Monday, January 14, 2008

Gurney highs and low

Penang Post #3. The locals we met all shake their head when we mention the words “Gurney Drive” and “food” in the same sentence. Their usual rejoinders contain “tourists”, “rip-off”, “stupid” and other words to that effect. However, Song River Café manages to still maintain some street cred among the locals.

We strolled there after our first dinner stop at Pulau Tikus market, hoping that the 20-minute walk would help extend our eating capacity! It was a relatively quiet Tuesday night, good for sampling the char koay teow there, painstakingly stir-fried one plate at a time by a middle-aged lady who had time for a quick smile as she took my order.

Penang char koay teow is one of the standard bearers of the island’s street food. It is basically stir-fried flat rice noodles with oil, soy sauce, garlic, bean sprouts, chives, chilli paste, an egg and cockles, cooked in a large cast-iron wok sitting on top of a red-hot stove, preferably, using charcoal as fuel. Some might consider sliced fish cakes and lup cheong (Chinese sausage) as standard ingredients too. A few hawkers offer jazzed-up versions with squid and other seafood. [For the googlers out there, I am using the Penang spelling of the dish – koay instead of kuay or kway.]

It is the mission to find the perfect char koay teow and assam laksa that drove J to the island. I too favour the Penang version (using only light soy sauce and fried very dry, without sauce or gravy) over the fast-disappearing darker Kuala Lumpur version (which, I admit, has its charms) and the sweet, dark and wet bastardization that Singaporeans love so much.

The Song River lady’s version was remarkably tasty considering that she was quite restrained in her deployment of oil and soy sauce (J said she wouldn’t have minded a tad more of the latter). The koay teow was smooth, the bean sprouts crunchy (a not easy feat since it cooks quickly), the prawns large and juicy, the lup cheong not overcooked. We were off to a good start!

We ordered two other dishes, a fried oyster omelette (oh chien, above) and a bowl of prawn mee. The oysters were succulent, but we found the eggs much too starchy – hold back on the flour, bro! However, there is greater variation in how oh chien is prepared (unlike char koay teow), and different folks swear by different iterations of this dish. J couldn’t stop thinking (rapturously) of the one we had in Klang

… with its wonderfully thin and crispy crepe-like edges (above, the photo not doing justice to it at all). We also had a curious (at least to us) version sometime last year in a Bangkok Chinatown alley …

… where the omelette and oysters were separated coyly like young boys and girls at their first school dance. J, not a fan of oysters cooked or dried, picked at the eggs, and left it to me to finish the mound of oysters that August night. *Burp*.

Song River’s would turn out to be the only plate of oh chien we had during our four-day stay in Penang, which was a pity, but reflected the hard choices we had to make when faced with the astonishing variety of street food on offer.

I tried ordering our bowl of prawn noodles, or hae mee, with extra spare ribs (which the vendor had) and small intestines (no luck there, the vendor complaining about how in these health conscious days, fewer folks are ordering these ‘spare parts’).

The success of this soup noodles lies largely in the stock – made from carefully boiling deep-fried prawn heads, shallots, a cook’s own concoction of sambal paste, and bones, bones and more bones. Garnishes include fried shallots, hard-boiled eggs, prawns, ribs, bean sprouts, kangkong, chicken meat and the increasingly hard to find intestines. I had given up on eating hae mee in Singapore – so many of the hawkers there are making their stock from a paste sold by a large chain. But Song River’s regained my faith in a well-made soup – complex and flavourful, with the right balance of prawn and pork bone flavours, spiced up with just the right amount of chilli.

Our night ended in disappointment, though. We had foolishly ventured into the very touristy Gurney Drive hawker centre, hoping that the famed Ah Meng char koay teow would live up to the hype. The signboard bore a line drawing of the veteran master, but he was not manning the wok. In his absence, his deputies served a disastrous version – overall, the dish was much too salty, the prawns small and overcooked, the cockles also overcooked until it had the texture of rubber. On top of it all, it was served on half a styrofoam container, not on a proper plate. That one serving - a small and stingy portion - was almost twice the price than Song River's. What a rip-off.

On hindsight, we shouldn’t have been too surprised actually. After all, the hawker centre sat right opposite a glitzy seafood joint.


orangeclouds said...

Oooh the Penang hae mee looks good! And your description of the "coy" segregated oysters and omelette is just too funny.

The two of you are really food mad! I can feel it oozing out of every pore of the writing. Hahaha.

So, which of you is the better cook? (steps back and anticipates a lot of flying fur)

Jen L. said...

Unfortunately, it's not me. :)

But I do dishes really well.

Aromatic Beans said...

Division of labour is the key! J cooks occasionally; special occasion stuff - her Mum's Shanghainese/Taiwanese classics, some Italian, Californian, French stuff that catches her fancy, and Thanksgiving/Christmas turkey. I do more of the day to day, eat and run stuff :)

Jen L. said...

Well... maybe lah, but I'm a good dishwasher, like I said :).

Guess this isn't the kind of flying fur you were looking out for, c!