Early last Friday our friend H, a seriously food-obsessed Penang native, squired Dave and I to Jelutong, a suburb about 15 to 20 minutes -- in rush-hour traffic -- from George Town. At the entrance to the morning market H turned down a narrow lane and into a makeshift parking area, squeezing his dimunitive box of a car between two others.
We had wonton mee to sample -- two versions. A taste-off was at hand.
A few words about wonton mee in Penang: there it is less likely to be served with the sticky sweet char siew (barbecued pork) or multi-layered crispy/fatty Malaysian-style char yoke (roast pork) that adorns versions further south in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur. Pink-edged, relatively lean Hong Kong-style barbequed pork is the norm.
Second, wonton mee eaters in Penang may choose to accompany their noodles with either steamed/boiled or deep-fried dumplings. Or both.
Finally, sambal belacan (chili sauce made with shrimp paste) is as likely a noodle go-with as are the pickled green chilies ubiquitous to wonton mee elsewhere on the peninsula.
We started at Kedai Kopi Lum Wah, a typical tile-floored corner coffee shop at the intersection of Jalan Jelutong and Jalan Penaga. H has been eating the wonton mee served here by a husband-wife team since he was a child.
The couples' noodles (H isn't convinced that they make the pasta themselves) are exquisite -- slightly transluscent and somewhat flattish, with a nice chew and even a bit of snap. "Q" (springy, chewy, elastic) to the max, in other words. There is certainly lard oil in the dark soy sauce mixture that dresses a "dry" order -- a positive characteristic, in our book. And the shavings of roast pork that sit atop each nest of noodles are moister and generally have more flavor that that which we've tried elsewhere on the island.
But the gold star of this wonton mee goes to the wonton. H ordered extra for he and Dave and I to share, and that was a Good Thing. With skins thin but not so delicate as to wimp out after 5 minutes spent in hot broth, the dumplings are dainty in proportion but packed with meat. And their incredibly flavorful pork filling isn't overly dense; like a meatball formed with the lightest of touches, it falls apart with the nudge of your tongue.
Next, we dove into the market, maneuvering our way past plastic bag-lugging shoppers to a cart fronting a vanilla bungalow with a dozen or so tables set on its concrete lawn.
The attraction here, H told us, is the sauce that dresses an order of dry wonton mee. Made with copious amounts of viscous black soy sauce, it's much thicker than usual, sticky and sugary. On its own, not so exciting, H points out. But when mixed with a spoonful of sambal this black goo is transformed into an roller coaster ride of sweetness, fishiness, and fire. Probably anything cloaked in it would be irresistible. The noodles certainly are.
Although this version's noodles aren't as notable as those at Lum Wah, they're better than average. The vendor's method -- boil, soak in cool water, and then reheat with a quick re-dip into boiling water -- insures a springy texture and a decent chew.
Also notewothy: plentiful nubs of crackling to mix through the pasta, and deep-fried wonton boasting sturdy but thoroughly crispy skins that somehow reminded me of thick potato chips. Be sure to ask for extra green onion when you order here, advises H.
This was meant to be a taste-off, but in reality we're talking apples and oranges here. On some days you're going to wish for meaty boiled dumplings and enticingly Q-Q noodles; on others, only over-the-top sweet, spicy stickiness and a crackly wing of wonton skin will do.
Either craving can be satisfied in Jelutong.
Wonton mee at Kedai Kopi Lum Wah, Jalan Jelutong just across from the entrance to the market. Mornings, off Sundays and public holidays.
Wonton mee inside Jelutong Market: enter the market across from Lum Wah and proceed straight up Jalan Penaga. Turn left just after the market building housing the fish section (it will be on your left). The stall is a few dozen paces ahead, on your right, in front of a cream house with green shutter. This stall is open Saturdays, Sundays, and when they feel like it.