Tag Archives: Malaysian hawker food

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    Penang Night Market, Malaysia

    Malaysian nights are often surprisingly hot.

    My kids’ cheeks are bright red and their hair is sticking to the backs of their necks in damp curls. We down our hastily ordered drinks (star fruit juice, fresh coconut juice and iced milo) at our newly acquired table while we gain our bearings.

    I’m at the Batu Ferringhi Night Market in Penang, Malaysia, with my kids, my parents, my brother and my brother’s family.

    All around us people are chatting loudly while the sound of metal spatulas hitting aged metal woks clangs musically throughout the night. The air is rich with a hundred different cooking smells and the ripe smell of the notoriously fragrant durian fruit, pictured below.


    Tonight we want to try as many different dishes as we can manage.  My dad was born in Penang so we’ve visited the island numerous times before and are very familiar with the types of hawker dishes available tonight.

    First up, char-grilled chicken satays with spicy peanut sauce, raw onion wedges, cucumber slices and ketupat (cooled, compressed rice).


    Then fried chicken skin served with a sweet chilli sauce.


    FRIED CHICKEN SKIN!!! It’s insane — it’s like eating a cup of frosting — and yet it makes perfect sense, too. Why eat the whole chicken when it’s the fatty skin that has the most flavour?

    The fried chicken skin is crunchy, salty and tasty – I want to eat the whole plate.

    My Auntie orders some Chee Cheong Fun (steamed, rice noodle rolls served with hoisin sauce and sesame seeds),  Sotong (dried cuttlefish) and a sugar cane juice.

    Chee Cheong Fun and Sotong at Penang Night Market

    Night begins to fall.





    The line of people standing patiently at this stall catches my eye. Here, two cooks are churning out plate after plate of Char Kway Teow (fried rice noodles cooked with garlic, prawns, egg and bean sprouts). It’s one of our favourite dishes so I order four plates: two with chilli for the adults and two without chilli for the kids.


    I wander around in search of more dishes to order for the table.


    My dad loves sotong (dried cuttlefish) so I order another plate for him.


    Dried cuttlefish may not look or sound that appetising but I love this stuff – the dried cuttlefish has a chewy, fibrous texture, a flavour similar to a dried scallop, and can be eaten as is or accompanied by chilli sauce or hoisin sauce.

    I continue looking around.





    A lot of the dishes I want to order aren’t suitable for the kids as they have too much chilli so when I stumble across this excellent, dry Won Ton Mein (prawn and pork dumplings, sliced roast pork and wilted greens on a bed of egg noodles dressed with soy sauce and sesame oil) I order four of them. Won Ton noodles originated from Hong Kong, where the dumplings and noodles are served in clear chicken broth. But the dry version is equally good.


    No meal in Penang would be complete without a bowl of my beloved Assam Laksa. Unlike the more common curry laksa found in Australia, the Penang version is fish-based and strongly flavoured with tamarind, lemongrass, turmeric, Vietnamese mint leaves and ginger flower. This version also has fish balls in it — see below –which I’ve not seen before.


    It’s good but I like my adaption of my grandmother’s Penang Assam Laksa recipe, better. I’m biased, of course!

    Malaysian food relies a lot on ingredients like lemongrass, tamarind galangal, turmeric, shallots, garlic, chilli and sugar. It’s not the prettiest of cuisines — especially at a market like this where service is all about speed and efficiency — but the lack of presentation doesn’t bother me.

    Eating at the open-air night market isn’t exactly comfortable: it’s hot and crowded and the hard plastic stools don’t encourage lingering. But I love the accessibility and unpretentiousness of hawker food, the tantalising smells in the air, the sounds of people talking and food being prepared all around us and the joy of discovering yet another favourite dish.

    More information

    • Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies direct from Australia to Kuala Lumpur.
    • Address: Batu Ferringhi Night Market, Jalan Batu Ferringhi, Penang.
    • Opening hours: daily from 7pm.
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    Char Kway Teow (Fried Noodles)

    Char Kway Teow (Fried Noodles) is one of the ultimate Malaysian hawker dishes.

    When I was holidaying in Malaysia in August, I ate Char Kway Teow nearly every day, mostly for supper at 10pm. I’d wander out from wherever we were staying in search of food and within a few blocks, would usually find a hawker making this dish at a street stall. I’d take it back to our hotel room and Mr Hungry Australian and I would fall upon it as if we hadn’t eaten in days.

    Now that I’m back in Adelaide the only place within walking distance where I could find a Char Kway Teow at 10pm at night would be my parent’s house. My Dad even cooks a Char Kway Teow that is pretty close to the real thing. The only problem is that while he cooks supper most nights there’s no guarantee that he’ll be making Char Kway Teow when I need my fix. He’s a little unreliable that way.

    So I made him give me his recipe so that I could cook it myself when the next Char Kway Teow craving struck.

    There are a couple of things you have to remember when making this dish. Firstly, you must have all the ingredients ready to go – you cannot start cooking this dish and then let it cook away while you frantically try to wash and chop up the next ingredient to go in. Disaster will ensue. Secondly, as with all stir fry cooking, speed is the key. You want everything in and out of the pan as quickly as possible otherwise the noodles will become gluggy and the whole dish will collapse. Do not overcook this dish. I repeat: do not overcook this dish.

    Cook it right and you’ll be rewarded with a plate of noodles that will make you sigh with sheer gastronomic pleasure.

