I’m one of those ignorant kids who grew up thinking there was only one kind of noodle. Or maybe two, the kind that you’d pop out of a Maggi pack. Or those Italian hoses of Bolognese coated with minced meat. That was it.
I’m also one of those kids who grew up never really embarking on any sort of quest for noodle enlightenment. They never excited me to begin with, so I was happy to let unexciting dormant noodle dogs lie. By this wise stage of my life, I knew there were other kinds, soba, buckwheat, rice, udon, whatever else, but noodle history isn’t a topic that would have prompted me to curl up on a sofa and spend the next few hours reading about it the way, for instance, stuffed parathas might.
If I were Kung Fu Panda, daddy would hang his goose neck in shame right about now.
Flash forward to Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur where I found myself last week. Where I experienced a sort of noodle coming-of-age.
Standing at the tip of KL’s Chinatown is like facing a gigantic suction pump. You’re just edges away from the rim, one step forward and you’ll get whooshed in to this massive world of smells and sights and flavours, wanted and unwanted, all being flung in your face. And noodles. I’ve never seen so many noodles being chopped, dunked, twirled and slurped within a one mile radius of me. A little ignorant voice in me whispered: Golly. There are so many different types of noodles. And so many different ways of preparing the different types. And I don't understand the names. Uh oh.
Maybe the thought of curling up on a sofa and doing some noodle research before stepping into this slurpy menagerie wouldn’t have been such a bad idea after all.
Or I could have just turned to the last section of my handy Lonely Planet Guide to Malaysia, the one that I obviously found on my flight home to Dubai, and quickly skimmed two of Robyn Eckhardt’s brilliantly simple paragraph on noodles in Malaysia. She describes the Chee Cheong Fun, a frivolous sounding noodle that I had glimpsed in KL’s Chinatown when I walked past stall owners slicing up translucent “steamed rice flour sheets into strips topped with meat gravy or chilli and black prawn sauces.”
But I had skipped them because Assam Laksa had been my noodle aim for the day. Robyn’s description of laksa from a particular stall (‘the end stall’) in Chinatown’s Madras lane had me fixed on ordering the dish, though I clumsily picked the wrong 'end' of the line of stalls and chose a laksa stand that wasn't the one glorified in Robyn's writings. Yet, those white rice noodles, concealed under a sweet, throat-warming, sardine and minty broth was quite an exact replica of the Laksa that Robyn had described.
Fat chunks of tinned sardine bobbed up at the top of the soup, garnished with mint and ominous Thai bird chilies. The heat of the laksa was a different, superficial kind—the kind that made my face erupt into a sweating, heaving volcano, the kind that coursed down my throat with a fiery urgency, barely extinguished by its complex constitution of sweet pineapple bits, onion, and fleshy tinned sardine chunks. But by the time the broth and its noodle flotsam had reached my belly, the fire was gone. This was not like Indian spice, not the sadistic kind that burns you in your chest, in your lower tummy, and in all other bad places that were never made to burn.
The laksa noodles were thick, gelatinous, most likely rice flour-based, and responded to my teeth with a far more substantial bite than the noodles in the Johor Laksa I sampled with Mark, the Simply Enak tour guide, in Petaling Jaya. I sadly don't remember much of the Johor Laksa (sorry Mark. I suck.), but to be fair, (a) my stomach had been overextended during a food tour the night before, (b) Mark had just fed me a Malaysian breakfast at the local wet market, with my favorite black sesame buns included, and (c) I had a plate of sweet, fragrant Beef Rendang that was vying for my attention at the time the Johor Laksa made an appearance. My scant notes on the dish say: "broth made from fish, minty taste, kalamansi, onions, basil." And Wikipedia declares that Johor Laksa replaces from the thick Laksa noodle with plain spaghetti noodles. So be it. Fishy, minty, lemony soup of spaghetti noodles.
Another noodle variant that I stuck my chopsticks into were the yellow Chinese mee noodles that appeared in my soup bowl at the Imbi market. In a market throbbing with steaming vats and big net noodle ladles and pimpled deep-fried shapes and a mountain of other foods that were screaming out exotically scary but exciting names, I ordered the…Chicken Sliced Noodle. Sometimes I make such walloping big mistakes that hitting my head with a rock-hard coconut feels inadequate, hence I lay it bare on this blog so you can all laugh and point fingers and fling subpar noodles at me. I may have been blind to the insipid name, but the soup more than made up for it, mocking me with a blandness that even the scallions and sambal couldn’t salvage. In a place where I should have scaled the peak of Malaysian culinary experimentation, I was instead hanging precariously from the threads of noodle mediocrity.
