Nothing stirs an image of the delicious "hawker" food of Penang than a plate of char kway teow, and in Penang itself, that food-obsessed island of the west coast of Malaysia, nothing causes so much discussion as to the best place to buy your char kway teow.
For us less-fortunate souls that don't have the luxury of char kway teow on our doorstep, it's a dish that is with a little care, relatively easy to replicate at home, particularly as the once common charcoal burners are replaced by gas rings on the streets of Penang.
Before the health police turn up, yes I'm using real lard in this recipe! Nothing else will do!
Here's my take on this justifiably famous dish...
10 small dried chillies, soaked in water until soft
2 fresh red chillies
5 shallots, peeled
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
4 tablespoons cooking oil
5 tablespoons of lard
2 tablespoons of chilli paste (above)
2 cloves garlic
200 g medium sized prawns, shelled
1 chinese sausage, thinly sliced
400 g fresh flat rice noodles
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon salt (to taste)
4 eggs - duck eggs for a luxurious version!
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 tablespoon water
200 g bean sprouts
50 g chives (chinese preferably)
150 g cockles (optional)
100g crab meat (optional)
Let's start by making the fresh chilli paste which once made will sit comfortably in the fridge for use in other dishes. Begin by roughly cutting up the chillies and the peeled shallots. Pound together with a large mortar and pestle. It may be necessary to add a splash of water. For an easier method blend using an electric blender. Season to taste with a little sea salt.
Now in a shallow pan, heat the vegetable oil over a medium heat and fry the paste, stirring continuously until fragrant. The oil should separate from the paste. Set aside.
Now to make the kway teow!
Take a large seasoned wok (a seasoned wok is one that has been gradually seasoned through successive coatings of oil over heat, never washed in soap, producing a non-stick surface that actually enhances the flavour of the food) add 2 tablespoons of lard and heat over a medium flame. When hot add the chopped garlic and fry for 20 to 30 seconds until aromatic but not coloured.
Now turn up the heat and immediately add 2 tablespoons of the chilli paste (amount can vary subject to personal preference, but I recommend 2 as a minimum) and continue to stir fry until the chilli becomes aromatic. Once aromatic, add the prawns and the sliced chinese sausage, fry for a further 20 seconds before adding the kway teow. (The kway teow can be sourced from good asian/chinese supermarkets, I'm assuming they are fresh in this recipe. If bought dried, follow packet instructions to soak noodles before frying). Stir fry very briefly, 10 to 15 seconds before adding the light and dark soy sauces plus a little salt.
Quickly make a well in the centre of the kway teow and add a further tablespoon of lard into the middle. Crack the eggs,whisk briefly and pour into the well,seasoning with the ground white pepper. Now allow the egg mixture to set slightly before continuing the stir frying for up to 1 minute. For a richer dish, use duck eggs rather than hen eggs.
Add a tablespoon of water, the bean sprouts, chives and cockles (if using). Cockles have always been used in char kway teow but in recent times have more frequently than not disappeared from the dish as concerns, particularly in Asia, grow over the health risks associated with contaminated cockles. However if you have a good supplier such as your local fishmonger you may still wish to include in the dish.
Stir fry for a further 20 - 30 seconds before serving. You may wish to top off the dish with fresh crab meat
This is a recipe for a minimum of 4 servings. You may if you wish cook and serve separate portions, in a similar manner to the very best hawker practitioners of Penang!
The dish has a number of distinctive characteristics if cooked correctly and authentically. Firstly the colour - the use of the light and dark soy sauces plus the chilli paste give a wonderful light brown colour to the dish. Secondly the dish should have a characteristic charred aroma which can only be created through the use of a well seasoned wok and cooking quickly over a high heat.
The use of lard is critical to the dish which gives an amazing depth of flavour - please don't be tempted to use anything else! Finally the best char kway teow has an even covering of sauce over all of the noodles, best and easiest obtained by cooking individual portions.
This is a fantastic dish, hot and spicy from the chilli but with a wonderful depth from the sauce, noodles and chinese sausage with that great slight smoky, charred flavour!