    (Beady eyed readers may notice one irregularity in the photographs of the raw ingredients: I was out of fish cakes when I made this dish so substituted with fish balls. It worked out fine.)


    2/3 pack of fresh rice noodles
    4 cloves garlic, finely minced
    1 pack beansprouts
    4 fishcakes, sliced
    300 grams prawns, peeled
    2 Chinese sausages, sliced thinly
    2-3 tablespoons of light soy sauce
    1/2-1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
    Salt & white pepper to taste
    Garlic chives
    3 eggs
    2 teaspoons of of sugar


    Preheat work and add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. Add half the garlic and fry with the prawns, Chinese sausage and fishcake. Remove from wok and set aside.

    Add another tablespoon of oil and throw in the rest of the garlic and rice noodles. Add soya sauces and stir until slightly burnt/brown.

    Then add cooked prawns, Chinese sausage and fishcakes and mix to combine.

    Throw in beansprouts and stir through.

    Make a well at the bottom of the wok and add another teaspoon of oil. Crack the eggs directly into the well.

    Use your spatula to break up the eggs/yolk, and add a dash of dark soy sauce and a shake of white pepper into the yolks.

    Cover eggs with the noodles and let it cook for a minute.

    Add sugar and then mix the cooked egg evenly through the noodles. Add a touch of Vietnamese chilli sauce if desired. Do not overcook. Serve immediately.

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    Har Mee (Prawn Noodle Soup)

    I have my Dad to thank for a lot of things.

    For my love of reading. For forcing us to go with him to see Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, in which a much younger Alec Baldwin proves indisputably that brains are better than brawn. For taking me cockling every summer. For sending me a plane ticket so I could join the family for Christmas when I was working in London.

    I also have my Dad to thank for my deep and sincere love for Malaysian hawker food. Malaysians are serious foodies, trading tips about where to get the best Hainanese Chicken Rice, Char Kway Teow or Curry Laksa with the same fervour that other people trade sporting news or celebrity gossip.

    However, Malaysians don’t see their passion for good food as anything special. Why wouldn’t you drive the family all the way from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh (a 3+ hour drive) just because you were craving Ipoh Sah Hor Fun? That’s completely reasonable behaviour, isn’t it? Dad?

    The Malaysian hawker dish, Har Mee (also known as Ha Mein, Ha Mee, or Har Mein) is one of my favourites. It’s just such a tasty, full-bodied, well-balanced dish. It’s not a dish to be merely shovelled down – Har Mee grabs your attention right away and keeps it there until the last drop of soup is gratefully slurped up. It’s that good.

    Dad gave me his Har Mee recipe so I could include it in a cookbook I made for my brother’s wedding gift. I now pass it onto you with minor tweaks and adjustments.

    If you cook only one new thing this year, please, I beg of you, make it this.

    INGREDIENTS (serves 4)

    16 large prawns, tails and head intact (approximately 500 grams)
    750 grams pork bones (from Asian grocer/butcher)
    3 spring onions finely sliced
    4 tablespoons fried shallots + extra for garnish (bought in a plastic jar from Asian grocer)
    2 tablespoons light soy sauce
    1 pack hokkien mee (yellow egg noodles) and 1/4 pack rice vermicelli
    1 pack bean sprouts
    1 bunch green vegetable like gai lan or choy sum, torn into small pieces (from Asian grocer)
    2 eggs, boiled, peeled and halved
    White pepper
    1 beef stock cube
    Chilli sauce and fresh chilli for garnish (if desired)
    XO sauce (from Asian grocer)


    Boil prawns in three cups of water until prawns are cooked. Remove prawns and peel, retaining cooking water. Stick prawn heads shells back into the cooking water, add pork bones and one more cup water and simmer on low heat for 40 minutes.

    Remove pork bones and prawn shells from soup.

    Discard shells and remove every morsel of meat from the pork bones and set aside.

    To the soup, add 4 tablespoons fried shallots, 3 tablespoons light soy sauce, white pepper, a garlicy chilli sauce (to taste, if desired) and a stock cube and bring back to the boil. Then turn down to your lowest heat and let simmer.

    Prepare noodles according to package .Add beansprouts and vegetables to the noodle cooking water for the last minute to blanch. Drain all and set aside.

    To serve, place a portion of noodles and beansprouts in a bowl, and top with prawns, pork and vegetables. Ladle a generous amount of soup over the top and garnish with half an egg, extra shallots, fresh chilli (if desired) and XO sauce.*

    *XO sauce is a sensational chilli sauce made from frying onions, garlic and chilli with dried shrimp and scallops.

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    My Grandmother’s Penang (Asam) Laksa

    UPDATE: this recipe has been simplified and re-blogged here. And I’ve changed the photo above to the new version. But please do read on for a story about my grandmother and how this recipe came to be.

    The mere whiff of a favourite family dish can evoke so many memories.

    When I inhale the fragrance of my Grandmother’s Penang laksa I am instantly transported to her house in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We’re sitting around her large round dining table, which is groaning with food. The night is warm and humid – 28 degrees – and the fan turns lazily above our heads. Tiny geckos dart across the dining room walls while outside, the whirr of crickets is continuous.

    Cooking can be a way of connecting to those we love. Handed down, treasured family recipes become living legacies, a lovely reminder of those who are important to us.

    I now have such a legacy from my Grandmother.

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