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.
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