[Kuala Lumpur] KL-style fried Hokkien noodles from Kim Lian Kee

Kim Lian Kee, founded in 1927 by an enterprising Hokkien/Fujianese immigrant, Ong Kim Lian, is one of KL’s oldest and most recognisable food brand-name. Mr Ong himself was credited with the invention of Kim Lian Kee’s legendary KL-style fried Hokkien noodles (also called “black noodles” by local KL-lites) is as black as night, glistening with lard, garlicky and smokey from being fried over high heatover a roaring charcoal braziers. The old story went that Mr Ong started off selling a soupy form of noodles in the streets of Chinatownat the time, but was requested by some of his regular customers to offer a fried or braised version of the noodles.

Mr Ong experimented with the use of different condiments and ingredients before coming up with the version which made Kim Lian Kee into a household name today. The noodles are flavoured with dried flounder (first toasted over an open-fire till fragrant, then pounded into powder form), pork, pig’s liver, shrimps, squid, cabbage & liberal helpings of crisp, golden lardons. Garlic, onions, oyster sauce and vinegar are other flavouring agents that went into the dish.

But the secret to Kim Lian Kee’s tasty fried Hokkien mee has to be its addition of a rich, flavoursome broth, made from boiling pork bones, shrimp-heads/shells and toasted, dried flounder bones, plus other aromatics. During the frying process, a ladleful of this broth would be added to the wok, and the whole concoction would be vigorously stirred with a large metal spatula, resulting with the stall’s trademark noisy, clanging din, till the broth had been absorbed by the noodles. The noodles take on a slightly sticky, gluggy consistency as the starch begins the break down. That’s when it’ll be served, steaming hot and lip-smackingly delicious, accompanied by little saucers of sambal belacan (spicy ground chili with Malay fermented shrimp paste) and calamansi lime.

Kim Lian Kee’s dark-hued noodles were so wildly popular that, through the decades, the dish had been so much copied by other hawkers that it has become the ubiquitous, definitive KL-style fried Hokkien noodles - now found all over the world’s Chinatowns, from Sydney to London. I remembered having “black noodles” in Fremantle Market, Western Australia, as far back as 1983 - one glimpse of it, and I knew the seller has to be from KL.

These days, Kim Lian Kee is run by the 4th-generation of the Lee family. 10 years ago, I used to see Chef Lee (Lee Ching Jing), whose maternal granduncle was Mr Ong Kim Lian’s brother-in-law, cooking the noodles himself. But I didn’t see him anymore last weekend. Instead, all the cooking and serving were done by a team of foreign workers, Myanmarese, I think.

We ordered a plate of the famous “black noodles”, and a plate of Cantonese “wat tan hor” (broad, thick rice noodles, braised with shrimps, pork and choy sum greens, with egg ribbons running through the sauce).

I found both dishes to be rather bland, and pale shadows of the old Kim Lian Kee offerings I remembered from years ago. Seems like, according to Henry Lee, the family’s 4th-generation owner of Kim Lian Kee, the business faces manpower/labour shortage issues, which is why one is more likely to find young Myanmarese chefs than old Cantonese ones which one always sees in the old days.
Cooking is also done on gas stoves these days, cutting down on the work needed to maintain traditional charcoal stoves.

Kim Lian Kee has also become a chain, expanding into the shopping malls, and has plans to go overseas, especially into China. But I returned to where it all started at this little tin-roofed shack in Petaling Street, not the larger 2-storeyed Kim Lian Kee restaurant across the street at the same intersection.

But, other than the familiar old name plaque, nothing here really tasted the same anymore. As we looked around, we see that all the other customers are not local KL-lites as well, but Thais, Filipinos, Myanmarese. They probably won’t know that nothing Kim Lian Kee serves tasted anything like what the original KL-style Hokkien mee tasted like. Even the Cantonese “wat tan hor” was relatively tasteless - none of the requisite “wok hei” when a chef charred the broad noodles in lard, prior to blanketing the dish with a delicious braised sauce. I guess the soul of Chinese cooking was lost somewhere along the line as the present generation of the Lee family has also lost their ability to cook.

As Petaling Street, where Chinatown’s street market bustled during the day, closes down and the street empties itself, only Kim Lian Kee’s lights lit up the dark streets as we arrived here for our late-night supper around midnight. The stall opens for business into the wee hours of the morning, around 4-5am. Nothing sadder than when a KL dining icon loses its soul. I won’t be coming back again myself.

Kim Lian Kee (金莲记福建面)
49-51, Jalan Petaling (Petaling Street)
50000 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: +603 2032 4984
Opening hours: 5pm-5am daily


Oh dear, that sounds terrible. I was thinking of heading down here for my upcoming trip.

Thought the local authorities passed a law to help preserve heritage hawker fare some time ago whereby no local dishes are to be handled by foreign workers?

That was the Penang state government. Even then, Penang had been criticised for xenophobia for doing so. Kuala Lumpur’s eateries are now more & more run by foreigners - mainly Myanmarese, Nepalis and Bangladeshis - as local Malaysians avoid the daily grind (and low income) of being a hawker stall chef. However, in most cases, the foreign chefs are doing it more for the money, rather than any passion to really provide anything beyond passable.

I guess we can’t avoid this anywhere. Same thing is happening in SG and in Japan. Hong Kong isn’t that bad yet, from my trip this year.

Same problem in Bangkok, if you walked down Thanon Yaowarat, many of the street hawkers are speaking Thai with a Myanmar accent. Thai relatives and friends who grew up in Yaowarat (Bangkok Chinatown) complained that they used to be able to go back there for good food but, since most of the old hawkers and chefs have passed on, they found the standard of cooking in Yaowarat/Samphaeng to be not what it used to be.

One of the pitfalls of hiring foreign workers and not training them properly - they are essentially doing the cooking without understanding the food culture of their adopted country. For example, this food signboard which I saw in Kuala Lumpur yesterday showed a KL-style dark-coloured Hokkien mee but labelled it Penang Hokkien mee (which is noodles in a light prawn broth). But no one who worked there spotted the mistake.

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