Varieties of char hor fun for different palates
Hor fun is a versatile type of rice noodles made from rice flour, water, salt and cooking oil. Although hor fun in itself is rather bland, it is able to absorb the flavours of any meat or stock it is cooked with. Its soft, slippery yet chewy texture is key in a few popular street food specialities here in Penang – char hor fun, dry stir-fried beef hor fun, steamed fish over hor fun and hor fun with pek cham kay (poached chicken).
Hor fun is also known as Shahe fen in Mandarin. According to the China Daily website, "Rice noodles, or Shahe fen, is a traditional dish famous in Shahe town, Guangzhou. The delicacy was first made during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and enjoys a history of more than one and a half centuries. The making of the Shahe fen involves soaking rice and then grinding it into a paste, followed by steaming it and cutting it into long thin strips like noodles. Shahe fen noodles are broad, white in colour, and somewhat slippery with a chewy and elastic texture."
Chinese traders and immigrants from Canton (now Guangzhou) who ventured into the Malay archipelago to seek a better life must have also brought along with them recipes and culinary skills. It is this vibrant melting pot of early settlers from all over the globe that has paved the way for Penang's dynamic food culture today.
Although there is an array of varieties and variations of stir-fried noodles in Penang, char hor fun is indelibly a permanent and established offering loved by both the locals and tourist alike.
Let us take a closer look at char hor fun. "Char hor fun” can easily be broken down into “char” meaning "fried” in Hokkien and “hor fun”, the Cantonese term for flat, rice noodles. In Cantonese, this dish would be called sar hor fun.
The dish consists of thick flat rice noodles accompanied by vermicelli wok-fried on high heat with lard, seasoned with dark and light soy sauces until slightly charred. It is then set aside. A good plate of char hor fun must have this "breath of the wok" aroma. If requested, an egg can be scrambled with the hor fun. In this case, the egg is no longer added to the gravy.
With a good bone broth (either pork or chicken), a tasty gravy is cooked with a host of ingredients including chai sim (choy sum), prawns, thin strips of pork and slices of pig’s liver as well as fish cakes. The gravy is then thickened with tapioca flour and egg (if desired) before being poured over a plate of smoky hor fun. Prior to serving, the dish is topped with slices of char siew (Chinese barbecue pork) and a dusting of white pepper. It is also served with some slices of preserved green chillies. A stall that I frequent is located at Bee Hooi Kopitiam in Kimberley Street. The conventional char hor fun there is scrumptious. Being a popular dish, char hor fun is available at most food courts throughout Penang.
Some seafood versions available at restaurants and hotels would add squid, rehydrated cuttlefish, fish flesh and crab sticks. Tho Yuen Restaurant in Campbell Street offers a dry version sans any gravy. A good sambal belacan will complement this dry variety brilliantly.
The char hor fun recipe has literally remained unchanged for a very long time as this classic dish is almost impossible to innovate upon. Having said that, Ah Huat Pek in Balik Pulau has upped the ante, offering a unique crispy deep-fried version. His creation became a social media sensation, with many food bloggers making a bee line to his stall in Kuala Jalan Baharu.
The ingenious thing Ah Huat Pek does differently is to deep-fry the hor fun. Hor fun is called “tua pan koay teow” in Hokkien. The rice noodles puff up when deep-fried in hot oil, closely resembling little crispy air pillows. When the lor (starchy gravy in Hokkien) is ladled over the dish, the crispy noodles that absorb the gravy will lose their crunchiness and regress to the chewy, soft hor fun texture. It is this surprising combination of textures that works really well in Ah Huat Pek's creation.
The flavours of the dish come from good chicken stock that Ah Huat Pek prepares beforehand. Living in a fishing village as he does , he obtains fresh prawns daily from neighbourly fishermen. The fresh ingredients and quality stock provide flavourful taste to his noodles.
When I was there, Ah Huat was kind enough to drop by our table to see if we were satisfied with his offerings. His cheerful disposition and humble charisma were engaging and we had a barrel of laughs.
Hawkers selling char hor fun like Ah Huat Pek usually also offer other cooked noodle dishes such as Hokkien char and ee fu mee. Surprisingly, Ah Huat Pek also offers belacan chicken (crispy deep-fried chicken marinated in fermented shrimp paste). Remember to savour these delicious aromatic bite-size pieces piping hot!
Although Ah Huat Pek's stall is tucked away in a rural fish village in Balik Pulau, it is packed with diners especially on weekends and public holidays. (A stone's throw away from his stall is a bedak sejuk maker worth exploring.)
If you are not in Balik Pulau, head down to PISA Corner Cafe in Relau in the evenings. Ah Huat Pek has a branch there with his son manning the stall.
Bee Hooi Kopitiam
157-159, Lebuh Kimberley, 10200 George Town, Penang
Open: 5:30 pm to 10:00 pm except Mondays
Ah Huat Pek Stall
656 MK D, Kuala Jalan Baharu, 11000 Balik Pulau, Penang.
T: +6016 406 1352
Open 8:00 am – 3:00 pm except Wednesdays
Photographed and written by Adrian Cheah
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7 July 2022