It was 35C in the shade, and Tan Chooi Hong, hunched over a blazing hot wok, hadn’t broken a sweat. Flames from the charcoal sparked and danced up the side of the wok, crackling as he added the ingredients one by one, just as his father taught him almost 60 years ago.
50 Reasons to Love the World – 2021
Why do you love the world?
“Because I’ve been making char kway teow for more than 60 years; people come from all over the world to taste it. I’m so proud knowing they’ve travelled to my hometown of Penang for my food. Even though we don’t speak the same language, when I see them finishing their plate, I know they are happy.” – Tan Chooi Hong (Uncle Tan), street food cook
Char kway teow, Malaysia’s most famous street food, is a simple rice noodle dish made with soy sauce, eggs, cockles, bean sprouts, Chinese sausage and a couple of shrimp. It’s common throughout the country – devoured at roadside stalls or feasted on at hawker centres – but there is only one “king” of char kway teow, and he’s in Penang.
Uncle Tan, as he’s known, is a sturdy 79-year-old with a shock of white hair and an all-knowing glimmer in his eye. He’s been cooking this single dish from a wok-cart attached to a bicycle and pushed into place on the side of Siam Road in central George Town for decades. “I don’t remember how old I was when I started. But char kway teow is all I know,” said Uncle Tan.
Uncle Tan’s unlikely fame began in 2012 when he was interviewed by a local who put the story on Facebook. His decades of cooking experience, combined with layered flavours of smoky-unctuous noodles perfectly balanced with the salty-sweet Chinese sausage, quickly got the younger generation of foodies salivating. Nothing is better than a simple noodle dish with an interesting backstory, and young Penangites ate it up. The article went viral and people began flying to the island just to taste his dish.
In 2015, celebrity chef Martin Yan, known for his Yan Can Cook TV show, visited the stall for his TV show Taste of Malaysia. If that fame didn’t cement Uncle Tan’s title as king, placing 14th (out of 50) at the World Street Food Congress in 2017 certainly did. Today, his roadside wok-cart is a fixture in the food scene and he’s widely revered as serving up the most delicious, flavoursome char kway teow in Malaysia, churning out hundreds of plates a day with people waiting in line for hours.
Uncle Tan is unfazed by his fame and prefers to keep a low profile. Humble and shy, he can’t understand what all the fuss is about and doesn’t think his version is any better than anoyone else’s.
“My dad didn’t go to school to learn any skills. It wasn’t an option. He had to work for his father, so he worked by his side cooking char kway teow every day,” his daughter, Tan Evelyn, told me. “And he’s never stopped.”
The ingredients of char kway teow are so simple that it takes a lot of skill to get it right. The main ingredient is flat rice noodles. No self-respecting char kway teow stall would use dried noodles, so Uncle Tan gets bags of the fresh, chewy goodness delivered by scooter regularly.
I watched as he skillfully added one ingredient at a time, just by feel and sight. He threw a large handful of slippery noodles in the blisteringly hot wok and used a wide metal spatula to spin them around in the garlic and lard waiting for them. After pushing the noodles up the side of the pan, he expertly cracked an egg into the middle, breaking it with the spatula to let the yolk ooze into the noodles.
A few soy sauce dashes, a spoonful of chilli sauce and a little water created a silky sauce that the noodles absorbed. Then Uncle Tan tossed in a couple of shrimp and a few slices of sweet lap cheong, or Chinese sausage. Finally, a smattering of cockles got a spin in the wok. He topped it all with a handful of crunchy bean sprouts, chives and small homemade croutons made of crispy pork fat.
He eyed the steaming noodles for the perfect consistency and then scooped them onto a melamine plate and started all over again. The whole process was lightning fast – less than two minutes – and Uncle Tan made it look effortless.
While many stalls use gas, Uncle Tan cooks on charcoal, frying one order at a time for maximum flavour and wok hei, which translates to “breath of the wok”. Wok hei is the smoky depth of flavour that charcoal adds to the dish and is expertly created by cooking the right portion over the right temperature. It’s something that gas heat cannot achieve.
Some people say that charcoal is the secret to Uncle Tan’s success, but, “they like my father’s char kway teow better than others because he’s perfected it over 60 years,” said Evelyn. “Other stalls use charcoal and the same ingredients, but no-one has his skill. Not even my brother Kean Huat who learned from him.”
