Char kway teow, like chicken rice is another Singaporean food court staple, but variations exist in Indonesian and Malaysian food also.
Thick, wide rice noodles are stir fried with dark & light soy sauce, onions, garlic, Chinese sausage, beanspouts, cockles, sliced fishcake, egg and chives. The soy turns the whole dish a brown colour.
Historically char kway teow was invented to fuel the labourers in colonial Singapore, it was a cheap filling meal, with plenty of carbohydrates to keep the workers going. It was cooked with lard, presumably to add extra calories and also flavour.
Fast forward to the modern day and there’s a bit of a cultural shift, as modern, cosmopolitan Singaporeans aren’t working in manual or labour intensive jobs and mostly aren’t that poor either. The traditional, fatty, char kway teow has evolved to suit the healthier eating people are more accustomed to. Many char kway teow stalls now hang a ‘no lard’ sign. There are also hawker stalls that modify the dish and add greens to the mix, too.
Char kway teow is Singaporean heritage that’s falling out of fashion due to the high fat content – It’s likely in a generation or two when the current hawkers hang up their aprons there will be no one to take their place. A very realistic reminder of the precarious position endangered dinners can be in.
The flavours are well balanced for what seems like an arbitrary mix of ingredients; the original sellers were fishermen and farmers who supplemented their income by moonlighting as chefs in the evenings. The Chinese sausage and cockles offer sweet and salty tones respectively and the beansprouts provide a bit of crunch. In terms of edible Singaporean history, char kway teow is up there and absolutely worth trying at least once.
It’s worth noting the cockles aren’t the same in char kway teow as the sort myself and other Europeans would be used to. As a child, my dad would always buy pickled white cockles from the fishmonger on Saturday mornings, lace them with vinegar and we would eat them with wooden chipforks. I still love that taste, they might look like tiny bird foetuses and are full of grit, but it reminds me of my childhood. The cockles used in char kway teow are called blood cockles (si hum) because they are red and contain haemoglobin. the same protein that makes blood red. This imparts some of the rich flavour that char kway teow is so well known for and is quite a different taste.
Any food court, or hawker market will provide you with the hit of salty, smokey dark noodles. Maxwell road food court is well versed with tourists, and many of the stalls offer dishes in $3/4/5 price brackets making it perfect for singles, and groups to share.
Another variation, which I hopefully will be trying in the coming weeks is ‘Penang style char kway teow’, which I’ve read is not so sweet.
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