simple char kway teow

Char kway teow: warm, filling and easier to make than you think.
Char kway teow: warm, filling and easier to make than you think.

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.

Straight from the pan: glossy, dense and dark with sauces.
Straight from the pan: glossy, dense and dark with sauces.

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.

Love on a plate.
Love on a plate.

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.

It's the simple pleasures in life that count the most: eating noodles and not having piles of washing up to do. Yes!
It’s the simple pleasures in life that count the most: eating noodles and not having piles of washing up to do afterwards. Yes!

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.

Char kway teow made easy.
Char kway teow made easy.

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)
3 eggs
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
White pepper
Garlic oil

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

Start with the items that take the longest to cook.
Start with the items that take the longest to cook.

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.

The noodles should be dark, glossy, slightly peppery and slightly sweet.
The noodles should be dark, glossy, slightly peppery and slightly sweet.

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.

Serve immediately.

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pork and water chestnut dumplings

Mardi Gras pork and water chestnut dumplings
Pork and water chestnut dumplings

Next week marks the beginning of Lent, traditionally a period of sacrifice, penance and atonement.

Even if you’re not a religious person, I think it’s a good idea to become acquainted with these concepts, because undoubtedly at some point in your life you’ll experience these things, difficult as they are. And after all, towards the brighter shade of the same spectrums lie indulgence, forgiveness and acceptance.

To me, Lent is a thoughtful period in the spiritual calendar; a somewhat sombre time of reflection on the notions of love and strength of will. But before all that solemnity kicks off, there’s Mardi Gras (‘Fat Tuesday’ in French), which must be celebrated in the traditional manner – with richer, fatty foods on the last night before the Lenten season. Presumably this would use up the last of the goods and also keep people sane during a period of fasting.

I know most people eat pancakes – and believe me, I fully intend to participate in that too – but I thought it fitting to celebrate the beginning of a season of love by making these delicious little pork and water chestnut dumplings.

Dumplings are something special.
It’s impossible not to love a dumpling.

There’s something very special about dumplings. They always make me think of home; from the initial laughter-filled all-hands-on-deck preparation method and the proud presentation of neat rows of adorable little parcels (with the inevitable teasing about a few of the misshapen practice shots), to the family dinner at night and sharing the rewards with loved ones. There’s nothing more deeply satisfying than biting past the delicate pastry into the juicy filling and the flavour flooding your mouth and seeing smiles all around and thinking I helped to create this moment.

I’m always dazzled by the powerful combination of sweet pork, fiery ginger and sharp vinegar, and amazed by the complexity of flavours in Chinese cooking. Savoury and moreish, these tiny treasures go perfectly with a sharp and sweet dipping sauce.

Pork and water chestnut dumplings – makes 40
For the filling:
500g lean pork mince (see note below)
3 shallots, finely chopped
8 water chestnuts, diced
4 shitake mushrooms, diced
3 tsp grated ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 tsp corn flour
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry)
1 tsp sesame oil

To wrap:
40 x gyoza wrappers

To serve:
5 slivers of ginger
Black rice vinegar or distilled sugar cane vinegar
Light soy sauce

dumpling ingredients
dumpling ingredients

Just reading the list of ingredients can feel a bit daunting – goodness, is all that really necessary, Kahmen?

The short answer is yes; dumplings are meant to be complex and balanced so every bite is a joy. But the good news is that you can take each ingredient and add it directly to the mixing bowl as soon as it’s ready, so they’re really simple to make.

Combine all the filling ingredients and mix well. Yep, that’s it. Dumpling mix done and no MSG in sight.

If you’re planning to freeze dumplings, dust the tray with cornflour. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I forget to do this and it always ends in torn dumplings and tears the next day.

On a clean flat surface, lay out a set of dumpling wrappers – I think about nine at a time is about right because if you prepare too many they’ll dry out before you can get to folding them.

Lay about a teaspoon of mix in the centre of each wrapper. I find it easier to fold later if you shape the mix into a sausage now.

Ready to be folded
Ready to be folded

Dab the rim of the wrapper with water and fold over into a half circle, pinching the edges together. If you like, you can crimp them slightly to give the classic gyoza look. One down, thirty-nine to go.

You can either steam the dumplings for 8 minutes, or you can fry in a medium pan with oil, then add some water to create steam and cover for 4 minutes to help the insides cook.

I haven’t given quantities on the dipping sauce recipe because everyone has their own preference. In general, people recommend that you start off with equal parts vinegar and soy and then adjust to taste. I like a sharp sauce, so 2 parts vinegar to 1 part soy is about right.

NB: Interestingly, dumpling recipes always tell you to use fatty meat and with good reason – the juicier your dumplings, the tastier they’ll be. However, a quick look at the fat content in regular mince was enough to scare me right off, and I opted for lean mince, which you’ll be glad to know turned out just fine.

pork dumplings

Bundles of joy

When my bestie and I want to get really cute, we call each other dumplings.

Is it an insult to be compared to something soft and squidgy, with delicate pudgy folds of goodness? Not at all. Because we love everything about dumplings, from the humble siu mai to the slightly dangerous xiao long bao (it’s like extreme eating). It’s a sign of our affection for each other.

