[Nibong Tebal, Malaysia] Beef noodles at Ah Teh Kopitiam

We were back in Nibong Tebal town last weekend, not for the famous prawn curry at Lim Aik Chew, but to visit the mysterious Caledonia House, a magnificent but abandoned 160-year-old manor built by the Ramsdens on the grounds of the Byram Estate nearby.

We decided to explore Nibong Tebal’s high street (Jalan Atas) afterwards. The sleepy town today has a population of just over 2,000, 70% of whom are Chinese, the descendants of Teochew/Chaozhou settlers from Chaoshan, brought in by the British East India Company in the 1840s to build the town and work in the sugar plantations of the Penang Sugar Estates then. There’s an old Taoist temple at one end of the high street, built in the 1840s, and still in use today.

We decided to lunch at Ah Teh Kopitiam, a tiny old local Chinese coffeeshop which offered, amongst others, Teochew-style beef noodles.

The Teochews always use the flat, white rice noodles which is called “koay teow” in local Teochew parlance, for almost all their noodle dishes. As the Teochews are also predominant amongst the Chinese who settled in French Indo-China, I’d also seen the same dish, with some localisation, in Cambodia, where it’s called kuy teav; and Vietnam, where it’s called hủ tiếu nước.

The Teochews are also predominant in Thailand, and Bangkok’s Chinatown is almost wholly Teochew, and where one can also find the local variant of the “koay teow” dish, served as kuai tiau.

Personally, I believe that the Vietnamese phở noodles has some connection with Teochew beef noodles, although the Vietnamese would rather believe in the French connection: their rationale being that beef was historically disliked by the local Vietnamese, as per Vu Hong Lien’s tome, “Rice and Baguette: A History of Food in Vietnam”, but, given the Gallic culinary influence during the French colonial period, the beef-based noodle soup dish, phở bò, came into being. It also became perhaps the best-known Vietnamese dish to the outside world today.

The Vietnamese pre-supposed a connection between the beef-based phở noodles soup with the French beef casserole, pot-au-feu, coupled with the fact that the term phở actually came from the French word feu.

According to historian/author Vu Hong Lien, phở was created some time around the 1920s-30s in Hanoi, sold by itinerant vendors who carried their wares on a shoulder pole, with a box at one end containing a pot of simmering soup atop a charcoal brazier, and another box at the other end containing the noodles, sliced beef, herbs and other condiments. The dish was popular among the French soldiers, especially sentries in the dimly-lit streets of night-time Hanoi, who’d be able to see from afar the glowing light from the braziers carried by these noodle vendors, and would call out feu, when trying to attract the attention of a vendor. In time, feu became phở, the call shouted out by the vendors themselves as they walked around the streets of Hanoi, touting their wares after dusk.

According to Vu, phở was introduced to Southern Vietnam in the 1950s after the Geneva Accord partitioned Vietnam into the Communist North and the Western-supported South, prompting a huge exodus of half a million Vietnamese from the north to the south, bringing with them their culinary heritage.

Today, the image of a phở vendor with his shoulder pole only existed on nostalgic posters or pictures from the past - same as their peers, the itinerant satay vendors of old Singapore or the nasi kandar vendors of old Penang.

For me, I’d rather think that phở bò shared the same origins as Teochew beef noodles, like the one I had here in Nibong Tebal.

The beef noodles here contained blanched “koay teow” noodles and beansprouts, thinly-sliced beef, beef tendon, tripe and intestines, topped with chopped fresh coriander.

A small saucer of spicy red chili sauce is served on the side, with a dollop of golden-fried minced garlic in the middle.

Address
Ah Teh Kopitiam (同兴隆茶室)
Corner of Jalan Atas and Jalan Pengkalan Rawa
14300 Nibong Tebal, Malaysia
Operating hours: 7.30am to 3pm daily

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We might never know the exact origin of Vietnamese Pho. This one looks good to me. I’m a soup fiend and will enjoy almost all (noodle) soups.

Speaking of soup, I make this soup sometimes using carcass from roasted duck, with salted lemons and noodles. In a Chinese cookery book I used to have it said the soup is “Chinese” but didn’t specify from which subgroup. Have you heard of this soup and maybe know something more about it? I use Moroccan preserved limes but you are supposed to use salted calamansi limes.

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I’d not heard of a soup made from roasted duck and salted lemons, but if your cookbook is tailored for the American kitchen, it may have been adapted from a common Hokkien/Fujianese soup using duck (not roasted), salted plums and preserved mustard leaves.

The Hokkiens and Straits Chinese (Peranakan/Baba-Nyonya) in Singapore and Malaysia love this soup - in Penang, it’s called “kiam chye ark”, whereas in Singapore, it’s called “itik tim”.

Thanks. Maybe it’s the same soup they love in Malaysia and Singapore.

