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.

Early morning spice

Penang Post #4. Apart from the books we packed for this trip, we consulted many friends and family members, Penangites and frequent visitors to the island. Among them were Robyn and Dave, whose sense of adventure, sensitive palates and a curiosity for the people behind the food (or just the people!) lead them to some amazing stories that even locals never unlock. They swooned over the Pulau Tikus kerabu beehoon in their blog posting, and strongly suggested we set the alarm clock early enough to try it, a recommendation if roughly translated into Malaysian-speak, would sound like this: “Die, die must eat."

So, here we were, blurry eyed at 7-ish, at the Hup Guan Café, abutting the Pulau Tikus market. I had gone to park the car, dropping J off with the responsibility of ordering. The storekeepers were amused that she was ordering for two (doesn’t anyone eat double portions here?), and something must have transpired between them, for when I arrived, they gave me that kind of winking, knowing grin! For a night owl like me, such cheeriness in the early morning is disconcerting (and somewhat accusatory, I might say).

Kerabu beehoon is rice vermicelli tossed with a blend of sambal belacan, dried shrimp, lime juice and chillies; and garnished with boiled large prawns, chopped shallots, kaffir lime leaves and mint, among others. Hup Guan’s version came without the large prawns and has an unassuming air about it, but it packs wallop of tastes – the herb garnishes providing a fresh counterpoint to the spicy, prawny taste that clung on to each strand of beehoon.

Like for many of Penang’s dishes, finding the balance between spiciness and sourness is at the heart of kerabu beehoon. Hup Guan’s version was just a tad too high on the heat – not evident at first, but by the end of the meal, you could feel the insides of your mouth burning. Surprisingly, J, not really a chilli queen, lapped it all up and was grinning ear to ear at the end!

It was a great wake-up call to the senses, and after a second cup of coffee, sipped leisurely as we read the day’s papers, we were set for our first full-day Penang adventure.

Hup Guan Café
46A Jalan Cantonment, Penang. From 7 am, closed Mondays.

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.