My dad is known throughout the house as the Noodle King.
Mind you, it’s not the only name he has. Throughout my life, he has variously been Chief Chauffeur, Education Executive (Maths and Chemistry Departments), Coach, Captain of Kahmen’s Cheer Squad, Director of Driving Instruction and Head Fixer of Things That Break. Oh, and he also answers to ‘AAAAARRRRRRGHHHHH SPIDER!!!!’
A man of many talents. But even amongst these skills, his noodles stand out.
When I was little, the sight of mountains of yellow or white noodles sitting on the bench filled me with a balloon-like expansive happiness and excitement. We were going to have noodles, which was basically a kind of culinary miracle to me. And as if that wasn’t awesome enough, I’d probably get to take some to school the next day. My cup runneth over.
I would watch Dad would prepare the ingredients, washing the dirt from the vegetables, chopping garlic and slicing fishcake. Inevitably, he would tut as he picked over the bean sprouts and shallots – ‘Aiyaaaa, why don’t you like chung? It’s high in zinc!’ – and yet most times, he would end up making a separate batch of noodles without these wretched ingredients, just for me.
That’s love for ya.
Gradually I’ve learnt from the Noodle King and now I make my own noodles right here in the tiny kitchen. To me, they’re the ultimate comfort food, reminding me of home and my dear little parents, half a world away. And yes, the sight of noodles sitting on my bench still brings me a secret little thrill of excitement.
Char kway teow is a classic Malaysian hawker stall dish made with flat rice noodles, soy sauce and bean sprouts. The original version is made in pork fat, with belacan, prawns, Chinese sausage and cockles. It’s high in saturated fats, packed with flavour and very filling.
If you’ve ever made noodles in large batches, you’ll know that even in a big kitchen it can become unwieldy and slightly stressful. After it’s all over, it’s kind of like that scene from the Sixth Sense; dirty plates everywhere, every utensil imaginable on the bench and all cupboard doors open.
This much-simplified adaptation would never pass for the traditional, but it’s quick, easy and far healthier than the original. Better still, nothing comes out of the pan, so it uses a minimal number of plates (I got by with one plate and a chopping board).
The key is to use a large wok, essentially treating half as a warm holding bay and half as a frypan. The order of ingredients and timing is also important; since you don’t remove anything, you have to add ingredients according to how long they take to cook.
I’ve used garlic oil to start the process and waited until quite a long way into the process to add garlic because it would just burn. If you don’t have garlic oil, heat some regular oil in the pan, add two cloves of garlic, sliced, and cook until fragrant. Then scoop the garlic out and use the oil.
Last but not least, don’t worry if you don’t have everything on the list. Like most street food, char kway teow channels the principles of convenience and taste, and so should you.
Simple char kway teow (serves 2)
400g flat rice noodles
6 full stalks of gai lan (or a large handful of vegetables of your choice)
65g frozen fishcake (half)
200g fried tofu (optional, and probably not traditional)
6 large prawns (cooked or raw)
200g bean sprouts
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 tbsp light soy
2 tbsp dark soy
1 tbsp caramel sauce (optional)
1 tbsp kecap manis
Once the cooking gets going, it’s really quick, so you need to prepare everything first. Wash the vegetables and chop into stems and leaves, keeping them apart.
Cut the fishcake into slices about 5mm thick.
Cut the tofu into small slices, about the same width as the fishcake.
Then chop the garlic. ‘Start chopping,’ my sister says. ‘Then chop some more. When you think you have too much, chop another few cloves.’
As you begin cooking, microwave your noodles so they’re soft when they hit the pan. Sometimes if you get them fresh, you don’t need to do this at all, but the ones I’ve seen in London are fridge-cold and need about 4 minutes in the microwave.
In a large wok, heat the garlic oil over a high heat until it shimmers, then turn it down to medium. Add:
– Gai lan stems and fry for 30 seconds
– Fishcake and tofu and fry until golden (about 4 minutes)
– One third of the chopped garlic right before the next step
Push these ingredients to one side and move the wok so it is slightly off-centre, with the full half sitting partially off the flame.
In the empty half, add the noodles and the sauces plus the white pepper. Mix until the noodles have changed colour, add the raw prawns and gai lan leaves and then incorporate with the other half of the pan.
Again, push this to one side and move the wok so the full side is partially off the flame. Pour the eggs and one third of the garlic into the empty half. You might need to hold the wok so it sits correctly and the eggs don’t run too far into the other half (but it all gets cooked, so don’t worry too much about it.)
When the egg is cooked, add the rest of the garlic and incorporate the whole lot together. Taste and adjust the seasoning with extra soy if needed.
Turn off the flame and add the bean sprouts. You want them to be bright, juicy and crisp, so you barely need to heat them.