Koay teow th'ng, you get too little love.
Rice noodles in chicken, duck or pork broth with meat, (sometimes) offal, meat and/or fish balls and perhaps a wonton or a stem or few of choi sum, depending on the vendor, koay teow th'ng is unloved not by Penang-ites -- who rate it over most any other street food (judging by the number of koay teow th'ng stalls in George Town alone) as a breakfast dish -- but by non-Asian visitors for whom white noodles in pale broth just can't compete with the flash of a sambal-dolloped mound of coconut rice (nasi lemak), the sizzle of rice noodles in a lard-slicked wok (char koay teow) or the wow of a rice flour pancake rolled around a filling fragrant with warm spices (masala thosai).
Poor koay teow th'ng (th'ng means "soup" in Hokkien, a reference to the broth). I've tried introducing you to visitors on street food walks. While some are immediately hip to your simple elegance, most set down their spoon down with a shrug after the first sip of soup (almost no one digs the fish balls). It's true that you're plain and nothing much to look at, a wallflower compared with other prettier local dishes. But when made and assembled with care you are the perfect first-thing-in-the-morning food, greeting the awakening appetite with a gentle stroke rather than a bludgeon.
I have to admit I had my doubts at first; I was visiting George Town twice a month for over a year before I gave in to koay teow th'ng's understated persuasion. I really only truly saw the light once we'd moved into our shop house. You see, our front door sits ten steps from a seller who begins preparing his koay teow th'ng just as the night's last bit of black begins to leach from the sky.
By the time we head out the door with our dogs the vapors rising from his cauldron of duck and chicken broth scent the street. As we round his corner our older hound raises her nose to the heavens, breathing deeply (and always hopefully), and I try not to see the fowl carcasses heaped on his prep table,; the noodles folded over on themselves like silk ribbons, the perky choi sum leaves mounded on a stainless steel table next to the soup pot. If I gave in I might never get past that corner. I might sit down for one breakfast and not leave until I'd had three or four.
It's a good version, this vendor's duck koay teow th'ng. The broth is light but substantial, truly tasting of its main ingredient (I once asked him if he added MSG; he looked stung). His fish balls show resistance to the bite but aren't rubbery, his wontons -- which sell out quickly -- taste home made. Choi sum, in addition to gracing each bowl of noodle soup, is served (order simply "veggie") blanched and tossed with oyster sauce. Bowls of koay teow th'ng come with the usual accompaniment of chopped chilies to douse with soy sauce at the table, but also with an unusual (in my experience) firecracker of a sambal made with cilantro and green chilies.
The only problem with having such a fine koay teow th'ng so close to hand is that when koay teow th'ng calls we rarely make it further than the corner. Off the top of my head I can think of five other sellers within a three-block radius of our house. I can't remember the last time we ate at the tables of any of them. And many more of them lie further afield (if a 10 to 15-minute walk can be called "further afield").
Our next departure for Turkey is a little over five weeks away. I figure that's good for at least five koay teow th'ng breakfasts. I'll blog them all. It's high time; I owe it to Penang's most unloved noodle.
Duck koay teow th'ng. Kimberley Street, 1 block from Carnavon. Mornings from about 730am. Off days are Monday, and sometimes other days too.