Recipe: Char Kuay Teow

Char kuay teow is a favourite hawker dish amongst Malaysians. It is apparently of Teochew origin, so must have come over with the immigrant Chinese some time in the late 19th century. It is a dish of flat rice noodles, stir-fried on a high heat with garlic, Chinese chives, eggs, beansprouts, prawns and blood cockles – these are a must for the char kuay teow purist. Sometime during the late 80s, lap cheong or Chinese sausage made an entry into the ingredients list and this is now common throughout Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur (where I grew up). However, I also remember in the early days that little cubes of crispy pork fat were part of the make-up of the dish, these were little gems of delight.

In essence it is the Malaysian equivalent of the popular pad Thai from Thailand but it is not so sweet. The secret to a great char kway teow is cooking it on a very high heat – you need a really smoking wok to get the “wok hei” flavour, the charred smokiness that elevates this delicious dish.

Enough background and on to the cooking…

Ingredients (2 people)

Prep time: 15 mins
Cooking time: 7 mins

2 tbsp of dried shrimps or dried anchovies or tiny pork fat cubes
4 cloves of garlic finely minced
4-5 stalks of Chinese chives chopped into 2 inch lengths (if not available, wild garlic sliced finely would work)
300g flat rice noodles (ho fun – fresh or dried) – soaked in hot water to soften
a good glug of cooking oil (4-5 tbsp) – something flavourless like sunflower, canola, corn etc.
10-12 prawns – raw or cooked, inch sized shrimps are fine
2 eggs
2 handfuls of beansprouts – tailed
a generous dash of light soy sauce*
a generous dash of dark soy sauce*
a dash of finely ground white pepper
a tsp of sugar
Nice to have but impossible to find in the UK – blood cockles. Reasonable substitute might be shelled clams, mussels or the frozen oysters found in Chinese supermarkets.
Optional: Chinese sausage – soaked in hot water for an hour and sliced thinly
1-2 tbsp of a savoury chilli paste or savoury chilli sauce like Sriracha (you can make your own too – recipe for that some other day…)

All the less familiar items can be found in Chinese supermarkets. In Bristol, you can go to Wai Yee Hong (near IKEA), Wah Yan Hong (behind the Hippodrome), 168 Oriental (Little Chinatown and Park Street). In Bath, try Banthon in Weston.

*If you are gluten intolerant, just replace the soy sauces with gluten free tamari. Everything else is gluten free!

Notes on Preparation:

Whilst mainly a self-taught cook, some things were passed down to me by my parents and family amah, as well as learning from watching professional hawker stall holders and friends. Attention to the small details seem a bit OCD but for many Malaysians are a must.

1. Tailing beansprouts. My husband was somewhat taken aback (thinks I’m bonkers) to know that I pick the roots or ‘tails’ off beansprouts. Believe me, it’s a thing in Malaysia. This is what I mean:

See all the lovely ‘tailed’ beansprouts.

2. Next thing, remember to soak your rice noodles. If they are fresh, they only need soaking in hot (not boiling water) for a few minutes to loosen them but don’t let them soften too much as they will continue to soften in the wok. If you are using dried ho fun noodles, then use boiling water and soak a little longer – again don’t let them get too soft – just loose and pliable.

Fresh noodles before soaking

Noodles after soaking – they are still quite hard but pliable and separated out

3. If you are using Chinese sausage, soak it in boiling water for an hour, and then slice it thinly on a slant, about 2 mm thick.

Chinese sausage (lap cheong)

4. Shell, clean and devein the prawns if they are raw. You can leave the tails on. However, cooked prawns are perfectly fine.

5. Dried shrimps / anchovies or pork fat for flavouring the oil – the usual shrimps or anchovies are quite large, and you will need to remove them after using them to flavour the oil. You can always use the anchovies with nasi lemak, and the shrimp in a stirfry with vegetables if you don’t want to throw them away. I have also discovered some very fine small dried prawns in the Chinese supermarkets which can be left in the oil, as they add a nice subtle texture and flavour to the dish when it’s finished.

6. Make sure you have all the ingredients ready and to hand – once you start cooking, it’s super quick as the heat is so high, so you won’t want to be running around looking for things or chopping things up at the last minute.

Method:
1. Heat up the wok on a high heat, add a good glug of cooking oil. When the oil looks like it’s smoking, it’s ready. If you are using tiny cubes of pork fat, heat up the oil on a medium heat and fry the pork fat as it takes a little while to crisp up, then whack the heat up. Add lap cheong at this stage if you are using, fry till nearly crisp, then remove and put to one side.

2. Add the dried prawns / anchovies and fry until they brown and become crispy to give flavour to the oil. If you are using larger ones, discard from the oil. If you are using the fine shrimps, leave them in and cook until crispy.

3. Add the garlic, and fry till it browns slightly. If it cooks too quickly, remove the wok from the heat and continue to fry.

4. Put the wok back on the heat and add the garlic chives. Mix thoroughly until they soften and wilt slightly.

5. Add the ho fun noodles and toss thoroughly.
6. Add the two soy sauces and sugar and mix in thoroughly.

7. Push the noodles to one side, and crack the eggs into the wok in the space you have made. Move the wok so that the egg is directly above the heat, and the noodles are slightly removed from the heat. Stir the eggs to break the yolks and then allow them to cook underneath before flipping to cook on the other side. Then when cooked and firm, break up the egg ‘omelette’ and mix with the noodles. Don’t mix it too soon or the egg will scramble and get mixed into the noodles too much.

8. Add the prawns (and blood cockles/mussels etc if using). If raw, again, push the noodles to one side, and allow the prawns to cook thoroughly, flipping them over to ensure they are pink and cooked. If using cooked prawns, just mix thoroughly with the noodles until they are hot and coated with the flavours. Re-add the lap cheong if using, at this stage.

9. If using, add chilli paste to taste (I like it spicy so I put in a load) and mix well.
10. Chuck in the beansprouts and toss / mix well – they don’t need long – 20 seconds or so. Sprinkle liberally with white pepper and mix it in. That’s it – you’re ready to scoff!

The end…

Hope you liked this recipe and have fun trying it out. It’s really simple – just make sure the wok is smoking hot, and if it gets too hot and things start to burn, just remove from the heat for a few seconds. You want to have a slightly charred flavour, so don’t worry about slight burning.

Bon appetit! If you have any comments or questions, please leave them below.

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