There's only one thing that might motivate me, on a holiday, to roll out of bed before dawn, and if you're a regular reader of this blog there's no need for me to fill in the blank. And so it is that the wee hours of the second-to-last day of 2005 found Dave and I rubbing our eyes and chugging caffeinated soda while hurtling along the North-South highway. Our motivation? A tip from C that char kuey teow prepared the old-fashioned way, over live charcoal (instead of gas), can still be had in Kampar, a dimunitive town straddling the old Kuala Lumpur-Ipoh trunk road.
Nestled against a ridge of tree-cloaked hills, Kampar is a compact cluster of shophouses, Chinese clansman guilds (marked by the upright poles in the photo above), and temples, many dating back to the 1880s, when huge tin deposits were discovered in the surrounding Kinta Valley. Dubbed "Kam Poh" ("precious as gold") by Chinese who'd come to mine the valley's ore, the town grew by WWII to be the fourth largest city in Malaysia's Perak state.
Kampar is rich not only in economic history; in December of 1941 it was the site of a fierce WWII battle in which the greatly outnumbered British and British Indian armies managed to hold off Japanese forces for four days. And, surrounded by barbed wire fencing and the site of numerous casualties, Kampar was a center of guerilla strife during Malaysia's Emergency period.
Today Kampar is a relaxed, easy-going town where bicycles are almost as numerous as cars. Everyone seems to know everyone else, yet strangers are treated as friends. While the paint peels from architecturally notable shophouses that lie sadly abandoned along the main street (the characters above advertise an air-conditioned movie house), a university branch recently established nearby promises to breathe new life into the place.
Meanwhile, for established residents social life appears to revolve around Kampar's numerous coffee shops and its enormous open-air food hall. This bustling emporium of gastronomy, pleasantly breezy owing to copious ceiling fans and its situation alongside the Keranji River, boasts some 48 stalls (though on any given day a certain number are closed) serving up everything from curry mee to plain rice porridge. Lively chatter at tables of retirees (ladies segregated from men), housewives toting young children, teens on school holiday, and men at break from work or on their way to the shop makes for a high, but not ear-splitting, noise level. It's a congenial - and appetizing - spot in which to find oneself around breakfast time.
We headed straight for stall no. 32, where this man has been frying char kuey teow in a huge flattened wok over a charcoal fire - an art he learned from his mother - for over forty years.
The size of his vessel allows him to churn out multiple customized orders (eg. more egg, less sprouts) simultaneously. To start off, he places fresh rice noodles and bean sprouts in the hot pan
and, quickly scraping his spatula side-to-side and up and down, with the occasional toss thrown in, mixes them together while incorporating dark soy and chili sauces.
Noodles and sprouts are then pushed off to the cooler edges of the pan to wait, while he scrambles a few eggs in the center.
When the eggs are nearly firm he brings noodles and sprouts back into the action. Though our photos don't quite capture it, he's pressing - noodles to pan, eggs to noodles - as much as he's stirring. As a local observed while we stood side-by-side watching the master's spatula fly about the wok, it's a technique that results in a perfect integration of eggs and noodles.
The final product is altogether different from the fluffy char kuey teow I wrote about here. Cooked over a lower heat for a longer period of time, these noodles have absorbed more sauce and are consequently a bit "wet" and heavy, which works well with their exceptionally deep, smoky charcoal flavor. This char kuey teow contains no shrimp, only sweetly briney cockles, and plenty of them. More bean sprouts thrown in at the very last minute are a nice touch, a bright, light ,and fresh note. Sambal served on the side was as fiery as I like it, but this plateful was so fine I didn't want to sully the flavor with any add-ins other than a squeeze of kalamansi.
In my book this dish - and the opportunity to observe its unusual preparation - justified the hour and forty-five minute drive. But why stop with char kuey teow? We didn't, stepping just across the aisle to stall no. 45 for an order of wantan mee that came highly recommended by an elderly char kuey teow bystander.
The noodles and wantan served at this stall are handmade, as they have been for probably seventy years or so. The business was started by this lady's grandfather; now one branch of the family pulls noodles,
while the other stuffs wantan.
Ordered dry, mee are mixed with a mixture of broth and soy sauce, mounded on a plate and topped with bean sprouts, tender chicken breast pieces, slices of smoky BBQ pork, and sliced scallions.
They're just as a mee of this type should be: springy, with an ever-so-slight, barely detectable "crunch" - al dente but not quite as Italian pasta connoisseurs understand the term. Served in a rich chicken and meat broth sparked with white pepper, the wantan (three each of prawn and pork) are small, with thin, nearly translucent wrappers. Despite their delicacy the gossamer sheets of dough resist dissolving in the hot broth, holding their shape all the way to our mouths. In flavor and texture these wantan have, for me, set a new standard against which all will be judged.
Feeling it time to walk off our noodles and dumplings, we headed for the nearest exit - only to come face to face with a woman preparing hot-off-the-steamer chee cheong fun (stall no. 15). A language barrier may have prevented us from getting the story of her and her specialty -- unlike most of the other vendors she appeared to be well on the younger side of forty -- but it did not hamper our attempt to sample her product.
Chee cheong fun (often referred to in English as "rice noodle rolls") start out as a water-thin batter of rice flour, which is ladelled over a muslin-ish piece of cloth stretched over a frame and set over the holes of a rectangular steamer.
After batter has been spread on the cloth the contraption's lid (just visible to the left) is replaced. After the dough has steamed for about five minutes the fabric frame is removed and the now firm chee cheong fun quickly scraped onto a smooth work area (to the right of the steamer). Bits of filling (chopped pork or shrimp, in this case) are dotted in 4 rows along its surface, and then the dough is pushed, with a sort of wide palette knife, from the top and the bottom into two side-by-side dough "logs".
They're separated with the knife, placed on a plate, and then sliced. Finally the chee cheong fun are doused with a soy-based sauce; here I detect hints of ginger, five-spice, a meat-based broth. This vendor keeps her sauce warm in a crock pot - a nice touch.
Chee cheong fun fresh off the steamer is so different to rolls that have been made ahead of time - wondefully light and airy, almost fluffy. Sambal served on the side was pleasantly pungent with shrimp paste, but I elected to forego it so that tasty combo of fresh rice dough and fragrant sauce could shine through.
Stumbling out of the food hall and into the sunshine, we suspected that this time, we might have overdone it. Yet still a whole town of goodies awaited; we weren't finished yet.
But this post is. More Kampar to follow, eventually.