The Many Faces of Our Local Dishes

Malaysian street food is not just mouth-watering and alluring; it is also very versatile in nature. We explore a few Penang favourites to see how they differ in appearance and taste from other states in Malaysia.

Chee Cheong Fun

Rice noodle rolls, affectionately known as chee cheong fun among Malaysians, is a staple among the Chinese across South-east Asia.These are thin, tight rolls made of steamed rice noodle sheets, constituting a peculiar appearance that resembles pig’s intestines, therefore giving rise to its moniker, “pig intestine noodles” (chee cheong fun).

Traditionally, chee cheong fun is served with soy sauce, with optional shrimp or pork fillings. This is now famously known as the Hong Kong-style chee cheong fun that we observe in dim sum restaurants. Originating from the Guangdong Province in southern China, this delicacy made its way to Singapore and Malaysia in the nineteenth century. Since then, variations of chee cheong fun have emerged across on the peninsula, making it the versatile local delicacy so many adore today.

Penang chee cheong fun.

Ipoh chee cheong fun.

The Penang-style chee cheong fun is served doused in a general concoction of flavourful sauces, including the thnee cheo (a dark-reddish sweet sauce), huan cheo (chilli paste), and arguably the defining element, hae ko, which is the ubiquitous shrimp paste used in many other local delicacies such as rojak and laksa. Topped with baked sesame seeds and a dash of oil, the Penang style packs the sweet, the salty, the pungent and the spicy – all in one modest yet bold dish.

Just south of Penang, Ipoh serves its own versions of chee cheong fun: one has the rice noodle rolls doused in mushroom gravy and topped with shiitake, shredded chicken and pickled green chillies; while another slightly lesser known version incorporates curry on top of the mushroom sauce. Further south, Teluk Intan is home to the Anson-style chee cheong fun, which has its noodles rolled with choi pou (pickled sweet turnip) and dried shrimp.

In the heart of KL, chee cheong fun is drenched in a brown tau cheo-based bean sauce, called tim zheong (Cantonese for sweet sauce), and more importantly, served with a wide choice of add-ons, including yong tau fu (vegetables and tofu with fish paste), fish balls, fried bean curd, meatballs and more. Along with the other variants, it is a renowned local street food sold in the marketplace or street corners.

Penang Hokkien mee.

KL "Hokkien mee".

Hokkien Mee

Hokkien mee is another local delicacy that is widely popular among Malaysians (and Singaporeans) since originating, as its name suggests, from the province of Fujian, China. However, unlike chee cheong fun, the appearance of which changes only slightly across different states in Malaysia, variants of Hokkien mee look drastically different.

Penang Hokkien mee, one of the many prides of Penangites, is in fact known as prawn mee elsewhere. Its distinguishing feature from other variants is the rich, flavourful and spicy prawn broth. In preparation, copious amounts of prawn shells and prawn heads are boiled for hours, after which pork ribs are added to give the soup stock a rich, meaty flavour. A chilli paste made of dried chillies, shallots, garlic and salt is then added to the soup base.

Penang Hokkien mee is typically served with a mix of yellow noodles and bihun (rice noodles), while some stalls provide the option of Maggi noodles. The noodles are first scalded, after which the toppings, including shelled prawns, kangkung, bean sprouts, sliced pork, pig skin and hard-boiled egg, are arranged around the bowl. The hot soup is then ladled over the concoction, and finally, the steaming bowl is garnished with crispy fried shallots and some crunchy deep-fried lard.

This delectable bowl of greatness is ubiquitous in Penang, easily found in many hawker centres in the state. However, if you are a Penangite ordering Hokkien mee in KL for the first time and are expecting a similar bowl of soup-based delicacy, the vast difference in appearance of what you are served will leave you flabbergasted.

Hokkien mee in KL is more commonly known as Hokkien char mee (Hokkien fried noodles). As the name suggests, instead of being a soup-based dish as is the case in Penang, it is in fact stir-fried thick yellow noodles braised in a fragrant, dark-coloured sauce. Cooked along with the noodles are the main ingredients such as pork, squid, fish cakes and cabbage. It is often topped with crispy fried pork lard, which elevates the flavour of the dish and masks the alkaline taste of the noodles.

Similarly, in Singapore, Hokkien mee is also a stir-fried dish with egg noodles served in a prawn-based stock, albeit with a less dark appearance.

Lor Mee

Hokkien mee is not the only famous noodle-based staple in Penang. In fact, in some hawker stalls that sell Penang Hokkien mee, we often see lor mee, its counterpart, sold alongside it due to the similarities in their ingredients.

Lor mee shares its origins with Hokkien mee and comes from Fujian province, but has since evolved over time to be a local cuisine that incorporates both Hokkien and Hainanese influences. As with many other street foods, Penang lor mee is vastly different from lor mee in other parts of the country, where it is commonly associated with stir-fried noodles with cabbage meat.

