Char kway teow: A signature taste of Malaysia
Southeast Asia is renowned for its street food, and “nowhere else is street food eaten with more gusto than in legendary Penang,” says Christina Arokiasamy in The Malaysian Kitchen (Houghlin Mifflin Harcourt). The island known as the Pearl of the Orient has long been Malaysia’s culinary capital, and the streets of its main city, George Town, are an open-air food court from morning to night, crowded with booths and pushcarts where hawkers work at woks set over charcoal fires, filling the air with “an amazing rhapsody of aromas.”
Char kway teow, a simple stir-fried dish of flat rice noodles, bean sprouts, egg, wild prawns, plenty of garlic, and sometimes Chinese sausage, is synonymous with Penang street food. Its name means “fried rice strips,” and it’s best made with fresh rice noodles (often sold at Asian markets as sha ho fun). Cooked in oil on a seasoned carbon-steel wok, they gain an “unmistakable” smoky flavor. The only other specialty ingredient here is kicap manis, or sweet soy sauce, which is a cousin to ketchup and sold in bottles in Asian grocery stores. You can also approximate the flavor by adding brown sugar to regular soy sauce until it has the consistency of honey.
You’ll probably make the dish for dinner, but “one of the great joys” of visiting Penang is starting the morning on George Town’s Street of Harmony with a white coffee and a plate of freshly made char kway teow.
Recipe of the week
Penang’s famous char kway teow
1 lb fresh rice noodles
3 tbsp canola or peanut oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 large shallots, sliced
1 fresh red jalapeño, sliced
8 oz large shrimp, peeled and deveined
¼ cup soy sauce, or to taste
2 tbsp kicap manis
½ tsp pure ground chiles or chile powder
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup bean sprouts
½ cup fresh chives, chopped in ½-inch lengths
Run the noodles under boiling water to remove the oil coating. Uncoil and separate the noodles into ribbons, working gently as they are quite sticky and delicate. Set aside.
Heat a wok or large deep skillet over medium heat for about 40 seconds. Add oil, pouring it around the perimeter of the wok to coat the sides and bottom. When the surface shimmers slightly, add the garlic, shallots, and fresh chile, and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 4 minutes. Add shrimp and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes more.
Add noodles, soy sauce, kicap manis, and chile powder. Raise heat to medium-high and cook for about 2 minutes, carefully lifting and gently tossing noodles. Add eggs and cook, gently tossing again, until eggs are fully cooked, about 2 minutes; noodles should no longer appear wet from the eggs.
Add bean sprouts and chives and cook, stirring, until vegetables are slightly wilted. Taste and add more soy sauce if needed. Serves 4.