted. I left behind the cockles on the plate, but everything else blended well.  Char Koay Teow (I'm really getting rather tired of typing that) is an enjoyable and filling dinner, but not oh-my-goodness-I-can't-stop-eating-this level. 

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