Putting the Char in Kway Teow

In food on 05/30/2009 at 8:42 pm

I started this post several days ago, but then it was eaten by my hungry blog, so here goes nothing. One of the first things we must do when residing in a new city is to find the Chinatown. Lucky for us, Jersey is one of the states that does not have one. Maybe because NYC has 3, the powers that be decided people living in the armpit of America didn’t need one.

Well then, the next best thing is finding an Asian supermarket, and given that the Garden State is one big suburb, there should be no trouble finding one, right? On our first scouting mission to our town, we stopped at the New Yorker Diner for lunch. It was run by a Taiwanese trio, mom and pop working the grill in FOB slippers, and sonny shuffling around taking orders. I asked where I could find some Chinese groceries around here, and the reply was Watchung or Edison.

Now these aren’t names of neighborhoods, they’re towns 30 minutes due west! Watchung has a place called Captain Fresh, which may or may not still exist, and may or may not carry decent selection. Edison offered two choices: Kam Man and Asian Food Center. We knew and loved a Kam Man on Canal Street, but this one has a different logo, so we weren’t sure if it was part of the same chain. It sounds more authentic (“golden door” in Cantonses), so we picked that one. Apparently there are also Korean marts in Fort Lee and a Japanese shopping mall, Yaohan, now Mitsuwa Marketplace, in Edgewater. We didn’t want to go into Jersey City or Hoboken, so we decided Edison was the way to go.

our stop n' shop

brother from another mother?
After mastering the art of stick shift hoopty driving, we dared venture forth. We’ve discovered repeatedly that driving in New Jersey is like wandering in various parts of the Bermuda Triangle inside the Twilight Zone. Getting lost or taking the wrong turn is a matter of course. When we finally arrived at Kam Man, we were rewarded with a plenty big store, aisles and aisles of pantry-worthy delights.

The other half scored big time at the bakery/cafteria-style take-out joint at the front. They had these huge whole loaves of Chinese-version-American white bread sitting on a baking rack. We weren’t sure if they were waiting to be sliced and bagged, so I asked. Hey, they were for sale. We sliced them later, Texas toast thick, and drizzled condensed milk over them, just like at Saint’s Alp. Yum. They also had store-made steamed pork and veg buns which were more palatable than anything we’d had before. The dough was a little too airy, but the filling was quite good. The other half will have to settle for these from now on since I’ll be consumed by other diversions (i.e. work) till who knows what time of the day-night.

We were famished so we ambled across the street to Penang, another chain, this of Malaysian-Thai food. When I first came to NYC, I thought the place was pretty good, until I tried more authentic places like Nonya and Overseas Asian Taste. Now I know it’s to Southeast Asian cuisine like all Cantonese fast food take-out places in middle America is to Chinese food: mediocre at best.

One dish which is reliably good still though is the roti canai with yellow curry chicken and potato for dipping. I once tried making roti and was shocked at how much butter goes into making one serving disc. It’s on par with the fat needed to make a croissant or brioche roll. A LOT. After that, I didn’t eat roti for awhile.

The other half ordered the Char Kway Teow, which is basically a stir-fry rice noodle hawker dish that made its way into the restaurant setting. It’s nothing special except for the distinct flavor of char seared into the starch which comes from cooking over open charcoal flames. The secret is to cook over high heat and saute until the noodle is very very dry. My very good Rasa Malaysia cookbook didn’t have a recipe for it. I guess it’s really just a homestyle dish not considered in the pantheon of classic great dishes. However, my Singaporean friend gifted me a book of his native cuisine which has a recipe. It  really goes to show where a country’s food preferences lie.

chopped garlic to taste
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1lb rice noodles (width and thickness to taste)
soy sauce
chicken stock
seafood (fish, shrimp, squid)
chives/scallion/bitter Chinese greens
1 cup bean sprouts
salt and pepper (white is preferred here)
sesame oil

Fry garlic in oil until fragrant. Add egg and cook until it starts to set. Add noodles and stir until softened. Be gentle. Add soy sauce and stock. Bring to a boil, then add seafood. Stir fry over very high heat, then add greens and spouts. Season to taste. Stir fry over high heat until noodles are dry and charred. Cooking on a charcoal grill would be ideal.

Tips for faux char: add a dash of Liquid Smoke or use a cast iron pan

choose your poison

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