Penang is one of my favourite weekend getaway with L for a few reasons. It is easily accessible from either Singapore or Kuala Lumpur with great food and a general relaxed old world charm. I have found the island to be a place of few retail temptations which is just as well for that leaves me with less distractions and allow us to just mope around without a purpose, experiment with food from the myriads of street food stalls and just chill out. As we get to go to Penang quite frequently, we have ceased to pound the many one way streets in Penang like a pair of hungry wolves. I know of people who would visit Penang and eat non-stop but both L and I are not that hedonistic… Rather we have learnt to take full opportunities of the 3 standard meal times to test out our favourite dishes at different stalls. For all our trips, there would be Penang Char Kuey Teow but we have never yet returned to the same stall twice. It all started with my rotten luck of always being there when the famous Sisters Char Kueh Teow is closed for business. My rotten luck ran for 3 straight consecutive visits. That forced us to look elsewhere for the famous Penang fried noodle dish. I cannot recall all where I have eaten, L may remember better but we’ve had some very good ones even though these are not as hyped up as the Sisters Char Kuey Teow. This trip, though, luck was with me for the famous Sisters Char Kuey Teow stall was opened but disappointingly, I was less than impressed. Compared to the many other Char Kuey Teow I have eaten in Penang, I grade this a dismal 4 out 10. L would probably grade it even lower… he was more vehement and vocal about his disappointment. The dish was bland and lacked the smoky ‘breath of wok’ which is so important for the Penang version of this noodle dish. The Singapore Char Kuey Teow is fried with a drizzle of dark sweet sauce which imparts a lovely caramelised taste to the dish. Nevertheless, there were still hoards of camera toting visitors at the stall… but I know I will not return again.
With a little hubris, I told L I would attempt to fry the noodle dish when I get back to Singapore. The recipe for Penang Char Kuey Teow is actually very simple. Those who like their noodle to be spicy may claim that the chili paste is critical but that, in my opinion, is not the essence of the dish. What is critical is the heat that would give the noodles that smoky burnt fragrance and any penang hawker worth his salt would be frying the noodles in small single portion to ensure that the cooking can be done at optimum heat. Hence, next time, look out for hawkers who fry in bulk, you can walk away and forget about eating at their stalls. The other important ingredient, in my opinion that ups the fragrance factor is pork lard. Unfortunately, I had neither of these 2 elements when I attempted this … my overbearing pride brought down to earth….
The most memorable part of this trip to Penang is not the food but rather the accomodation we have found. One of my other passion, when I travel is to check out interesting hotel properties especially in the South East Asia region where very often, hotel designs have more character and come with a more affordable price tag (compared to Europe or US). For the longest time, I have complained about how Penang has no interesting hotels. Most of the hotel properties in Penang are old and even though a few of them have been taken over by bigger brand names like Hard Rock, they lack the magical appeal that I see in hotels in Thailand or Indonesia. Clove Hall, is a great find. Last seen in March(2012)’s issue of Australia Gourmet Traveler, I knew I had to check it out. Practically a gated house, Clove Hall is a privately owned Edwardian Anglo-Malaysian bungalow. It houses only 6 elegant suites and hence is able to offer a very personalised staying experience. Throughout our stay there, we had felt like we were home-staying with a friend and I kept telling L, this is my dream house. In fact, we spent quite alot of our time just lounging in the room, sitting out in the patio chatting with its new owner Jim Lim.
The new owners of Clove Hall, Jim and Jo made the stay there especially memorable. Jim, a Penangite who has been in the UK for 40 years returned home with his wife to run the property. It helps to have a local who knows the nooks and crannies of the island and who can admit uninhibitedly that most of the famous eateries (e.g. Sister) are just hypes where locals will not be bothered to wait in line for. The presence of their resident dog, George, a black poodle running around the house added a touch of entertainment and I almost mistaken him for a homely floor rug when he laid lazily sprawled out on the floor… Like what L had commented correctly, our stay at Clove Hall had been elevated by the owners’ passion to a magical experience from what otherwise would have just been another interesting place.
- 400g fresh kuey teow (flat rice noodel)
- 20 prawns
- 8 cloves garlic
- 240g bean sprouts
- 40 blood cockles
- 80g chinese sausage
- 8 stalks of chives
- 2 tbsp chili powder
- 4 eggs
- 12 tsp oil
- 12 tbsp light soya sauce
- 120ml water
- Ground pepper
- Divide the ingredients into 4 equal portions and fry each serving individually.
- Shell prawns and run in a bit of salt.
- Wash the cockles and pour hot water over them so that the shells open. Remove each cockle from the shell with a teaspoon and leave to soak in a bit of water.
- Chop garlic finely.
- Rinse beansprouts. Wash the chives and cut into 3cm lengths.
- Slice chinese sausage diagaonally to about 2mm thickness.
- Mix ½ tbsp of chilli powder with 1 tbsp of water to form a smooth paste.
- Heat a wok and add 2 tsp of cooking oil /nly when the pan is hot. Spread the oil over the pan or wok, then add the chopped garlic and stir continuously.
- Before the garlic turns brown, add the prawns and fry until they turn white or red. Add the chilli paste and stir quickly.
- Add the kuey teow and 2 tsp of light soya sauce. Stir well for about 2 minutes. Add about 1 tbsp of water if the noodles become too dry.
- Make a well in the center of the wok by moving the contents to the sides. Add 1 tsp of oil and break in an egg. Add 1 tsp of light soya sauce and ground pepper. Partially scramble egg and when it is half cooked, mix it with the kuey teow.
- Add the chives and cockles and give it a good final stir before turning off the fire.