Thursday, January 31, 2008

Raw cockles and char koay teow

Penang Post #7. It is Day 2 of our Penang adventure, and we had just ingested the Ayer Itam assam laksa and gone for a drive around the island. It was not durian season, so there weren’t any roadside vendors along the winding backcountry roads, hawking the King of Fruits harvested from the jungles and plantations of Penang. J was hugely disappointed, as brother-in-law had held out hope for the stray fruit to fall on her lap.

No matter. There was the business of finding the perfect char koay teow after all. We already had two plates the previous night, one of them an absolute disaster. This time, we headed for the famous Lorong Selamat char koay teow, fried by a lady in a red hat who parks herself just outside the Loh Eng Hoo coffeeshop (the signboard doesn’t actually carry the name in English, but has the words “Kedai kopi dan ice kacang”).

However, as we walked into the coffeeshop, we passed a sweaty guy furiously woking up plate after plate of char koay teow. No woman to be seen, much less the Red Hat. Undaunted, we ordered a plate…

… which came with four HUGE prawns (the fourth one is peeking out under the bean sprouts). J was circumspect at first – Where’s the Red Hat Lady? Where’s the Red Hat Lady? – but all reservations melted away when we dug in.

The danger of overcooking large prawns tossed into a superheated wok is real, but this one turned out to be juicy and fresh. The noodles were of the usual silky and smooth standard, the bean sprouts crisp, and the lup cheong tasty and meaty. The whole combo was nicely dry-fried, with little hint of oil sticking to the bottom of the plate. J had remarked that the Song River char koay teow we had the night before was a touch undersalted, but this one had just the right amount of soy sauce to bring out all the flavours.

We asked the coffeeshop’s lady boss, who was taking our ice kacang order, what happened to the Red-Hat char koay teow vendor. Lady Boss’ face turned a little dark, and she flicked her hand dismissively while snapping: “She’s moved.”

Later that night, we decided to check out the char koay teow stall on Lebuh Kimberley, stationed just outside Sin Guat Keong coffeeshop. Its distinguishing feature, according to the Star guide, that the vendor uses seafood-infused oil to fry the dish.

By this time, I had noticed that the cockles in our plates of char koay teow so far were a tad overdone. Cockles cook in an instant, and are best eaten raw, like oysters. A good compromise for the squeamish is for the cook to throw the cockles into the wok when the noodles are done, and plate the dish immediately. The heat from the dish would take away some of the rawness, but leave the shellfish deliciously plump. However, the Penang char koay teow sellers seem to be leaving the cockles in the wok for much too long (anything more than a second is too long, actually). The prawns were getting the star treatment while the cockles were definitely the stepsisters.

So, beginning with the Lebuh Kimberley stall, I took to ordering char koay teow with “raw” cockles. It worked a treat as both the prawns and the cockles were perfectly done (or not done, in the latter’s case). All the flavours were there – and very enjoyable flavours they were too – but what the guide promised to be a “slightly sticky” version of the dish was its Achilles heel. Slightly sticky simply meant that we were having a slightly wetter char koay teow – not damp like the Singapore version, but certainly not the wok-dry, almost roasted versions Penang is famous for. We realised that this was entirely a personal preference texture-wise, since all flavours were all there, and we left it at that.

Earlier that afternoon, when the Lady Boss turned snappish, she inadvertently flicked her hands in the direction that pointed us to where the Red-Hat char koay teow lady had moved – the same street, no more that 50 metres away. And so, the next day, we returned to Lorong Selamat to Heng Huat coffeeshop, to taste her expertise.

Unfortunately, the woman wearing a red cap wasn’t the one manning the wok, but the helper to a male cook. Obviously, the famed Red-Hatter was taking a day (or three) off, and we had to make do with The Apprentice. There wasn’t anything wrong with his char koay teow – great koay teow; a hint of charcoal in the flavours; crunchy bean sprouts; luscious prawns; and more importantly, note the juicy and raw cockles peeking out – but it didn’t feel quite as “together” as, surprisingly, the low-profile Substitute who had taken over the Red-Hatter’s original spot.

Perhaps it had something to do with the elusive wok hey – frying the dish at the correct high temperature so that the dish still retains the heat some time after it leaves the cast iron wok, melding the flavours together. Maybe The Substitute just had the perfect balance of good components. Or perhaps we were having char koay teow overload (me more than J), and were ready to declare a winner!

And so we did, and it was The Substitute on Lorong Selamat that came in first in our totally arbitrary, small sample contest; with Song River and Red-Hatter’s Apprentice tied for second; followed by slightly sticky Lebuh Kimberley. Don’t even mention the other one.

P.S. Some of us in the informal eating group we call The Family and Friends fancy ourselves as half-decent char koay teow chefs, and have been running a stall the past few years at the Nasam Charity Fun Fair. Watch this space for the 2008 edition. Meanwhile, read ‘em and salivate!

Loh Eng Hoo Kedai Kopi dan Ice Kacang
84 Lorong Selamat; 11.30 am - 6.30 pm

Kedai Kopi Sin Guat Keong
On the corner of Lebuh Kimberley and Cintra Street; stall open from 6.30 pm till midnight.

Heng Huat Kafe
A stone's throw from Loh Eng Hoo, especially if you're the disgruntled Lady Boss throwing the stone.

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