Stir-fry noodle dish is universally popular in Malaysia and Thailand and each brings a chief significance in their respective food culture. While both dishes have unceasingly landed international interests, these countries are armed to present their version of rice vermicelli at the foodie frontline.
Char Kway Teow
‘Kway teow’ – translated as ricecake strips from Hokkien dialect – is believed to be an invention of the Teochew migrants to Southeast Asia as it can be found all around in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and Thailand. When put together, Char Kway Teow means stir-fry noodles in various Chinese dialects.
The dish is a favourite for manual workers in the past as it contains high fatty content that easily fills the belly besides it being cheap and affordable to the labourers. Simply by using only lard and dark soy sauce, the noodle is fried and served as a complete meal.
Penang Char Kway Teow sports beansprouts, chives, prawns, cockles, chicken eggs and lard as the usual staples. A good plate of this dish holds the perfect amount of light and dark soy sauce paired with chilly paste tossed into a timely temperature of the hot wok to produce a fragrant smoky serving. Therefore, the dish is normally cooked in individual portions to ensure the robust taste.
Duck egg is alternately used by some cooks for extra saltiness. The northern Penang version is presented dry on banana leaf as compared to Kuala Lumpur where water is added to make the Char Kway Teow wet and moist. Occasionally, some Char Kway Teow features a mix of rice vermicelli and egg noodles in the wok together.
Char Kway Teow is sold everywhere in predominantly Chinese ‘kopitiam’ (local café) and roadside stalls down to hotels and restaurant. Against many others delights, the food is so sought-after that it is constantly promoted as one of the must-eat foods in the northwest island of Malaysia.
Retaining the classic wok-over-charcoal-fire cooking makes Siam Road Char Kway Teow to be ranked 14th in 2017 World Street Food but the aged masterchef has recently retired. Otherwise, Sisters Char Kway Teow in Macalister Road continue serving delights for the past 50 years.
In an economically challenging period in Thailand, former Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram introduces Pad Thai as a nationwide diet as rice noodles are filling and affordable in the 1930s.
Literally, the dish emerges from its Chinese roots and it goes by the name called ‘kway teow phat Thai’. The shortened version, Pad Thai (means Thai stir-fry), is given the name to highlight its natal recipe and a move to make it truly domestic.
While we all agree that food unites people, Pad Thai is authentically born as a national dish to instil unity and patriotism among the locals, promoting an identity when Thailand is shifting its way to modernism during World War 2.
The significant flavour lies in its tang of tamarind, balanced with a dash of sugar sweetness, fish sauce and garlic. Shrimp and eggs are the top protein choices but tofu and chicken slices are also used from time to time depending on preferences and regional availability. On the side, the fragrant dish is garnished with grounded peanuts, fresh chives and bean sprouts, lime wedge and chilli flakes.
Pad Thai differs according to its location. In Bangkok, the dish includes large or river prawns as highlight. However, slices of pork are used instead of shrimps in most southern provinces. You can also find lime wedge replaced with chopped green mango on the dish in Sukhothai region.
As a staple food for the Thais, it is easily found in markets and street vendors everywhere in the country. The notably established street food is also served in the depths of malls and high-end places like Siam Paragon and restaurants.
One must visit Thipsamai, a Pad Thai restaurant in Bangkok established since 1966. They have just been awarded with a Bib Gourmand (for good food at moderate prices) by Michelin Guide this year.
Words by Jessy Wong