Among the numerous popular hawker favorites, char kway teow has a special place in the hearts of many. It is a traditional fried noodle dish whipped up by street hawkers who gathered at the now-demolished Ellenborough Market just across Clarke Quay along Singapore River. The area was also a well known enclave of the early Teochew settlers who knew this place as tsah tsun tau 柴船头, owing to the provision of fuel-related goods like firewood, charcoal and kerosene in this area. At night, some of these hawkers take to the nearby old Thong Chai Medical Institution 同济医院 for the supper crowd who flocked here after a session of tua hee 大戏 aka Chinese wayang opera nearby or a movie produced by Cathay Organisation at Majestic cinema just a short stretch down Eu Tong Sen Road. But as peddling of street food waned in the 1980s as it became outlawed, gone were the days when these illegal hawkers had to scurry and run away from the health inspectors, colloquially known as 地牛 “tee gu“. Together with the establishment of hawker centres around the island, local delights like char kway teow spread to the heartlands and became everyone’s favorite as well.
煮炒 “tze char“ is a very common culinary concept in this part of Asia. Analogous to the makeshift stir fry and noodle stalls in Bangkok and 大排档 Dai Pai Tung in Hong Kong, the term “tze char” is a kind of street food culture unique to Singapore and Malaysia. In Singapore, the popularity of “tze char” rose gradually after the post-war years and thrived all the way up to the 1980s when these pushcart stalls could be seen in practically most living quarters as well as areas known for night entertainment like amusement parks and cinemas. With the popularising of “HDBs”, these makeshift “tze char” stall owners abandoned their practice to deck out foldable formica-plastered tables and wooden chairs for al fresco dining every evening, and of course the need to brave through bad weather, pit their wits and avoid harassment from the “teh gu” 地牛, a colloquial term for government officers in charge of raiding illegal street hawkers, not to mention the collection of “protection money” from triads who were “in charged” of the “turfs” the stalls were located in. They made their way into the heartlands, and became “anchor tenants” of kopitiams while some of their names grew so big, like 肥仔荣 Fatty Weng and 香港珍记 Hong Kong Chun Kee that they were able to own the entire coffeeshops for themselves, while others went on to open their own restaurants. Depending on the culinary background of the 总铺 chong po or head cooks, one could order a wide range of dishes representative of different dialectal communities from these “tze char” stalls, from the more standard dishes like pai guat wong 排骨王, frog legs with ginger and scallion stir-fry 姜葱田鸡腿, braised fish head 红烧鱼头 for communal family dinner eat-outs, or opt for takeaways of one-dish meals like mui fun 烩饭, yuet kwong hor 月光河, fried rice vermicelli “Singapore style” 新州炒米, and of course my favorite 煮炒福建面 Tze Char Hokkien Mee.
July comes almost to end and with that the MFF Selangor Food Fest as well. This month, I’d managed to recreate 3 dishes from Selangor, the most I’d done to date for any MFF month I think, save for the inauguration of this monthly online “cook-along” event with Melaka last August. Klang Bak Kut Teh was a personal challenge I’d set for myself while Sekinchan Shark Porridge was through the initiation by Wendy, and Hakka Pan Mee was simply because it is so immensely popular that every other food blogger taking part this month seems to have cooked it and it is almost sacrilegious not to follow suit! With just 2 days left, I’d managed to squeeze some time to whip up another simple but splendidly delicious dish from the nation’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, Fried Hokkien Mee which is incidentally also a dish that reminds me much of my childhood.