Penang Char Koay Teow is the cornerstone of Penang hawker food. Intriguing that a dish as simple as stir frying some flat rice noodles, with bean sprouts, egg and prawns can be elevated into an artform..and so difficult to achieve...in fact impossible to achieve at home. This is because home stoves, even my powerful Viking stove at home, cannot muster the power to produce flavourful, wok hei impregnated CKT.
The goggle lady at Lorong Selamat is an icon in Penang CKT scene. I have been eating there since my school days, when a plate was RM3. In those days, the CKT was fried by a man...whom I understand is now frying CKT just outside the old coffee shop.
The stall started as a push cart along the street, and serving the coffee shop, she now operates from her own coffee shop just a few doors away...though still in a push cart...probably for licensing requirements. Her cafe now offers drinks, which is a high profit business, instead of just serving CKT and letting someone else milk the high profit drinks. Vertical integration?
Be prepared to wait at least an hour for your plate of CKT...and in the meantime, should you get impatient, and go to remind her, be prepared for an earful. Bad service and long waits are tolerated, especially by tourists who have time on their hands, but only when the taste of the dish is exceptional. And this CKT is exceptional.
But before getting into the CKT, as you would wait in the cafe, I also need to make you wait for the description of the CKT. We ordered some otak-otak to start our wait:
The Penang, peranakan style otak is steamed in a banana leaf. This was fairly typical. As one opens the banana leaf packet, the nose is hit with the fragrance of the custard/souffle like coconut paste surrounding flakes of fish. The custard/souffle is soft, tender, flavourful. And within, chunks of fish. Rather nice I must say, though my mom's home made otak is superior.
We also tempted our tastebuds with Penang laksa:
Penang laksa is different from Singapore's. Instead of a rich coconut gravy, Penang's version is a thick fish gravy, with plenty of sliced/juliened cucumber, pineapple, and generously topped with pepermint leaves and grated banana flower. This is a sweet, and sour soup. But fortified with hey koe (fermented prawn paste), to provide richness and smoothness. Typically the fish is sheredded, and boneless. But this version has boneless, whole sardines. Interesting variation. And though laksa is my least favoured Penang dish, it was quite good.
We also had some vegetables in the form of popiah:
This is similar to the popiah served at Padang Brown, but without the gravy poured on top. The turnips and filling were well stewed, and the crab meat added provided a richness not afforded if no crab was used.
Of course, the obligatory ice kachang, or in Malaysia known as ABC (air batu campur...Malay for ice mixed)
Rather tasty. I still prefer the one offered by Kek Seng Cafe at Penang Road, where huge kidney beans are added, and a lump of agar agar adds to the enjoyment. But this version served at Heng Huat is more standard. Red beans, a few attap seeds, corn, ice, syrup, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Finally, after an hour or so, the CKT arrives:
Superb as usual. Well fried. Beautiful smokey wok hei. The bean sprouts have just been flash fried, and while slightly charred on the outside, is still fresh and crisp inside, and crunchy to the bite. The koay teow was soft, and had absorbed the lard flavours. The koay teow was rather dry-er than that served by Ah Leng...possibly because she does not use the gooey tapioca flour that Ah Leng uses. This CKT is more typical of Penang CKT. The huge prawns were very fresh, crunchy, sweet. Excellent.
Its a hard toss between Ah Leng and Goggle Lady as the best CKT in my books...but if I only had time to eat at one, I will lean towards Ah Leng...though will not be disappointed if I end up at Lorong Selamat. I have not forgotten the man who now fried the CKT outside the old coffee shop just a few meters away...from what I understand, he was the original fryer, before goggle lady took over. And his CKT is very similar...my brother in law who is born, bred and still lives in Penang says in a blind test, he cannot tell the difference.
Cafe Heng Huat