But sadly, a lot of the commercially-produced dumplings in London are filled to the brim with MSG. I’ve got a real beef (boom tish!) with MSG, mainly because I consider it to be a chemical form of cheating, but also because I get headaches when I eat it. Chinese have almost no tolerance for hippie predilections, so the only alternative is to make my own.

I’d never tried making dumplings before, but it’s actually quite simple to do in a tiny kitchen. You make the filling in one bowl, then you just need a small flat surface to make the dumplings and a plate to hold the finished product. It’s a little time-consuming, but it’s compact and easy enough to do.

Now whenever I make these, I think of my bestie, my little dumpling, half a world away.

Pork Dumplings
Makes 48
Dumpling wrappers
500g pork mince (reduced fat if you can get it)
2 cups shredded cabbage (this translates to about 4 full leaves)
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp Chinese wine, white wine or dry sherry
6 tbsp sesame oil
½ teaspoon white pepper
2cm ginger, grated
1 shallot, finely diced
1 clove garlic, finely diced
Salt
Cornflour

Whoah, does that look like a scary lot of ingredients? It really isn’t – and it’s really easy to make the mix. Start by taking the shredded cabbage and salting it with 2 tablespoons of salt. Leave it for 5 minutes and you’ll see the leaves have become shiny and wet.

Meanwhile, combine the soy sauce, wine, sesame oil, pepper, ginger, shallot and garlic – basically all of the seasonings for the mix.

Take your shredded cabbage and squeeze very hard to get all the moisture out, then place it in a large bowl and shake it to loosen.

Add the mince. At this stage I always find it a bit easier to shake the mince a bit so it’s nice and loose, which helps the seasoning to go in evenly.

Ok, not that photogenic. But you just know it’s going to be good.

Add the seasoning and mix well, trying not to overwork the mix. That bit is done!

To make the dumplings, take a wrapper and lay it flat on a board. They should be lightly floured so they won’t stick. Mix the cornflour with a little water (room temperature) so it forms a white liquid.

We’re ready to roll.

Place about a teaspoon of mixture into the centre of the dumpling wrapper. If you can be bothered to get fancy, quenelling helps to form the right shape, but otherwise just lightly roll a little meatball. Dab the cornflour water all around the edges, and fold into a semicircle. Pinch the edges hard. You can leave them like that if you want, but I like to try to make mine stand up, so I crinkle and schmoosh a little so they stand up properly.

Dumplings, ready for the steamer!

To serve: steam for 8 minutes and serve with the classic dumpling sauce (vinegar, soy sauce and chilli).

barley soup

One of the many tastes of my childhood.

When I was growing up, one of my very favourite stories in the world was Stone Soup.

If you’re not familiar with the tale, it’s about a poor and tired traveller who convinces a rather cranky old bat to shelter him for the night. She agrees to let him stay, but tells him that she has no food to give him. He offers to feed her instead.

‘You – feed me? With what?’ she scornfully asks. ‘Stone soup,’ says he, and places a stone into a pot of water over the fire. He then proceeds to coax all sorts of things out of her – barley, carrots, celery, a bit of meat, potatoes – by telling her the stone is old, and might need a bit of help with flavour. That night they dine like kings in the little cottage, and in the morning she gives him a good breakfast, coffee and some coins to help him on his way, her crotchety old heart having been touched by the restorative powers of sharing food.

The story always got to the bit about barley and I would shiver – for it seemed, to my young ears, to be the transformative substance that took the water and stone and finally made it a soup. I had no idea what barley was, or even what it looked like. I just knew that it had to be magical.

This soup is a remembrance of how much I loved that story and everything it stands for. It reminds me of my childhood, of somehow feeling but not yet understanding that cooking and sharing a meal with someone can be a deeply healing experience. The heartwarming feeling I get when I make this soup is the same feeling I had when I got to the end of the story.

Barley Soup
1/2 cup barley
Yellow rock sugar
Handful gingko nuts
Dried bean curd sticks, roughly broken
Boiled eggs

Wash the barley and check for any pebbles that might have made it in.

Place the barley in a large pot of water – you’re looking for a ratio of about 1:5, but you can start with a litre of water and add as the soup boils.

Bring to a boil and add a large lump of yellow rock sugar, plus the gingko nuts.

Turn to a low boil and simmer for 1 hour. Barley has a tendency to bubble up, so make sure you’re around to watch or hear the pot. You might need to top up with water as it boils away.

Add the dried bean curd sticks and simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Again, you might need to top up the pot with water as the bean curd rehydrates. You might also need to add additional sugar to taste.

The end result is a light, translucent soup that is sweet and perfectly toothsome, thanks to the barley. It is traditionally served with a boiled egg, which enhances the sweetness.

A small note about gingko nuts: they are funny things. Widely used in Chinese cooking, I hated them when I was young and would pick them out of my soup, piling them in large heaps to be tossed back into the pot – or my parents’ bowls. They seemed to me to have a vaguely oniony taste, and I thought they had no place in my soup.

These days, I appreciate the slight pungent tang they lend the soup; it cuts through the sweetness and adds depth. I am, perhaps, not quite reformed – my parents would possibly use quite a lot more than a handful of nuts to make their soup, but I would never go beyond a handful and occasionally I leave them out altogether.

They are, however, said to be extremely good for you, helping cognitive function, memory and blood flow and fighting free radicals.