Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Little Char Koay Teow Stall...

I still find myself being surprised time and again, and this time by a small stall which I never knew existed. My wife was told by her friend about a stall in Taman Uda that sells only Char Koay teow, and we were told not to go too late as the stall is fully sold out usually after 9pm.

Char Koay Teow, transliteration of "Fried Rice Noodle Strips" is one of the major contributions by the Chinese who immigrated to South East Asia. This dish is popular in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei; also available in Vietnam, Thailand and even in Australia.

In Malaysia, the Penang Char Koay Teow is the most popular. Char Koay Teow might be the same in basis, but differs in accordance to the cook's interpretations. The most basic (and original) Char Koay Teow is usually made of ricecake strips/flat rice noodles fried with anything from eggs (chicken or duck), onions, garlic, prawns, cockles, Chinese sausage, et and garnished with chives or spring onions. As time goes by, lard has been substituted with cooking oil (but not olive oil) and the Penang Char Koay teow emphasises more on the use of prawns. These changes actually opened the door to more customers as pork product was eliminated.

There are various styles of Char Koay Teow being prepared. The traditional char koay teow is usually fried dry, usually spiced up by pepper and served with chili, fresh or pickled. The Malays adapted this dish and made their own version. Their contribution to this dish is ground chili paste. It is usually made from dried chilis, garlic and onion, ground into a paste. It is usually fried first before adding the koay teow. Times have really changed where now even the Malaysian and Chinese consume huge amounts of chilis. It is not surprising to find that there are a lot of Chinese customers frequenting Malay Char Koay Teow stalls for this reason. Even some Chinese stalls have adapted chili paste into their Char Koay teow as well.

While Penang is famous for their Char Koay teow, Kedah is more known for their Koay Teow Kerang (Koay Teow with Cockles), which is why I was surprised that there actually a good Char Koay Teow stall in Alor Setar. There might be Chinese Char Koay teow stalls in Alor Setar, but I do not know whether it is Halal or not.

The stall is located in one of the biggest Malay residential area, known as Taman Uda, which provides a quiet and tranquil ambience to the eatery place. The proprieter, Encik Aznil, whose experience in dishing out Char Koay Teow spans more than half of his lifetime. His father sold Koay teow Goreng in Tanah Merah when he was small, and I guess the skill was passed to him. It is a small stall, with about 4-5 tables. He sells only Char koay Teow and his friend sells drinks. The stall starts at about 4.30 p.m. and usually sold out by 10.30pm...or earlier.

I went there with my wife and son. We ordered two Char Koay Teow and one special Char Koay Teow without chili as my son doesn't eat hot food. Char Koay teow is best consumed hot from the stove. Aznill's cooking method is very much Chinese-style, frying over very high heat...flaming and fast. The slight difference is, he serves eggs sunny side up on top of the dish instead of incorporating them into the koay teow.

Aznill's dish has a rich taste of prawns, while the basic flavors are perfectly balanced. Of course, one could request more chili if he or she prefers it hot. A garnish of pickled cili padi is also included. I guess he didn't pickle it that long because it set

my tongue on fire. The taugeh, or bean sprouts are crunchy and the prawns taste fresh. This is not surprising as Aznill gets his daily supply fresh. The kosy teow is not that dry either, Aznill's dish is slightly wet but not too oily. The chilli paste, as explained by Encik Aznill, is made fresh from scratch by himself. This gives the koay teow a very nice taste compared to some stalls that uses the packed chili boh from hypermarkets. He also uses some of the usual sauces used in making Char Koay Teow, and only he knows the right measurement.

Aznill's stall is usually packed around the evenings, around 6 - 7.30pm, where people usually packs Char Koay teow for dinner. Anybody looking for an alternative from rice or looking for a snack for and after dinner, I would suggest Aznill's Char Koay Teow. Located about 10 minutes drive from Alor Setar town, and only less than 5 minutes from the North South Highway Alor Setar Utara Exit. At the moment, Encik Aznill concentrates on selling only Char Koay Teow but considers expanding the menu. I don't know whether he'll find time to do that as the Char Koay Teow business alone keeps him standing behind the wok for most of the business hours.

Monday, February 14, 2011

We Unofficially Announce That Dadih Is Dead...

