There no dish that symbolizes Penang more than char kuey teow.
Char kuey teow (ckt), or essentially fried rice noodles, was invented in Penang and is the city’s most beloved dish. I swear they revoke your Penangite card if ckt isn’t one of your top 2 favorites. This noodle dish has just a few ingredients: pork lard, prawns, cockles, egg, Chinese sausage (optional, but always better with it!), bean sprouts, fresh spring onions, soy sauce, and a spicy paste. And the key? A delicious “char” flavor from a sizzling hot wok.
It’s so simple, but it takes skill to make it right. A proper one should be made over charcoal fire to get that necessary “char” flavor. And each small batch should be made fresh to order. Don’t trust the ones made in a huge batch.
I have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with this dish. Literally unhealthy, because nothing about this is diet-friendly. If I see ckt anywhere, then it’s very hard for me to want to order something else (though this may now be rivaled by asam laksa).
In Penang, any shabby roadside stall labels itself as “Penang Famous Char Kuey Teow”. However, while this is grammatically correct, the connotation is misleading.
This implies that that particular stall is famous, when its really the specific dish that is. There are actually only a couple handfuls of very famous stalls. The most famous, of course, is Siam Road Charcoal Char Kuey Teow (know as Day King). It’s just one old man making it on a pushcart on the side of the road. The wait is often over an hour long. However, he is getting very old and only opens when he feels like it. I attempted to go 3 times and each time, arrived only to find an empty street. So I officially give up. But I made it my mission to seek out other famous vendors.
I’m quite picky with my ckt. My requirements for a good plate are:
- must not have soft or soggy noodles. Noodles must be dry and slightly chewy.
- no extra or heavy sauces
- a bit of spice but not too much
- fresh plump prawns
- Chinese sausages is a HUGE plus, and sausages must be charred a bit too
Trust me, not all ckt meet these requirements. I’ve had soggy ones and bland ones and ones with prawns that tasted funny (which I’m pretty sure gave me food poisoning). I’m very weary now of eating char kuey teow from any random stall.
Sooooo with all this said…. which ones wins my favor? Let’s see how they compare! I also brought in some help from locals to give you their honest opinions.
By the way, you may see it spelled a number of ways: char kuey teow, char koay teow, char kway teow, fried kuey teow… etc. All the same thing.
Contender #1: Bee Hooi, Gurney area
Where: 415 Jalan Burma & Pulau Tikus Lane, George Town
Hours: 8:00 pm – 11:00 (closed Tuesdays)
Price: 5rm ($1.16 rm)
This is a popular night food court in the Gurney area, where I was staying. The char kuey teow stall here has made quite a name for itself.
Take it from a local: “This isn’t one of the top 5 famous char kuey teow, but still one of top 10. Almost every Penangite will know it because everyone has a friend in this area.”
The stall is manned by a husband and wife team. He cooks and she takes orders and sous chefs him. It’s amazing to watch them work together. They work in perfect unison. She throws in the ingredients at just the right moments. His job is to man the wok and cook them just right. As a result, each batch is made very fast.
A local friend said that this used to be the best char kuey teow stall in this area. But he feels like it has slightly gone down since. “20 years ago, it was one of the Penang must haves. Husband and wife getting old now,” he said. Still, I thought this was decent, though the noodles may have been just a little bit soft for my liking.
Contender #2: Joo Hooi Cafe, Georgetown
Where: 475 Jalan Penang, George Town
Hours: 11 am – 5:30 daily
Price: 5.50rm ($1.27 US)
This is a very popular food court in Georgetown. It has stalls featuring all of Penang’s most famous foods. And the original Penang Famous Chendol is located just outside. I came with CL and Laia on a Saturday and this place was absolutely PACKED. We stood around waiting for a table for quite a while before we got lucky and got one.
With so many famous foods all located under one roof, of course the char kuey teow is well known too. We also waited quite a while for our plate to be served.
Side note: what really amazes me about these busy foods courts is that when you put in your order with the cook, he has to remember your face, and then come and find you in this packed dining room. And they never forget or get it wrong.
So, back to the ckt. The texture of the noodles here is great: just the right amount of dryness (not too soggy like some stalls). I thought the taste was pretty good too, though not mind-blowing. But there were only like 2 pieces of Chinese sausage, and they weren’t even crisped properly.
However, the local Penangite opinion is that it’s not that good.
Take it from a local: “It just doesn’t capture the flavors of a true char kuey teow.”
