This is undoubtedly Malaysia’s and Singapore’s fight for a national dish. Singapore may have Chili Crab, and Malaysia may have Nasi Lemak, but the foodies of these countries are not content with just one national delicacy – the fight for Char Kway Teow is on!
Char Kway Teow is made from flat rice noodles of around 1cm, stir-fried over very high heat with light and dark soy sauce, chilli, a small quantity of belachan, whole prawns, de-shelled blood cockles, bean sprouts, and chopped Chinese chives. The dish is commonly stir-fried with egg, slices of Chinese sausage, and fishcake. Char Kway Teow is traditionally stir-fried in pork fat, with crisp croutons of pork lard. Interestingly, in Penang, Malaysia, Char Kway Teow commonly served on a piece of banana leaf on a plate, whereas in Singapore I found that the presentation of the dish was a more simple affair.
Char Kway Teow has a reputation of being unhealthy due to its high saturated fat content. However, when the dish was first invented, it was mainly served to labourers in both Singapore and Malaysia. The high fat content and low cost of the dish made it attractive to these people as it was a cheap source of energy and nutrients. When the dish was first served, it was often sold by fishermen, farmers, and cockle-gatherers who doubled as Char Kway Teow hawkers in the evening to supplement their income. This process is still evident, especially in Penang, Malaysia, even if Singapore has become a little more commercialised nowadays.
Versions of Char Kway Teow prepared by Muslims in Malaysia will exclude pork fat and may include extra soy sauces and spices and the use of broader-width flat rice noodles. There are also vegetarian varieties that may or may not include eggs. There are also “gourmet” versions of Char Kway Teow, usually found in the west in cities like Ipoh and Penang, where the dish may be prepared with more seafood, such as crab meat, and even with duck eggs!
I don’t know if Singaporeans or Malays cook the best Char Kway Teow, but what I do know is that the dish is yet another reason to experiment with authentic south east Asian food when travelling in the area! Where did you eat your finest bowl of Char Kway Teow?