Thursday, January 17, 2008

Happy and contented

Penang Post #5. With the kerabu beehoon settled nicely in our stomachs (see previous post), we set off for a short but mazy and distracting stroll through the compact Pulau Tikus market, marveling at the fresh produce, meat and seafood on offer. The experience typifies the food we’d been having… modest in size but rich in content.

At the other end of the market are three coffeeshops with their stalls doing a brisk business, augmented by other vendors parked just on the sidewalk or on the street. We plonked ourselves on some rickety stools in front of a chee cheong fun stall just outside Kwai Lock (which means happy) coffeeshop, and ordered one of J’s favourite foods.

The Penang twist to this simple, familiar dish is that it is served with hae kor (a thick, creamy prawn paste that is also essential to assam laksa), in addition to the chilli and sweet brown sauces. J proclaimed the flat rice noodles to be some of the best she’d ever eaten, smooth, bouncy and silky.

Curry mee was the next ‘course’. This would turn out to be one of my favourite dishes, not surprising since I have a soft spot for all things curry and anything noodley. In the Penang version, the soup has less coconut milk and is thus lighter than the curry laksa found in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Another distinctive ingredient is the pig blood jelly, which is arranged along with prawns, cockles, tau pok, cuttlefish and mint leaves as the top layer of the bowl, making a rather inviting visual treat suggesting bountiful flavours.

I am reminded of the scene in Tampopo where the ramen master teaches his charges the correct ritualistic manner in consuming a bowl of ramen. First, behold the ramen, caress it with your eyes. Then tap the chopstick on the side of the bowl and press the char siew gently into the soup. Give it a gentle twirl… and on and on (you get the drift; if not, you MUST rent that delectable spaghetti Western and watch it on an empty stomach).

Anyway, gazing at the perfect bowl in front of me, I felt inspired to invent a whole ritual for the humble curry mee – first, poke the cockle to see if its alive; introduce the cuttlefish to the prawn, and so on. But my hunger got the better of me and I plunged in like the rest of the folks sitting on the other tables. Just remember to stir thoroughly that dollop of chilli paste into the whole soup – it gives the already tasty broth added spine!

We had a light snack as well – a pancake called ban chan koay, in which a batter of flour is cooked in a small pan with toppings that run from the basic peanut and/or sugar, to sweet corn, brown sugar, bananas and anything else that strikes the vendor’s fancy or imagination. It could be a cousin of the apum we had the night before.

Our vendor operates out of a van (look for the name Tan Hao Shen written on the passenger side door) parked just right beside us. He starts making the koay after you place your order, so you’re not getting anything that’s been sitting around for a few minutes getting soggy. We kept ours simple – just ground peanuts – and was rewarded with a light and crispy (on the sides) batter, and a flavourful centre. Folded after it leaves the pan, the koay arrives in a handy size, easily wolfed down in two bites. Wolf, wolf!

Kedai Kopi Kwai Lock
295B Jalan Burma (on the junction with Slk Moulmein); breakfast and lunch; open every day.

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