It’s already Day 3, but I’d yet to try the most acclaimed Penang dishes like assam laksa and char koay teow! Well, this was going to be THE day! Our friendly taxi driver “uncle” took us to Lorong Selamat for the famous char koay teow in front of Cafe Heng Huat. Apparently, Lorong Selamat is one of the popular food streets in Penang. There are several roadside stalls and coffee shops that operate there in the day.
One look, and I knew this is a master at work. Look closely! Deep in concentration, the char koay teow lady silently channels all her energy. Beneath the heavy cast-iron wok are roaring flames fueled by burning charcoal. With her spatula as a natural extension of her arm, she sears and swishes the rice noodles with a mastery that leaves you in awe!
Because there are also many other orders, and only small batches are cooked each time to ensure quality, we were told that it was at least a 20-minute wait. So we ordered food from other stalls outside. Yes, you’re allowed to order from the roadside stalls and bring the food into Cafe Heng Huat.
Our taxi uncle told us this assam laksa is also very good.
Doesn’t look very attractive, right?
But looks are deceiving! Penang assam laksa is totally different from Singapore laksa. There’s no coconut milk involved.
First, the broth is made by simmering mackerel for an hour until it disintegrates and creates a rich stock. Then, tamarind is added for that tangy taste. The end result is a sweet, tangy, and spicy broth!
This was my first authentic Penang laksa, so I’ve no benchmark to compare. But I found the broth sufficiently rich and thick with fish, and the overall flavours very pleasing! Hae ko 虾膏 (prawn paste), fresh pineapple, cucumber, and mint leaves make it even more appetizing. The thick rice noodles are cooked till soft and swollen, which kinda reminds me of udon.
We also ordered lor bak. Penang lor bak = Singapore ngoh hiang. Usually, lor bak is sold alongside fried spring rolls and prawn fritters.
Penang lor bak is slightly different from our ngoh hiang. It’s braised pork which is chopped then rolled in beancurd skin and deep-fried. Sliced lor bak is served with braising sauce and chilli dip. I actually prefer lor bak cos there’s no 5-spice powder, unlike in ngoh hiang. Texturally, it’s also more meaty.
For this stall, I thought the items we tried were so-so only. Besides lor bak, there’s also fish (the yellow strips), prawn fritter (behind the fish), beancurd, and braised egg.
Finally, after an agonizing 30-minute wait, this was our reward. We ordered the most expensive version, which comes with 5 unimaginably sweet, crunchy and juicy prawns! The prawns are seared till just cooked. Absolutely perfect timing! The cockles are just as fresh and succulent.
As for the koay teow, man, it had me weeping tears of joy. Fiery and smoking hot, it’s as if the noodles had come alive! Each chopstickful of koay teow was breathing with smouldering steam. And the charred noodles were slick but not oily. I’ve never eaten char koay teow with so much character!
The char koay teow is pricey by local standards, but I think it’s absolutely worth it!