The first time I took the late Anthony Bourdain on a cha kway teow spin at a stall in Bedok some 8 years back, he glanced, took that first bite and, in vintage Bourdain style, gushed “How can something so ugly be so good”. And since then, every time we met, he would request “sha kwai shao”, his messed up pronunciation of this beloved sinful fried noodles. How great is cha kway teow? Let me spell thy ways. Often, this is a one-dish master at work in a one dish stall. To the hawker centre regulars, you can tell if the dish is in range just be hearing that distinct clanging of the wok, made by a short spatula being jabbed onto a steel or cast iron wok. These masters usually cook them no more than two or at most three portions at a time, depending on work flow and size of wok and the type of flame used. It’s a snack as well as a meal. It is also an addiction- you know you need a plate of this sin every so often. It is also a famous last meal request at hospitals- as told by my doctor and nurse friends.
It looks easy- stir fry some kway teow alone or with some yellow noodles, add taugay, Chinese sausage, fish cake, eggs, blood cockles and ladle sweet soy sauce over with fish or regular soy sauce..and voila, your plate is ready. Not so easy peasy buddy. When we brought the late Mr Ng Chiang Siang of Hill Street Fried Kway Teow (who wowed Bourdain at his Bedok stall) for a Singapore Day stint in London some years ago, I was flabbergasted at how detailed and professional he was on his stove and wok set up- he needed the fire to be off centre, so he can control heat distribution. He has his own secret blend of back sauce. His son Ah Kiat now helms the stall. If this dish was so easy to cook, believe me, there would be a lot of foreign chefs and cooks clanging away. The complexity of this dish lie in the technique. I’ll take you to two other stalls that does this as well, if not better.
1.Day Night Cha Kway Teow, 02-41, Blk 163 Bukit Merah Central Hawker Centre, 10am-8pm, closed on Thursday.
The line for this one dish specialist is visible from across the hawker centre and it’s a 20 minute wait. The master cook does about two portions at a go to maintain consistency. He fires it fast and furious and smokes up the glass enclosed stove and wok area. The noodles come not overly sweet, smooth and moist and has a comforting degree of savouriness from perhaps touches of miso or oyster sauce blended in the black sauce. The wok-hei, intact but the cockles, small and pathetic (a national supply issue). Go easy on squeezing the lime over, it may drastically alter the original flavour. The $4 portion is big enough for a full meal or snack for 2. Best to go past 1.30pm, when lines are a little more bearable.
2.786 Char Kway Teow, 01-23, Blk 115 Bukit Merah View Hawker Centre, 2.30pm to 10pm, closed on Fridays.
Mr Ang is a Chinese Muslim convert and runs this Muslim friendly cha kway teow stall. He proudly displays his conversion card up front at the stall. The secret to the moreish-ness in his version, is the sauce. It’s a sweet, savoury blend and the chilli is automatically folded in. I suspect this suits the Muslim palate and I see why. That spiciness kicks in but it does not overwhelm. All the attendant ingredients are in place- from cockles, fish cakes, bean sprouts but minus the Chinese sausage slices. Best to order a $3 portion and add $1 extra cockles for maximum pleasure.