It’s me who uses the carcass of roasted duck. The recipe calls for whole or parts of a duck. Whilst I’m familiar with preserved mustard greens in soups I had in China, but it’s the salted limes that I find interesting and delicious in this kind of soup. Sour goes great with rich broths and fatty cuts of meat.

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Try this recipe and see. Normally, we like to use a whole duck, quartered - it seemed to give a “fuller” flavour.

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Thanks. I shall give this a go. If I can’t make it to the usual Chinese supermarket this weekend then I use the salted dried plums I have.

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Ah Teh Kopitiam also has a popular stall offering Hokkien prawn noodles, which local Penangites simply call “Hokkien mee”. This is the local Penang adaptation of the Fujianese spring noodles, but which obtained its reddish hue from the addition of spicy chili paste in the Penang version, instead of prawn-shells/prawn roe in Fujian.

The dish essentially consists of a mixture of blanched yellow Hokkien wheat noodles, white rice (bee hoon) and beansprouts, drenched in a pork-prawn broth, toped with golden-fried shallots, a few slices of hard-boiled egg and an extra spoonful of chili paste, in case the diner wants to up the Scoville count in his bowl further (as chili paste was already added into the broth during the cooking process).

I actually never enjoy Penang Hokkien mee when I cross-over to the Mainland part of Penang, because the overwhelming Teochew influence actually resulted in what Hokkiens on Penang island would regard as “watered down” versions of their revered Hokkien noodle soup. The Teochews are never big into assertive flavours, or even chilis, so even the chili paste here tasted pretty mild as the chili seeds had been removed, together with most of the chili heat one would expect.

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If you’re using those, make sure you pre-soak the salted plums (not too much) to remove some of the saltiness. Your soup might taste a bit different from the one using actual sour plums.

I think so too, or at least a Chinese origin. I don’t feel the connection between the French pot au feu and pho bo, but rather with Chinese beef offal with rice noodle soup. There seem to be a belief that Vietnamese people especially those from the north are originally from Guangdong.

Do you know if there is any connection between koay teow and ho fun?

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There’s definitely a connection, as the Teochews’ homeland, Chaoshan, is located in Guangdong province, the Cantonese homeland.

Whilst some people in Singapore and Malaysia tend to use the Teochew term, “koay teow”, and the Cantonese term, “hor fun”, interchangeably when referring to the flat, rice noodles, there is actually a distinct difference between the two - the Cantonese “hor fun” tends to be thinner and finer, compared to the Teochew “koay teow”.

Cantonese “hor fun” is also more porous, hence the noodle would absorb the flavours from the sauce or soup which constituted the dish. In contrast, the more dense texture of the resilient Teochew “koay teow” meant that the noodle has the same property as Japanese udon: “nobi” (のび), where it would not absorb too much of the soup, gravy or sauce’s flavours, thereby keeping its own, original taste fairly intact.

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Thanks for explanation. I see now why ho fun is difficult to stir fry especially I like a lot the dish stir fry beef ho fun, they tended to break up easily. I do feel koay teow is a bit harder, but I thought the texture was due to using the dried ones than fresh.

Yep, frying rehydrated dried “hor fun” is never going to be easy - the noodles would often just disintegrate.

In Penang, which is renowned for producing the best “char koay teow” (fried "koay teow) and “koay teow thng” (“koay teow” in soup) in this region, the “char koay teow” hawkers and their counterparts, the “koay teow thng” hawkers, would use different kinds of “koay teow” noodles for their respective dishes - the fried “koay teow” demands a more resilient, robust noodle, to withstand the rigorous stir-frying process.

Usually, their “koay teow” would come from their own noodle manufacturers, who would supply the required type of noodles to their clients. Some manufacturers would even tailor the noodle to their regular customers’ requirements. I know of a famous “kai see hor fun” hawker in Ipoh whose “hor fun” had extra-fine and thin dimensions, because he’d specifically gotten his supplier to make those for him.

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Beef noodle soup in Taiwan:

One of the condiments is salted radish bits with chillies. They had to refill bowl on the counter. They didn’t see it but I ate the whole bowl!

I never remove the seeds and membrane. What’s the point of anything?

I have Tabasco around for the oysters sometimes but otherwise I make my own chilli sauces and oils. Normally I don’t eat any chilli sauce with oysters, just lemon juice and maybe also parsley.

Here’s a batch of Scotch bonnets and habaneros about to become sauces/pastes.

Thanks for the tip.

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Scotch bonnet?! I still remembered one Diwali party in London back in 2010 when a Trinidadian friend made salmon curry using Scotch bonnet, and served it with buss up shut. The curry was so mind-blowingly spicy, I ended up eating the roti plain!

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I love Taiwanese beef noodles, which I think is the best in the world! The Hokkiens/Fujianese love their soups dark in colour, just as dark soy sauce is indispensable for many of their dishes.

My fave spot for beef noodles in Penang is from ST Loo:

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“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold