Char kway teow



Char kway teow (炒粿条; chao guo tiao in Mandarin) is a dish of flat rice noodles and tubular yellow wheat noodles fried in garlic, sweet soya sauce and lard, with ingredients such as egg, Chinese waxed sausage, fishcake, beansprouts and cockles.1 The dish, of Teochew origins, is a familiar one in hawker centres, coffeeshops and food courts in Singapore.2

Description
In the Hokkien vernacular, char means “stir-fried” and kway teow refers to flat rice noodles.3 To prepare the dish, rice sheets are cut into thin noodle strips. The flat noodles are then combined with thick yellow wheat noodles and stir-fried in dark, sweet soya sauce, garlic and lard.4

Other ingredients include cockles (popularly known as see hum or just hum in Hokkien), lup cheong (referring to “Chinese waxed sausages” in Cantonese), beansprouts and chicken eggs.5 A sprinkling of cut cai xin (an Asian leafy vegetable; alternatively referred to as chye sim or choi sum in Hokkien and Cantonese respectively) and chopped chives add a touch of green to the dish. The cockles and other meats are usually put in last in order to retain their juiciness and prevent overcooking.6

A hot fire gives a wok hei (Cantonese for “smoky aroma”) essential to this dish, and a charcoal fire is believed to provide the best flavours. Skilled control of the fire lends the dish its trademark smoky fragrance, which is also the mark of a good plate of char kway teow.7 As late as the 1950s, some hawkers used firewood instead of gas fires to cook char kway teow, so as to infuse the dish with a smoky flavour.8

Sweet black soya sauce, sweet flour sauce, light soya sauce and fish sauce give colour and flavour to the dish. A savoury, sour chilli sauce is typically added at the end or placed at the side of the dish for those who want a spicier char kway teow.9 Hawkers usually cook each dish individually, ensuring that each portion is thoroughly flavoured with the ingredients before serving.10

History
Despite its Hokkien name, the stir-fried noodle dish is associated with the Teochew community and is believed to have originated from Chaozhou in China’s Guangdong province.11 Char kway teow began as a simple meal for the ordinary man, an uncomplicated dish of rice noodles fried with lard and dark soya sauce. Rice vermicelli was added to the original flat noodle dish, but this was later replaced by yellow wheat noodles.12

Duck eggs were commonly used in char kway teow in the 1950s and ’60s, but they were increasingly replaced with chicken eggs; the latter was cheaper, while farming and importation of ducks eggs ceased in Singapore.13

During the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945), tapioca was widely used in cooking, due to its low cost. The noodle in char kway teow at the time was sometimes made of tapioca so the noodle was red, and the dish was cooked in red palm oil, giving the dish an overall red colour and a different taste.14

In the 1950s, bean sprouts became scarce in Singapore when sprout growers went on strike to protest an order by the health authorities to use tap water instead of well water to grow the sprouts.15 The Chinese leafy vegetable cai xin was thus introduced to the dish to replace beansprouts.16

Lard is traditionally used to fry char kway teow, the crispy lard bits giving it a tasty crunch. However, the pig virus epidemic in 1999 led many hawkers to turn to vegetable oil instead of lard to fry the noodles.17 Fewer eateries use lard today, especially after the Health Promotion Board publicised the adverse health effects of consuming lard in a 2006 initiative.18 In place of lard, more vegetables and other ingredients such as fishcake are added to the dish.19 However, some regard the use of lard as an essential ingredient in producing the authentic taste of char kway teow.20

In the absence of lard, some hawkers use soya beans and ikan bilis (anchovies) to enhance the taste of char kway teow.21 Cockles are also sometimes excluded from the dish due to health risks such as hepatitis “A” when not cooked or prepared properly.22

Char kway teow may still be served wrapped in beige-colour opeh (betel nut palm) leaf, a common practice from the 1940s to the ’70s. Dishes served on opeh leaves are said to be infused with the woody fragrance of the palm leaves, thus enhancing their taste.23

Variants
The dish is served either creamy-wet, or oily but dry. The Teochew version of char kway teow tends to be less flavourful and lighter in taste.24

Char kway teow is one of the signature dishes of the Malaysian state of Penang. Penang char kway teow is a typical Teochew variety – the dish is lighter and not as sweet as the usual Singapore versions because the sweet dark sauce is omitted. The flat rice noodles used in Penang char kway teow are also thinner than those in Singapore. In place of chicken eggs, duck eggs are sometimes used in Penang, gving extra flavour and texture to the dish.25 For takeaways, many Penang stalls wrap the char kway teow in banana leaf, tying it up into a conical shape with a grass string.26 An alternative dish in Penang is composed of lo shi fun (rat’s-tail noodles) fried using the same ingredients – a dish that is not found in Singapore.27

A version from Klang Valley in the Malaysian state of Selangor is known as supp chow kway teow (Cantonese for “wet fried kway teow”), but is a rare find today. Besides the inclusion of pork rind, a little water is also added during the cooking process to help blend its flavours and make it moist.28

Another variant of char kway teow is pre-fried and cooked with only beansprouts and garlic. Sometimes referred to as orr kway teow (orr meaning “dark” in Hokkien), this is a popular, inexpensive dish usually eaten for breakfast and sold at food stalls in Singapore.29

In place of the usual ingredients, some stalls may also use ingredients such as large prawns, mantis prawns, crab meat and even lobster meat in their char kway teow.30