And sure enough – we noticed that this didn’t contain any cockles. I mean, I don’t like cockles and pick them out anyway. But a proper char kuey teow always has cockles. It’s one of the major ingredients! So how can this famous one forget about it?
Contender #3: Night market by the Chew Jetty, Georgetown
Where: Chew Jetty, Georgetown
Hours: I can’t be sure, but around 6 or 7 pm
Price: 5 rm ($1.16 US)
The clan jetties are old Chinese settlements along the waterfront, when they built houses on stilts over the water. Each jetty and its houses belonged to one family. The most popular one today is the Chew Jetty (where the Chew family live).
It’s quiet touristy now with souvenir shops and ice cream vendors. However, locals secretly know that there are some great food stalls by the jetty. In the evenings, there are a dozen or so street vendors that set up shop next to the Chinese temple (which serves as the entrance into the Chew Jetty). Don’t overlook these stalls! They’re great.
Take it from a local: “Oh yes, the stalls by the jetty are great. Tourists go to CF food court across the street because that’s where Anthony Bourdain ate, but locals eat here.”
And guess what? I had one of the best plates of char kuey teow ever here. The noodles had the perfect texture – not soggy or stuck together – and the taste was wonderful. The spice is very subtle and adds to the taste. And the best part? They give A LOT of Chinese sausages, just the way I like it. So far, this stall wins for the most sausages!
I ended up coming here to eat a few times because it’s just that good. And especially for only 5rm ($1.16 US), you just can’t beat it.
Contender #4: Ah Leng, Georgetown location
Where: Jalan Dato Keramat, Kampung Makam, 10150 George Town
Hours: 9:30 am – 3:30 pm (closed Wednesdays)
Price: 8.50rm ($2 US), or 14rm for the special ($3.25 rm)
After being sorely disappointed to find Siam Road ckt closed every time, a friend suggested I go check out Ah Leng. It’s his favorite since little, he said. It was only a short walk away, so I went. Ah Leng has a couple of locations now, and the one I went to is manned by his children.
Take it from a local: “Ah Leng is next in line to become the char kuey teow king in Penang, since the Siam Road uncle is old now.”
On my friend’s advice, I ordered the special. It’s pricier at 14rm ($3.25 US), considering that an average plate costs only 5rm. But it comes with 4 large prawns and mantis shrimp! (There is a normal version with 2 prawns for 8.50rm.) The restaurant wasn’t busy when I went but I still waited quite a while for my plate.
I don’t know what else to say except that it was sooo good. (Really good food blogger I am, huh.) I’ll try harder: the noodles were perfectly dry yet soft, with just the right amount of bite. It’s also satisfyingly spicy (I found myself wiping a runny noise at the end!), but not so much that it takes away the flavors. And the prawns – so incredibly plump and fresh, cooked just right. This is probably the least photogenic ckt, but trust me, it’s SO good!
I only had one complaint: the portion size is definitely too small. I wanted an entire bucket of this!
Next time I’m back, I’m living right next to Ah Leng so I can eat here every day. Kidding. Sort of. Maybe.
Contender #5: Chulia Street night stalls, Georgetown
Where: Lebuh Chulia & Lorong Cheapside
Hours: 6 pm – 12 am daily
Price: 4.50rm ($1 US)
This is a backpacker area with a ton of hostels and backpacker cafes. And in the evenings, there’s a very lively night market with about a dozen stalls. I avoided this area for a while because it felt too “backpacker-ish”. But when I finally ate here, I actually think the food is pretty decent. I shared a few dishes with friends and I liked almost everything. Wanton noodles and char kuey teow are the two most famous stalls here.
Take it from a local: “It’s decent. Not the best, but it’s one of the better stalls that I would recommend when the famous ones aren’t open.”
There’s not much too complain nor rave about this ckt. Everything tasted as it should. I even went to have it a couple of times. I guess only one thing – I noticed there’s no Chinese sausages used here! I’m guessing this may be to keep it halal?
Conclusion: and the winner is…..
Ah Leng Char Kuey Teow!
Followed closely by the one at the Chew Jetty
But here’s the thing – even “just decent” ckt is good. This is just a delicious dish, period. Unless there’s something super wrong with it (like too soft noodles, too wet, too bland), it’s going to be good, and you’re going to be satisfied.
What other famous stalls do I need to check out?? I’m back in June for a few days and would love to complete the mission of eating all the char kuey teow!
Which ones have you tried and what did you think?