Ah Leng's supreme Char Koay Teow
Taste is very subjective and since Penangites are spoiled with choices, their discerning palate is indeed well-tuned to great food. Should you wish to see them enraged and in full disgust, just serve them a plate of something ordinary, or if you dare, something horrible. This only goes to illustrate how passionate they are about food, especially the local delicacies.
Ask them for their top list of char koay teow stalls and the usual suspects would appear. Among the top five would definitely be Ah Leng Char Koay Teow.
There are a couple of branches of the “Famous Ah Leng Char Koay Teow” franchise on Penang island. The one I frequent most is run by one of Ah Leng’s children located at Tong Hooi Café along Dato Keramat Road (directly opposite Jalan Dunlop). The man himself, Ah Leng, can sometimes be seen in his element slaving over a fiery wok. He also cooks in the evenings at his Ayer Itam stall at Zoo Road.
What makes Ah Leng's char koay teow really special and loved by both locals and foreigners alike? To begin with, it has to be the star attraction on the plate – the succulent jumbo-size prawns. For the regular-size serving, you get two prawns and for the "special" version, you get four. These extremely fresh huge prawns justify the price!
I notice that Ah Leng does not cook the prawns first. Bean sprouts, koay teow (flat rice noodles) and prawns are all added to the wok at the same time. This results in the prawns being so incredibly plump and juicy and cooked just right. Their crunchy texture is gratifying indeed. If you are allergic to crustaceans or would not like to be distracted from the rest of the dish, you can of course do without them; the dish is still satisfying.
You should also opt for a duck's egg. The creaminess of the egg gives the plate of char koay teow a richer flavour. This is due to the fact that ducks' eggs have more calories and nutrition per gram compared to chicken eggs. Further to boot, its beautiful orange yolk adds colour to the dish.
For a plate of Ah Leng's "special", on top of two additional prawns, the char koay teow is also topped with mantis prawns. Like all seafood, cooking them just right is a prerequisite to maintain their unique flavour. Ah Leng fills an empty wok with oil and cooks the mantis prawns in large batches. When cooked, he strains them dry and sets them aside ready for garnishing. He keeps the oil that becomes enriched with a rich seafood aroma and a beautiful deep orange colour for frying the koay teow later.
Although Ah Leng uses gas to cook, he is able to impart “wok hei” – that aromatic smoky, caramelised “wok’s breath” flavour – into the dish. There is a good balance between savoury, sweet and spicy from a mixture of light soya sauce and chilli paste. I suspect he would have added his secret ingredients into the soya sauce. The spiciness in the dish can be adjusted upon request but is normally, only moderately spicy by default.
The role of the cockles in this dish is equally important. They should be juicy and plump. For those who love small crispy cubes of deep-fried pork lard, they will be in for a treat. Ah Leng's deliberate omission of the slivers of Chinese sausages does not lower the quality of the ultimate dish.
Be prepared to wait for a while as the queue during festive seasons and school holidays is long. It also gets much busier during lunchtime so I would suggest going early for those who want to avoid the crowd.
I am happy that Ah Leng has managed to pass on his skills to the next generation. With good quality, the family business looks like it is in good hands.
Ah Leng Char Koay Teow
Tong Hooi Cafe, 358 Jalan Dato Keramat Road, 10150 George Town, Penang
Opens: 10:30am –3:00pm. Closed on Wednesdays.
T: +6012 498 3962
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated: 24 November 2021