Penang lor mee is characterised by its lor – the thick, dark, gravy base. The base is prepared from a pork bone broth that is infused with flavours from five-spice powder and subsequently added with corn flour and eggs for its distinctive thick, starchy consistency.

The thick, rich broth is ladled over a mix of yellow noodles and bihun, topped with braised meats, eggs and a sprinkle of fried scallions. If one seeks to experience a stronger punch of flavour, chilli sauce and vinegar garlic paste can be added.

For stalls that sell both Hokkien mee and lor mee, customers have the option of ordering Hokkien cham lor (Hokkien mee mixed with lor) – a heavenly combination.

Elsewhere, lor mee is typically served with a thicker version of yellow noodles. In KL, while similar in consistency, the broth appears less dark compared to the brown gravy-like base in Penang. On the other hand, while similar ingredients are used in the preparation of the broth, Terengganu-style lor mee does away with the starch in favour of a more watery consistency.

Penang lor mee.

Laksa Janggus.

Laksa

Balik Pulau is home to Laksa Janggus – a stall selling the Malay take of the assam laksa. While the Chinese-style assam laksa packs more of a punch in taste and seems to experience more fame in Penang, the Malay-style assam laksa holds its own among locals with its gentler, subtler flavour.

The process of preparing this Malay-style Penang laksa is a long and tedious one. The owner of Laksa Janggus, Fatimah Saad (known among her customers as Kak Timah) begins processing over 200kg of fresh sardine (ikan selayang in Malay) from 6am on operating days. The processed sardine is then cooked with a variety of other ingredients, including onions, belacan and dried chillies, to produce its definitive, mouth-watering fish broth.

Its white, thick rice noodles are made in a factory, sent over to the stall, boiled with hot water before being served with the delicious broth with an assortment of vegetables such as fresh mint leaves, daun kesum and cucumber as garnish.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of Malay-style Penang laksa is the inclusion of a hard-boiled egg in each bowl as a side –something not seen in Chinese assam laksa.

While Penang laksa is arguably the most well-known variation in the country, most other states have their own interpretations of this popular delicacy. “When you look at the styles in Peninsular Malaysia especially, it feels like there is a natural geographical progression from north to south, from the more sour, thin gravies to the creamy, rich ones,” says Isadora Chai, who serves a luxe version of laksa at her Antara Restaurant in KL.

In the north, laksa Kedah and laksa Kuala Perlis appear similar to the Penang variation. They are both characterised by their thick rice noodles covered by an assam-flavoured gravy made from fresh mackerel and sardines. Laksa Kedah may add prawn paste, coconut sambal and cili padi for added flavour and spiciness, and is traditionally served with finely sliced ulam such as daun selom, ulam raja and pucuk gajus (young cashew nut leaves). On the other hand, the locals like to dunk pulut panggang (grilled glutinous rice stuffed with a crumbly floss of dried shrimp, coconut, turmeric and chilli) in their laksa Kuala Perlis gravy.

Several versions of laksa also appear in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, namely laksam and laksa kuah putih. Made from fish and coconut milk, their broths differ considerably from their aforementioned counterparts in the northern region, having a more creamy taste and consistency. The rice noodles served in laksam are also vastly different: they are rice sheets rolled up like a carpet and cut into nuggets, rather than the long stringy form we are accustomed to seeing in noodle-based staples. It packs a comparatively milder flavour than the other laksa varieties, and is therefore more often eaten as breakfast among locals.

Another prominent Malay-style laksa is laksa Johor, the popularity of which extends beyond the borders of the state. A fixture in open houses during Hari Raya, it incorporates a Western element by using spaghetti instead of rice noodles. The laksa gravy is made from ikan parang (wolf herring), ikan kurau (threadfin) and prawns, as well as dried prawns and fish. Garnished with an assortment of vegetables including cucumber, bean sprouts, long beans, daun kesum and daun selasih (Thai holy basil), locals often eat it with sambal belacan and calamansi limes.

Ketupat pulut.

Ketupat nasi.

Ketupat

Ketupat is a rice dumpling that is packed inside a diamond-shaped container woven out of palm leaves. Typically served alongside rendang or opor ayam, or as an accompaniment to satay or gado-gado, it is truly a local staple, especially within the Malay community, as evidenced by its presence during festivities like Raya celebrations.

Broadly speaking, there are two main types of ketupat: ketupat nasi and ketupat pulut, the latter of which is popular in the north, including Penang. Ketupat nasi is made from white rice and is wrapped in a square shape with coconut palm leaves while ketupat pulut is made from glutinous rice and is usually wrapped into a triangular shape with leaves of the fan palm (Licuala).

In Penang, ketupat pulut is often cooked with black-eyed peas (kacang), and therefore can be eaten on its own without rendang or serunding. Since the wrap for ketupat pulut is made from daun palas, it is also commonly known as ketupat daun palas.

As with other local staples, its versatility is also evidenced in the existence of several derivative dishes, including ketupat sayur and ketupat tauhu, which are more famous in Indonesia.



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