I guess it's going to be a sad truth that some people might have to contend with. For months, I've been looking for Jo, the dadih maker without much luck. So, will the delicious, creamy, lip-smacking dadih be considered extinct from the gourmet world?

Okay, before anybody starts asking "What's he talking about? Dadih is aplenty everywhere" speech, I'll just clarify this. I'm talking about the original Dadih, and not the commercially-produced Agar-agar Susu.

What do I mean with "original dadih"? Well, Kedah IS believed to be the birthplace of these sweet desserts, and it seems that with the younger generation preferring (or does not know) Milk Agar-agar to the actual dadih, it looks like an extinction of this original treat will take place.

Dadih has been commonly labeled (or mislabeled) as "Sweet Yoghurt." Dadih is actually milk curds, solidified by means of hydration by enzymes derived from the barks of a tree known as Kasinai. Yes, I couldn't find that on google itself, so it's a bit difficult to describe more about this tree. I have seen it before, but it looks so commonly like other big trees, and not being a botanist, I'm not sure whether I can identify it again.

Going back to dadih, this sweet concoction was originally made from buffalo (Kerbau) milk, which is thicker and richer in taste and texture. In the 1970s, the population of buffalos decreased as more farmers turn to modern farming, and cow's milk became the regular ingredient for dadih. The milk is boiled and once that happens, sugar is added. Close to the end, the kasinai bark is added to the mix and stirred to release the enzymes. Once taken off the fire, the still-liquid dadih is ladled into bowls or, nowadays, into plastic cups which were then left to rest. During the resting period, the enzymes react with the milk and sugar mixture, hydrating it. As a result, water dries off, leaving behind a smooth, jelly-like curd. In some versions, the dadih is then steamed in order to heat them up. The dadih is ready to be sold, and enjoyed.

The actual dadih is served hot, or at least warm. If you leave it in the fridge overnight, the dadih shrinks and tastes sweeter as the hydration process continues. Dadih was commonly sold with Pulut Panggang (Roasted Glutinous Rice Wrapped In Banana Leaf). The pulut is dipped into the dadih and usually enjoyed during Jo usually sells his dadih after 8 p.m.

It is understandable why agar-agar is used: it is cheap and easy, and many have no idea what the kasinai tree looks like, let alone figure out why it was used. The amount of agar-agar used is not that much compared to making the traditional agar-agar, this is to keep the milk agar-agar softer, but watery.

In the late 1970s, I remember a young Jo on his motorcycle with a special made wooden box behind to keep the dadih warm, honking a hand-held horn. It was sold in bowls for less than RM1.00. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, dadih was sold in a much smaller plastic cup for RM1.00. The cup is even smaller than the milk agar-agar, but at least it is guaranteed that you get dadih, from fresh cow's milk, and no agar-agar. In the mid1980s, I remember Jabatan Haiwan & Pertanian started courses for making dadih where they used a type of culture, almost similar to the one used for making yoghurt, but that too requires refrigeration because after a while, the dadih becomes watery.

The milk agar-agar needs to be refrigerated, or stored in a cold place to avoid the agar-agar from melting. The milk agar-agar usually turns me off because the milk they used is usually full-cream milk, either from cartons or powdered. There are even those who uses condensed milk...well, it's condensed creamer. The original dadih sometimes incorporates a little powdered creamer, or even Coffee Mate. If one tries to dip Pulut Panggang into the milk agar-agar, it won't stick, not to mention the funny taste. Worse among all, the milk agar-agar is always too sweet to my liking. The older generation and those who knows, can describe the vast difference in taste and texture between dadih and milk agar-agar.

Nobody seems to know whatever happened to Jo, or where he is, but as far as I know, he is one of the last people who made the original dadih. He did complaint quite some time ago that getting fresh cow's milk was problematic, maybe that's why he stopped. I did try to call but I think he has already changed his number. For a guy who I met since the late 1970s, he didn't look that old the last time I met him in the early 2000s.

I am just hoping that he, or at least somebody else in Kedah still continues the art of dadih making, or we'll end up with the milk agar-agar and dadih becomes a forgotten history. If anybody knows where I can find the original dadih, please tell me.