Many of Kuching's decades-old shop houses accomodate decades-long residents. Chinatown (the clutch of guest houses at one end of Carpenter Street notwithstanding) is still chockabloc with small businesses (a tinsmith, a coffin maker), coffeeshops, and multi generation-run eateries. And though some of the colorful shop houses on Jalan Padungan, near the western end of the city's riverfront promenade, have been transformed into smart bars and cafes, others still house unassuming family-run food enterprises.
Worn wooden trays laden with irregularly shaped coils of golden noodles alerted us to the presence of one such business, Seng Ngee Foh. We'd walked past the shop's quietly anonymous Jalan Pandungan front with nary a second glance and then, turning into the parking lot behind, beheld this bounty drying in the sun.
We circled the block again and poked our heads through the small gap between Number 148's folding doors. Cellophane-packaged noodles sat in a pile on a table near the front of the long, narrow space; in the back, we spied noodle makings.
Egg noodles have been made here for forty years; the man who started the business still tends to the noodles with the help of his children and, now, theirs. Things get going at 8am; noodles are set out back to dry around 10 and brought inside and packaged at the end of the day. Every Monday through Saturday, mixing and processing and shaping and drying and packaging happen here, in (and out back of) one small shop.
Sundays are for rest.
Regular readers know we're suckers for a good artisinal food story, but in the end flavor is what matters. Seng Ngee Foh's noodles are as good as they look, substantial (each coil weighs about 4 ounces), smooth with a good bite, and richly eggy. After boiling up a couple of coils and hanging our heads in the yolky steam that rose from our bowls, we dressed them simply with a few drops of good quality toasted sesame oil, a drizzle of dark soy, and a splash of black vinegar. Next time we'll add ginger and garlic, chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns, bean sprouts and shredded chicken, or enjoy them with an anise-scented, red-cooked beef stew ladeled on top.
Here's to Seng Ngee Foh's third generation.
Seng Ngee Foh, No. 148 Padungan Road, Kuching. Tel. 241471.A two-pound package of noodles costs 3 ringgit.
Spicy and Vinegary Chicken Noodle 'Salad' (adapted from Asian Pasta by Linda Burum)
14 ounces fresh Chinese egg noodles or 10 ounces dried
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsps Sichuan peppercorns, lightly toasted and crushed in a mortar or ground in a spice grinder
2 Tbs grated ginger (collect the juice)
1 Tbsp finely minced garlic
3 Tbsp light soy sauce
3 Tbsp dark soy sauce
4 Tbsp (or to taste) Chinese black vinegar (Chenkiang vinegar) - or substitute red rice vinegar
4 tsp sugar
3 Tbsp good quality toasted sesame oil
2 tsp chili oil (or to taste)
2 tsp chili oil 'sludge' (the chili grounds from the bottom of the jar) - OPTIONAL
4 scallions, shredded
a couple handfuls of bean sprouts - washed, drained in a colander, then doused (softened) with boiling water and allowed to drain again
1 medium cucumber, seeded and cut into matchsticks
half bunch of cilantro, tough ends of stems discarded, roughly chopped - OPTIONAL
Combine all dressing ingredients except the Sichuan peppercorns and chili oil sludge (if using), stir or whisk to dissolve the sugar. Add the sludge and peppercorns; taste for heat and sourness, adjusting with additional vinegar or sugar or chili oil if necessary. Set aside while you cook the noodles.
Cook the noodles until just al dente, drain and plunge into cold water to stop the cooking. Drain again and toss with sesame oil (use your hands to avoid mushing noodles).
Toss the noodles with the dressing and set aside for about 10 minutes. Add vegetables and scallions, toss again, and serve at room temperature.