Fried kway teow nostalgia

Freshly fried kway teow from Hawkers Delight
at Subiaco Market, Perth, Australia
Back in late 1960s to the 1970s there was a coffee shop situated at the corner of Jalan Ngee Heng and Jalan Gereja that was a popular destination not only as a kopitiam for coffee and kaya toast but also for freshly fried kway teow or flat rice noodles from a mobile hawker.  There must have been an arrangement between the two entrepreneurs because the fried kway teow hawker clearly complimented the coffee shop business with his fried noodles, served from his stall parked in front of the shop.  Every weekend, especially before or after church services, church-goers to the nearby churches would make a stop at this coffee shop for the fragrant noodles.

A 1968 photo taken during the annual Chingay procession
along Jalan Ngee Heng with that coffee shop at far left
I’m familiar with this kway teow hawker because our grandfather or Ah Kong’s house was at No. 154 Jalan Ngee Heng, just two blocks from this corner coffee shop.  This hawker seemed to be an extension of the coffee shop as it was absolutely normal for customers to have a drink in the shop and order noodles from this mobile stall.  While I enjoyed the taste of this char kway teow, it was much later that I learned to differentiate his recipe as the Teochew style of stir-fried flat rice noodles.

Ingredients for stir-fried kway teow may vary but the Teochew recipe is distinguished by the distinct flavour of thick sweet dark sauce, made from a traditional brew of molasses, sugar and caramel.  The noodles also feature ingredients like sliced Chinese sausages or lap cheong, crunchy bean sprouts and another distinguishing item, cockles or see hum.  I cannot forget the sight of scalded and shelled cockles that looked red and bloody, ready to be added to the noodles as the final ingredient for a quick stir-fry before the kway teow is dished out and served.

I’m told that connoisseurs of fried kway teow in Johor and Singapore have a tradition of ordering a mix of flat rice noodles with yellow noodles because the blend of two noodles tastes better.  And yes, one of the ingredients in this hawker’s char kway teow is the liberal use of pork fat in crunchy cubes of lard that added a distinctive flavour to his noodles.  But with the worldwide introduction of char kway teow to food fans, there are now many delicious halal versions that do not use any pork or lard.

Since this noodle stall was just a short walk from Ah Kong’s house, my cousins and I were often sent out to tah-pau or buy a takeaway.  The hawker was so familiar with us that we could even bring along our own eggs to stir-fry into our order of char kway teow and pay a lower price for it.  There was usually a queue to wait for our order but we would be entertained while the hawker put on a big show by deftly wielding the ladle in the wok, cracking the eggs and twirling the sauce bottles with such a flourish not unlike a skilled bartender, that we dubbed him the Action Man! 

Hawkers Delight at Subiaco Market, Perth, is serving
up a menu of delicious Malaysian street food
In Johor and other South East Asian countries where street food is readily available at almost all hours, we can pick and choose where and when and what we want to eat.  Recently when I was in Perth, Australia, I observed how Malaysians who live abroad long for the authentic taste of freshly cooked hawker fare and this Teochew fried noodles came to mind.  When there is limited local street food, the quest for good Malaysian rice and noodle dishes abroad is like a perpetual search for a favourite comfort food!  

One weekend in Perth, my nephew and his wife took me to Subiaco Market where there is a collection of food stalls that sell fresh and cooked food.  Among the cooked food are stalls that serve Spanish paella, French pastries, Indian breads, Italian pasta and even a halal Malaysia food stall for satay, rendang and briyani rice. 
Some of the items on their menu
Our destination, however, was Hawkers Delight, a stall that serves a menu of Malaysian rice and noodle favourites like Ipoh hor fun, Penang prawn noodle, Hainan chicken rice, nasi lemak with a side of sambal as well as fried kway teow.

After a glance at the price list, I must admit to spontaneously trying to convert the sums back to Malaysian Ringgit just for comparison.  But when we are so far away from our favourite hawker stall in Johor, the desire for that familiar taste outweighed the price and we went ahead to place the order for char kway teow. 
On that wintry day it took just a few bites of this freshly fried kway teow to conclude that its flavour closely matched the fragrant noodles by our Action Man hawker of Johor Baru, even though we paid A$10 (RM30) for this plate! 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 10 October 2013

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