On the char kway teow trail in Ipoh

The char kway teow at Wah Nam Coffee Shop is served on a banana leaf for that extra aroma; a slightly spicy and tangy chilli sauce with vinegar goes with it. – Pictures by James Tan
The char kway teow at Wah Nam Coffee Shop is served on a banana leaf for that extra aroma; a slightly spicy and tangy chilli sauce with vinegar goes with it. – Pictures by James Tan

IPOH,July 5 — One of Malaysia’s most popular hawker fare is the char kway teow; kway teow (flat rice noodles) or sometimes mixed or substituted with yellow noodles, eggs, shrimps, cockles, bean sprouts and chives all fried together in a wok.

And depending on which region or state you order this from, you may get additional items such as lap cheong (Chinese waxed sausages), mantis prawns and even crab meat if you are lucky.

Although found in most Chinese coffee shops across the country, char kway teow is almost synonymous with Penang given the sheer popularity of this dish made famous by some very high profile hawkers in the northern state.

After spending slightly more than four years on the island and exploring almost every nook and cranny in search of excellent hawker fare, there are still char kway teow “legends” that have escaped my radar; maybe due to the lesser proliferation of news shared through social media (this was before the era of Facebook, let alone Instagram).

However, the story that I want to share with you today revolves around char kway teow stalls in Ipoh, instead of diving into yet another one of those ever-engaging (but neverending) debates on the best char kway teow in Penang.

Despite being lesser known for char kway teow compared to its northern neighbour, Ipoh has always been renowned and highly-regarded for its excellent hawker fare.

Let me start with this stall located among the stretch of food stalls near Ipoh Stadium named Seng Loong which has been around for what seems like forever, and still draws a hefty number of customers for breakfast and lunch.

The strangely familiar-sounding name is the nickname used by Jackie Chan; the actor famous for his kung fu movies and death-defying stunts.

Although this plate of char kway teow from Chor Kee is not as good as the rest, the memories of having this right after tuition class is priceless
Although this plate of char kway teow from Chor Kee is not as good as the rest, the memories of having this right after tuition class is priceless

Although at Seng Loong the owner-cum-cook’s frying skills and wok-king moves are nothing like the kung fu master’s acrobatics in that sense, the wok hei (smoky aroma imparted to the dish by a well-fired wok and a gauge of the cook’s expertise) was evident in every plate of char kway teow dished out.

The crunchy Ipoh bean sprouts, the unmistakable taste of the chives, juicy cockles and the slightly piquant with a tinge of sourness chilli sauce on the side. No wonder Seng Loong has been so popular over the years.

Moving to the nearby neighbourhood of Ipoh Garden South, there are two stalls housed within different coffee shops that have been selling the dish for years, and have strong supporters as well.

The first of these is the stall now located at Chor Kee coffee shop, but was previously operating from the corner lot nearer to Pizza Hut, and behind the ballet dance school.

I remember my brother and I were avid fans of the lady’s version of char kway teow, constantly getting our fix here after tuition class at the centre just a stone’s throw away.

However, this last visit to their relocated position in Chor Kee revealed that the quality has since gone down; the wok hei was clearly missing while the alkaline taste of the yellow mee permeated through.

The other stall at Kafe Sentosa (at the far end of the row with Chor Kee) named Chian Kee’s fried noodles fares much better in consistency, and offers more varieties of fried noodles including the ubiquitous char kway teow, as well as fried thick yellow noodles (also known as fried Hokkien noodles here in Ipoh) and such.

But the catch is that, you may need to wait a long time during peak hours, for example Sunday mornings. On a side note, this shop has one of the best Hong Kong chee cheong fun stalls in town as well!

If you are wandering around the city centre, then a visit to Wah Nam coffee shop near to the dim sum trinity of Ipoh on Leong Sin Nam Road is a must.

At times, the use of fancy/premium ingredients such as larger prawns, mantis prawns or even crab meat may or may not help elevate the char kway teow experience but the wok hei is critical
At times, the use of fancy/premium ingredients such as larger prawns, mantis prawns or even crab meat may or may not help elevate the char kway teow experience but the wok hei is critical

The Penang-style char kway teow is served on a banana leaf and comes with lots of chives, eggs and bean sprouts, and a tangy chilli sauce that goes with exceptionally well with the plump shrimps and cockles.

Or you can drive over to Ipoh Old Town to look for a stall that serves a version that is vaguely similar to this at Nam Heong coffee shop which is also the founder of the famous Old Town White Coffee brand.

Apparently there is one pushcart stall in Gunung Rapat, outside of the wet market that only operates at night. The elderly man still fries his char kway teow over charcoal-fuelled flames for that extra oomph, but until now I have yet to visit this stall.

Compared to the big names in Penang, Ipoh’s char kway teow stalls still have a long way to go, but there will always be a hidden gem waiting to be discovered right around every corner of this lovely hometown of mine.

Mee Goreng & Minuman Seng Loong, Stall #32, Medan Selera Stadium Ipoh

Pusat Makanan Chor Kee, 43, Lebuh Taman Ipoh, Taman Ipoh Selatan, 31400 Ipoh

Kafe Sentosa Ria, Lebuh Taman Ipoh,Taman Ipoh Selatan, 31400 Ipoh

Wah Nam Coffee Shop, Jalan Raja Ekram, 30300 Ipoh

Nam Heong Coffee Shop, 2, Jalan Bandar Timah, 30000 Ipoh

James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)