Others try to attribute Uncle’s success to a secret sauce. “I promise. There is no secret sauce; it’s his wok skill,” said Evelyn. “I also cannot fry as my brother or dad. My brother has been working for years learning from my dad, and his skills are still improving. It takes a lifetime. Just ask my dad.”
“If I give you the same ingredients, you cannot make the same taste as me,” agreed Uncle Tan.
Even though char kway teow has become synonymous with Penang street food, its origins lie in China. In the 19th Century, the Chinese diaspora brought over Teochew and Hokkien people from Guangdong and Fujian provinces on China’s south-eastern coast. During that same time, Penang grew under British rule and it became a bustling entrepot providing greater employment opportunites. The Hokkien people came to work in the rubber plantations and as traders and merchants, while the Teochew found jobs in the tin mines and as fisherman. With them came some of their kitchen staples like soy sauce, bean curd and noodles called kway teow.
In Hokkien, the word char means “stir-fried”, and kway teow means “rice cake strips”, referring to the noodles. What had begun in China’s south-eastern provinces as a simple noodle dish with pork, fish sauce and soy sauce was transformed into a seafood delight once it hit the island’s shores. Initially, it was sold at night by fisherman and cockle gatherers trying to make an extra buck. Instead of the traditional ingredients, they used what was plentiful to create a revised version of the dish. It was a poor man’s food and the other Chinese immigrants devoured it as something fast, cheap and tasty to sustain them for hours under the hot sun. The dish became a labourer’s staple.
“When the waves of Teochew and Hokkien immigrants came from China, they came alone, leaving their wives and families behind. Since there was no-one to cook for them, they survived on cheap street food,” said Nazlina Hussin, a Penangite culinary specialist and author. “From wok to plate, char kway teow takes no time. These men could stop for lunch, eat and be back to work within a few minutes.”
To this day, most of the Chinese in Penang are of Hokkien and Teochew descent. It’s the only place in Malaysia where Hokkien is commonly spoken, which is why char kway teow has remained so closely linked to Penang. And although you can find the dish outside of Penang, locals say it’s not as good unless a Hokkien or Teochew makes it. That’s why people fly here from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and wait in line for hours, in the hot sun, to try Uncle Tan’s char kway teow.
It’s that good.
Plus, he’s one of the oldest char kway teow legends in Malaysia. There is a reverence in that. “Most customers come here for my dad. People say he’s a char kway teow idol. So, if he’s not cooking, they keep on driving,” said Evelyn.
In 2018, for the first time in nearly 60 years, Uncle Tan took a break. On doctor’s orders after cataract surgery, he closed his shop for six months, and his devotees, like those of any idol or guru, went berserk. The whole island almost had a breakdown, with stories in local media lamenting his sudden overnight retirement. “Today we’ve had to endure the greatest loss of mankind,” wrote culinary website Penang Foodie. “Siam Road Char Koay Teow is believed to be closed down for good.”
Uncle Tan’s son took over for a brief moment and locals weren’t kind to him; Penangites are loyal foodies and they wanted the master’s char kway teow. After six months of ever-more grandiose gossip, “We had to find a place; we couldn’t let the people down,” declared Evelyn. Instead of going back to his original roadside spot, they decided to find a premises on the same street. Today Uncle Tan still cooks from a bike pushcart with a wok attached; it’s just parked in front of his shop.
He’s widely revered as serving up the most delicious, flavoursome char kway teow in Malaysia
“Now, my son and I can take turns cooking. When I get tired, I can sit down and watch Kean Huat try to perfect my dish,” he said with a wink. “It isn’t easy. But he’s a third-generation char kway teow cook, and even though he didn’t start as young as I did, he’ll be able to perfect his skills one day too.”
Uncle Tan’s char kway teow is not only Penang’s history on a plate; it’s his family’s history as well. Hopefully, Kean Huat will live up to his father’s reputation and teach future generations how to follow in the king’s footsteps.
But until then, “I have no plans to retire. As long as I can still stand and cook over the wok, I’ll be here on Jalan Siam,” laughed Uncle Tan.
How to try it
You can find Uncle Tan’s shop at 82 Siam Road, George Town, about one block off the corner with Anson Road.
Beat the queues by heading there around 14:30, right at the end of Uncle Tan’s shift. He works from 12:00-15:00, before handing it over to his son who cooks until 18:30. Note: the shop is closed on Sunday and Monday.
BBC Travel celebrates 50 Reasons to Love the World in 2021, through the inspiration of well-known voices as well as unsung heroes in local communities around the globe.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.