Penang is the food capital of Malaysia. It’s a large island on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia on the Strait of Malacca. There is an incredible mix of people living here; Malays, Chinese, Indians and of course all of us tourists who have come from all over the world.
It’s possible to eat Malay food for breakfast, Indian for lunch and Chinese for dinner. There is an enormous amount of street food, family restaurants and a few fancy expensive restaurants. We frequent the local restaurants and street hawkers and are feasting on all sorts of surprises…mostly happy ones! There has only been one complete duffer so far and that was a bowl of breakfast noodles with ‘fish’. The fish was, in fact, very strange fish balls, which had such a disgusting texture, that when I put it in my mouth, I had to spit it out. The noodles were tasty though, so it wasn’t a complete no-no!
We are staying in the home of a lady called Nazalina who has the headquarters of Slow Food in Penang and today we went on a tour of the food markets with her, bought a pile of ingredients and did some cooking together.
We headed out at 7.30am; everything begins very early, as it’s very hot. We began with some breakfast next to the ‘wet market’ at an Indian eatery of roti canai stuffed with egg and onion served with a bowl of dal. Roti canai is a type of Indian pancake and the guy who made it was delight to watch. The street hawkers are all experts in their own particular delicacies and produce the food with such ease that it’s mesmerizing. Full with the roti canais, we went over to the wet market, where we bought tofu, prawns and mackerel; the mackerel was smaller than the ones we get in Ireland and known as Indian Mackerel. We then wandered on to the main market gathering a dizzying array of exotic fruit, vegetables and spices. It was good to have a knowledgeable guide. Nazalina is well known by the vendors and we could poke, prod and sniff, as we identified everything. Laden down with fresh spices, noodles, veggies and seafood, we made our way back to her heritage house in Georgetown, where we cooked everything up. This involved making fragrant spice mixes together with lemongrass, fresh turmeric, ginger flowers, galangal and spices in mortar and pestles. The menu was Asam Laksa, which is the local spicy noodle soup with mackerel, Otak Otak , a delicate prawn custard cooked in banana leaves and Char Koay Teow, another dish that is the specialty of the street hawkers, made with flat rice noodles stir fried with chives, tofu, beansprouts, prawns and eggs.
It is easy to make and I’ve adapted the recipe slightly so the ingredients are easy to get in Ireland.
As with most stir-fry dishes, everything needs to be chopped before the cooking starts and only one or two portions can be cooked at a time but the cooking is so fast it’s perfectly possible to make this in batches. If you are cooking for more than two don’t be tempted to heap everything into the wok at once because it won’t stir-fry. The temperature will drop and it won’t be able to cook quickly enough.
If you would like the real authentic prawn taste, toss them in a little oyster sauce, toasted sesame oil and a tsp. sugar before cooking. Leave them to marinate for 10 minutes before cooking. This will help the prawns to char a little and give the street hawker flavor.
Char Koay Teow
For each serving you will need:
Approx. 75g flat rice noodles
1 chilli, chopped or 1 tsp. Malay chilli paste
1 tsp. chopped garlic
A large handful beansprouts
2 chopped spring onions or large handful garlic chives
4-5 cubes tofu in approx. 1cm pieces
4-5 raw prawns
2 tbs oil for frying
Half a lime
For the sauce – enough for 2 servings
1 tbs oyster sauce
1 tbs thick soya sauce
1 and a half tbs thin soya sauce
1 dsp fish sauce
1 dsp toasted sesame oil
a little ground black pepper
4 tbs water
Soak the rice noodles in hot but not boiling water whilst you prepare all the other ingredients. Leave them for at least ten minutes. Just before the cooking begins drain the noodles and put aside
Mix all the sauce ingredients together and put aside
Prepare all the other ingredients as listed above
Heat the oil in a wok, add the prawns and cook on a high heat for a couple of minutes then add the garlic and chilli and toss together for a minute then add the chopped spring onions, tofu and beansprouts. Keep tossing everything together on a high heat then add the noodles, stir in the sauce – only use half if you are making one portion. Toss everything together and cook for a couple more minutes then push the noodles to one side. Tip the wok, keeping the noodles to the side away from the heat and crack the egg into the wok. When the egg is nearly cooked quickly scramble then mix together with the noodles. Squeeze a little lime juice over and eat immediately.