Malaysia is home to some of the best tasting foods in the world, so much so that Lonely Planet named it food destination of they year for 2015. Amongst the food that was said to be a must try is none other than the local delicacy with its very humble origins, the Char Kway Teow, chau gwai diu (炒粿條) in Cantonese, or bilingually as Fried Kuay Teow. This dish hails from the northern state of Penang, the pearl of the orient, which is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This dish has very simple ingredients, and predominantly uses seafood. The main noodle used is the flat rice noodles, hor fun (河粉), soy sauce, dark soy sauce, chilli paste, garlic, beansprouts, blood cockles, prawns, Chinese chives, egg, and pork lard. This dish was created during the colonial days where many of the Chinese population in Malaysia were working as labourers. Originally a Teochew (潮州) dish from Chaoshan (潮汕) in China, the main ingredients of this dish consisted of pork, Chinese chives, fish sauce and soy sauce.1 This however changed when immigrants to Penang started incorporating seafood which was easily available at the time.
This is why this dish consists of many high carbohydrates ingredients and by today’s standards, is slightly on the unhealthy side. People back in the days needed the extra energy supplied from the rich food. The Char Kuay Teow dish was originally created by fishermen who would sell their catch of the day such as prawns and blood cockles. The blood cockles also provided a good source of iron for the people.
There are modern variations of this dish, with king prawns as some of the most sought after specialties. Today, many places add sliced fish cakes as well as Chinese sausages, lap cheong (臘腸), which adds a contrasting meaty sweetness to the dish. Duck eggs used to be a common ingredient as they were cheaper than chicken egg, but today, is not as common as chicken egg as they are pricier nowadays. The reason some would recommend duck eggs is because they add a creamy and rich flavour, when compared to chicken eggs. Some variations of this dish include mantis shrimp, squid, and octopus.
There is no standard of determining if a Char Kuay Teow dish is cooked well, but generally, these things are preferred. The noodle mustn’t bee too thick, and is generally less oily. The prawns must be big and fresh. The garlic must be chopped fine and fried well, and finally, the pork lard is a must. The fire used must have the right thermal radiation, simply known as wok hei (鑊氣) in Cantonese. This Malaysian dish is iconic and has very humble roots. As the ingredients of this dish are so simple, it takes a lot of skill to prepare one to perfection. Simplicity at its finest.
The best Char Kuay Teow in Penang, by my opinion, would be Ah Leng’s Char Kuay Teow on Jalan Dato’ Keramat. This stall serves it with giant prawns and duck eggs, and with a little top up, you can even have a serving of mantis shrimp topping it off. The best Char Kuay Teow outside of Penang, by my opinion, would be Famous Penang Char Kuay Teow in Hutong 10 (胡同十號), Lot 10, Kuala Lumpur.
1. Credit to Mr. Peter Yeoh for some informative facts about the Teochew history of the Char Kway Teow.
For a more comprehensive guide on Penang food, see our Ultimate Guide: Penang Street Food.