COMMENTARY, July 29 — Your favourite chee cheong fun tells more about you than you might realise.
Be it Penang style chee cheong fun dressed with sweet sauce and hae ko (thick shrimp paste) or the original Cantonese version you’d find in Hong Kong, silky smooth and oh so slippery, we usually have one that we prefer over the others.
And if we pay close attention, these humble rolls of rice noodles slathered in unctuous sauce can tell us a small story about our lives and what we treasure the most.
For those of us who train at gyms (before the current, ongoing lockdown, of course), lifting weights to get stronger, consuming that post workout meal within an hour feels like a ritual of sorts.
A critical part of this post-workout meal is the protein, of course, that macronutrient venerated by gym-goers all over, but one of my workout buddies, Daniel, would always insist on getting his carbs in too.
His go-to pick for carbs? Chee cheong fun. Specifically the Penang style chee cheong fun.
Daniel wasn’t a snob about it though. He’d be just as happy with obtaining it from a hawker stall or an air-conditioned franchise coffee shop. It’s the next best thing short of eating it in Penang.
And that’s something Daniel would do on the regular, back before the pandemic. Weekend road trips, staying a night or two, the requisite street food tour — char kway teow, asam laksa, lor bak, the list goes on.
But my buddy’s must-have in Penang is, of course, the chee cheong fun.
DANIEL: What’s not to love?
DANIEL: The perfect ratio of protein/carbs/fats, man.
ME: That’s so not the perfect ratio for building muscle.
DANIEL: It is lah.
ME: You just made that up.
DANIEL: It’s the perfect ratio for... me.
ME: Can’t argue with the fact you’re devouring lots of your perfect ratio.
DANIEL: Can’t argue with the results either. Check out these guns. Don’t hate.
He’s right, unfortunately. The results are admirable, though they might have more to do with his numerous sets of deadlifts, barbell squats and bench presses than actual chee cheong fun consumption.
Daniel doesn’t say it, but heading to Penang for chee cheong fun satisfies the adventurer in him, that sense of wanderlust and doing things his way.
For others, chee cheong fun is a taste of home and of family. My Ipoh-born friend Chee Chung was nicknamed Ipoh Boy largely because of how deeply he’s associated with his hometown.
From taking friends who are visiting Ipoh to a plethora of dim sum spots in town to surprising us with a Momofuku style bao in an unassuming food court, there’s an undeniable sense of pride for where he was born and grew up.
So it’s always exciting to feast vicariously through the meals he has, especially since we haven’t seen each other in many a month now, what with the travel restrictions.
ME: So what’s for breakfast today?
IPOH BOY: Dim sum! With my family.
IPOH BOY: Charsiu bao, siu mai, lor mai gai and of course, chee cheong fun.
ME: Oh wow.
IPOH BOY: Just dabao back and brew our own pot of tea at home.
IPOH BOY: Guess what was my nickname during my school days?
ME: Don’t tell me it’s Chee Cheong Fun.
IPOH BOY: You got it! Chee Chung/Chee Cheong. Haha.
ME: Schoolboys have the most sophisticated sense of humour ever.
IPOH BOY: I know, right?
There’s a certain magic about visiting a dim sum parlour and ordering a plate of kong sik (Hong Kong style) chee cheong fun. This has to be made fresh so none of that reheating chilled, pre-made rolls. Too much of a bother, then, to make it at home.
This is a chee cheong fun someone else makes for you. Someone with more practice, more craft, more time, really. So you have more time to spend with family, Ipoh Boy reminds me.
It’s beloved all around the world, especially where you find populations of Cantonese people. I’ve had it in Hong Kong and I’ve had it in Bangkok, but the best version I’ve had — to me at least — is the one from an open-air stall in a small alley in Johor Baru.
JB isn’t my hometown but don’t we all have many homes? The distant cities where we studied far away from our family; the small towns our spouses grew up in and that we grew to love; the vibrant capitals of neighbouring countries where we had worked for a spell.
It’s the morning market located between two rows of shophouses at Jalan Sri Pelangi. Folks gather for their yau char kwai, tau foo fa and juicy gossip, albeit now masked and from an appropriate social distance, I would hope.
The tiny chee cheong fun stall is run by a middle-aged couple, Mr and Mrs Ee. Uncle and Auntie Ee. Their Hong Kong style steamed rice noodle rolls are some of the very best I’ve tasted, made to order.
Layers upon layers of thin, slippery-smooth rolls doused in a special sauce and paired with an umami-rich chilli paste. We always ask for the works where fillings are concerned: both shrimp and morsels of charsiu. A sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds and there you have it: perfection.
Over the course of our lives, we will call many places home and this chee cheong fun in JB’s Taman Pelangi, not far from the Causeway, tastes like the childhood and the growing up years of the one I love the most.
It is home, too, and Uncle and Auntie Ee’s rice noodle rolls are what that tastes like.
We only hope that they are safe and thriving, having not seen them for a year or two now. When things are safer, we will return and not only taste our favourite chee cheong fun again but to catch up with the amazing people who make it.
When you savour your favourite chee cheong fun, you are tasting a little of your own life story.
Travelling to Penang for chee cheong fun, perhaps what you are really seeking is freedom and independence. Enjoy it kong sik style in Ipoh? Perhaps that offers a sense of family, of heritage and belonging.
For me, chee cheong fun tastes of love and building a life together. What does your chee cheong fun taste of?
For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.