Author

Bonny Tan



References

1. What’s on this plate? The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Wan, R., & Hiew, R. (2010). There’s no carrot in carrot cake. Singapore: Epigram Books, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING 41.30095957 WAN); Miscellaneous Column 4. (2005, July 5). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 94. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
3. Ong, J. T. (2010). Penang heritage food. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 23. (Call no.: RSEA 641.595951 ONG); Famous street food of Penang: A guide and cook book. (2006). Malaysia: Star Publications, p. 92. (Call no.: RSEA 641.595951 FAM)
4. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 94. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Wan, R., & Hiew, R. (2010). There’s no carrot in carrot cake. Singapore: Epigram Books, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING 41.30095957 WAN)
5. Tan, J. (2009, September 19). Wok this way. The Business Times, p. 38; Tan, C. (2007, June 17). Seeing harm in ‘see hum’. The Straits Times, p. 4; Lightening up local foods. (1993, April 28). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Wan, R., & Hiew, R. (2010). There’s no carrot in carrot cake. Singapore: Epigram Books, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING 41.30095957 WAN)
7. Man, K. K. (1996, July 28). Wok this way for guotiao. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Tan, J. (2009, September 19). Wok this way. The Business Times, p. 38. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, J. (2015, July 5). On the char kway teow trail in Ipoh. Malay Mail Online. Retrieved from Malay Mail Online website: http://www.themalaymailonline.com/eat-drink/article/on-the-char-kway-teow-trail-in-ipoh
9. Wan, R., & Hiew, R. (2010). There’s no carrot in carrot cake. Singapore: Epigram Books, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING 41.30095957 WAN)
10. Famous street food of Penang: A guide and cook book. (2006). Malaysia: Star Publications, p. 94. (Call no.: RSEA 641.595951 FAM)
11. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, p. 94. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
12. Chan, K. S. (1994, July 22). The good ol’ roadside chao guotiao hawker. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Hu, J. (2014, May 2). Duck eggs are not banned here… technically. Makansutra. Retrieved from Makansutra website: http://www.makansutra.com/stories/3/1147/Duckeggsarenotbannedhere ; Yeo, J. (2012, October 5). Why duck eggs are not sold in Singapore. Makansutra. Retrieved from Yahoo website: https://sg.entertainment.yahoo.com/news/why-ducks-eggs-not-sold-singapore-100133471.html
14. Chua, S. K. (1982, February 10). Oral history interview with Heng Chiang Ki [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000152/8/6, p. 73]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline
15. Chan, K. S. (1994, July 22). The good ol’ roadside chao guotiao hawker. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Chan, K. S. (1991, June 16). Cai xin was not original ingredient. The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Tan, J. (2009, September 19). Wok this way. The Business Times, p. 38. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Lee, H. C. (2006, July 31). Hawker food turns healthy in move to cut down fatty diet. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. YourSingapore. (n.d.). Char kway teow. Retrieved from YourSingapore website: http://www.yoursingapore.com/content/traveller/en/browse/dining/signature-dishes/char-kway-teow.html
20. Protect your sauce. (2006, July 16). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Leong, L. (2004, February 17). The good, the bad and the oily. Today, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Miscellaneous Column 4. (2005, July 5). The Straits Times, p. 13; Gamboa, E. (1983, June 30). Heat’s on cockles. The Straits Times, p. 48. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Teo, P. L. (2006, February 12). Leaf off. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Life!eats: A guide to Singapore’s best food places. (2004). Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, p. 121. (Call no.: RSING 647.955957 LIF)
25. Wan, R. & Hiew, R. (2010). There’s no carrot in carrot cake. Singapore: Epigram Books, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING 41.30095957 WAN); Hu, J. (2014, May 2). Duck eggs are not banned here… technically. Makansutra. Retrieved from Makansutra website: http://www.makansutra.com/stories/3/1147/Duckeggsarenotbannedhere
26. Ong, J. T. (2010). Penang heritage food. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 23. (Call no.: RSEA 641.595951 ONG)
27. Lee, G. B. (2007). Classic Asian noodles. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, p. 94. (Call no.: RSING 641.822 LEE)
28. Cheong, S. (2006, May 20). Wet and tasty. New Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
29. Cheong, S. (2007, March 24). Orr koay teow, anyone. New Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
30. Tan, J. (2015, July 5). On the char kway teow trail in Ipoh. Malay Mail Online. Retrieved from Malay Mail Online website: http://www.themalaymailonline.com/eat-drink/article/on-the-char-kway-teow-trail-in-ipoh



Further resources
Brissenden, R. (2007). Southeast Asian food: Classic and modern dishes from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Singapore: Periplus Editions.
(Call no.: RSEA 641.595 BRI)

Hutton, W. (1973, January 27). Worth waiting for this char kway teow man. New Nation, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Quah, N. (2006, August 4). Great char kway teow without the lard. Today, p. 28. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Seetoh, K. F. (2006, February 18). The search for the perfect char kway teow. The New Paper, p. 35. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Shuib, T. (2009, May 16). In char kway teow heaven! New Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/

Tay, L. (2010). The end of char kway teow and other hawker mysteries. Singapore: Epigram Books.
(Call no.: RSING 647.955957 TAY)



The information in this article is valid as at 28 July 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further resources on the topic.

Subject
Ethnic Communities
Heritage and Culture