The Imbi market disappointment was a far cry from the Prawn Hokkien Mee I had shared with mom two nights before at Little Penang Kafé in the mall adjacent to the Petronas towers. The massive bowl of Hokkien Mee showcased fat boiled egg halves, chicken strips, two juicy prawns and swamp cabbage (kankong) delicately floating over a spicy, deadly flavorful broth that’s the perfect mix of tastes to bring you back to earth after you’ve scaled the Petronas next door. The soup twirled its way around two kinds of noodles: yellow egg noodles as well as bee hoon, or rice vermicelli, that traced the broth with its skinny, silky fingers.
Noodles also made an appearance at the Nasi Kandar restaurants peppered all about the country. Nasi Kandars are flavourful imprints of South Indian, often Muslim, immigrants on the Malaysian culinary scene, and serve everything from tandoori chicken to thosai (aka dosa). In contrast to their Malay or Chinese counterparts, the Nasi Kandar noodle versions were usually left ‘unsouped’ and stir-fried as mee goreng, full of Indian-style curry powder, and reminiscent of the Maggi curry flavor that almost every Indian child, and every Indian adult who has remnants of an Indian child within him, loves irrationally. In fact, in many places, the restaurants use the Maggi mix right out of the pack.
My plate of Maggi Goreng Ayam at Penang’s Gurney Tower was topped with chopped fried chicken, tender white chunks with the curried crispy skin left intact. Even though I had initially scoffed at the thought of going to a restaurant to have them whip something out of a Maggi pack for me, you’d be surprised, the addition of crispy fried chicken and some restaurant wok grease really does amp up those noodles a notch higher than what you can slurp down at home. [Thanks for taking me here Pris!]
Another type of noodle that slid its way down during my dinner in Penang was the Kway Teow, flat rice noodles that are the protagonist of Penang’s famed Char Kway Teow. These noodles are usually throbbing with thick soy sauce and oodles of wok grease, topped with cockles, eggs, bean sprouts, shrimp and often pork, unless you go for the porkless version that I found at the nightly street food market on Penang’s Gurney Drive.
It was the same night that I had been running a fever, and teetered out of my hotel room in search of food. Either it was the fever that had numbed my taste buds, or the Char Kway Teow stall I picked wasn’t the life of Penang noodle action, but this much hyped and lauded dish didn’t really have me lasso-ing the stall owner with my last noodle for more. After five greasy spoonfuls, I put my plastic fork down in resignation.
I think I had enough noodles on one trip to sling me all the way to China and back. And even then, I know I left the country not having noodled my way through so many other variants, be it the coconut-based Laksa Lemak, the Loh See Fun that Robyn Eckhardt unappetizingly describes as stubby ‘rat tail’ noodles, sticky Lor Mee (though I doubt I’d get a pork-free version), the Won Ton Mee dumpling and noodle combination, the potato gravied egg noodles of Mee Rebus, or the beef noodle shops I saw people flocking to on Chinatown’s Petaling Street. I was like that small little ringlet of a scallion lost in a sea of soupy noodles, surrounded by so many options that weren’t even really options because I hadn’t done my homework before the trip. Maybe curling up with a book on noodle history and culture before my next trip to the Far East won’t be such a bland idea after all.
Madras Lane Stalls
With Simply Enak Food Tours
10, Persiaran Zaaba, Taman Tun Dr. Ismail, KL10 Persiaran Zaaba, KL
Phone: (03) 7728-8173
Chicken Sliced Noodle
Stall at Imbi Market (official name: Pasar Baru Bukit Bintang), KL
Prawn Hokkien Mee
Little Penang Kafé
Phone: (03) 2163-0215
Maggi Mee Goreng
Kapitan's Nasi Kandar
Gurney Tower, Penang
Phone: (04) 8182-811
Char Kway Teow
Night Market Stalls at Gurney Drive, Penang