Famous and delicious
185 Macalister Road, Georgetown
Ask anyone from Penang which dish they would most readily associate with their home island, and the answer is quite likely to be char kway teow.
While the likes of enang laksa or Hokkien mee might be more obvious indigenous contenders, char kway teow holds a very special place in the hearts of locals, and although the dish can be found in various forms throughout Malaysia, the Penang version is generally heralded as the one to which all others should aspire.
The name of the dish is, to be honest, not all that inspiring and translates into English as the much-less-impressive-sounding ‘stir fried noodles’. So what’s so special about it?
According to many a Penang native, char kway teow is the ultimate comfort food. It consists of flat rice noodles, fried together with garlic in the fat from sizzling pork lardons. The staple additions to this base are juicy prawns, cockles, Chinese chives and fresh bean sprouts, which give a fantastic variety of tastes and textures, and the dish is finished with a good dose of chilli, dark soy or fish sauce, and belachan (prawn paste). Other common additions include egg and sweet Chinese sausage.
In Penang, char kway teow is so ubiquitous that you can find it in every food court, as well as many Chinese coffee shops and hawker stalls around Georgetown. In fact, you really won’t need to walk far from your accommodation to try out what is arguably Penang’s number one favourite dish.
Wherever you end up, you are not likely to be disappointed, but on the other hand, not all char kway teows are created equal. The best are not too oily and the noodles should ideally be quite dry and well fried off, coated in just enough sauce to allow the flavours of the fresh ingredients to come through.
If you have time, therefore, it is worth seeking out some of Penang’s more celebrated versions. Kafe Ping Hooi (corner of Lebuh Carnarvon and Lebuh Melayu) is frequently cited by locals as dishing up one of Penang’s best char kway teows, and this one is distinguished by the addition of stir-fried duck egg (this will cost you 4.50 ringgit, as opposed to 4 ringgit if you opt for the plain old chicken egg version).
The Joo Hooi Cafe (corner of Jalan Penang and Lebuh Keng Kwee) also pedals its own very tasty version, which includes sweet, tangy Chinese sausage and crispy pork lardons. The portions are a little on the small side but at 4.50/4 ringgit (with/without egg) you won’t break the bank if you order a second portion. Conveniently, this place is also the celebrated home of one of Penang’s best asam laksas, in case your palate fancies a change of flavours.
Our very favourite char kway teow can be found at Sister’s Cafe at 185 Macalister Road. They take their time to serve you here, which may not sound like a good thing but is, in fact, the key to their success. The preparation of the dish is given the time that it deserves, and the noodles are charred properly to give them a good amount of colour and to absorb the flavours of the other ingredients.
It is slightly more expensive than other places, at 5 ringgit a plate, but they don’t skimp on the portions and add a generous number of prawns and cockles, with a good – and rather unusual – garnish of fresh crab meat. This is not the most convenient location and will require a five-minute taxi ride out of central Georgetown, but it is definitely worth the excursion. Sister’s char kway teow really is comfort food at its best.
By Mark Thompson
Last updated on 18th February, 2017.