[Nibong Tebal, Malaysia] Teochew (Chaozhou) hawker fare from Aik Huat Cafe

Nibong Tebal is a tiny town of 2,000, about 40 minutes’ drive from George Town across the Straits of Penang. The largely Teochew (Chaozhou) populace there meant that typical Penang hawker food items there were slightly adjusted to suit the palate of the Teochews, which tend to be lighter than that of the predominant Hokkiens (Fujianese) on Penang island.

Aik Huat, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the town’s High Street, is perhaps the most popular spot to get a taste of the best hawker fare in town.

We took a drive down here last Sunday morning. Some of what we sampled:

  1. Char koay teow - “koay teow” is a flat, rice noodles which is identified with Teochew food culture. In South-east Asian countries where the majority of Chinese emigrants are Teochew, this noodle would’ve been introduced to the respective local food cultures and assimilated into their cuisine. e.g. pad Thai in Thailand, and pho in Vietnam, both of which have Teochew origins.

In Malaysia/Singapore, different versions of fried “koay teow” exist - the version in Singapore tends to be gluggier and dark-coloured (through the addition of dark soy sauce) and contained cockles, shrimps & pork. The heavier, stodgier version points to the Hokkien influence there, and yellow wheat Hokkien noodles are commonly mixed with the “koay teow” noodles for this dish in Singapore.

Comparison of the Singapore and Penang versions of the “char koay teow” below. The one of the left is from Beauty World food centre in Singapore, whereas the one on the right is from Siam Road, Penang:

The Teochews emigrated en masse to British Malaya & Singapore in two large waves: the first one was during the 19th-century when the British colonialists were opening up Malaya with rubber and sugar plantations, and tin mines. Thousands of indentured labourers (“coolies”) moved in, followed by various tradesmen: rickshaw pullers, tailors, food-purveyors, etc. The second big wave came after World War II, when China lay in smouldering ruins whilst the Communists and Kuomintang Nationalists started their deadly Chinese civil war.

The “Penang char koay teow” version is famous throughout Malaysia and Singapore, although one generally can find authentic versions only in Penang, whereas the ones in Singapore or KL, even if they tout themselves as selling the “Penang-style” rendition, is oftentimes localised.

Sometime during the early 20th-century, the earliest Teochews in Penang concocted the Penang “char koay teow” simply because they missed all the different food stuffs from back home. Whereas back in the Teochew homeland, which consisted of the twin cities of Swatow (Shantou) and Teochew (Chaozhou) in Guangdong Province, the Teochews would simply fry their flat rice noodles with scraps of meats, preserved radish bits and some greens, adding fish sauce for flavour, the version in Penang is much more elaborate.

Here, the Teochews simply threw into the wok every typical food item which they missed from home: blood cockles, shrimps, chives, beansprouts, fish-balls, fish-cakes, and Chinese waxed sausages. Instead of pork-strips, they used pork lard for frying, and added bits of lardons for the crunch. Light soy sauce (never thick, dark ones) and fish sauce were used to season the dish, and egg (sometimes, the richer duck’s egg) is used to bind the whole dish together.

The version here at Aik Huat seemed more “traditional” as it included finely-chopped preserved radish to give the dish its salty-savouriness. Over on Penang Island, the standard “char koay teow” do not seem to use this very characteristically Teochew ingredient anymore.

The resultant dish was saltier than I’m used to, so maybe my own palate had adjusted to become “less” traditionally-Teochew, but more typically Hokkien.

  1. Lor bak - this is actually a Hokkien dish, but the version here is a simpler, lighter take, and the “lor”, an unctuous, brown sludge-like sauce which the Hokkiens like, is absent here. In its place is a light chili sauce dip, streaked through with soy sauce and topped with crushed peanuts.
    The 5-spice meat rolls, prawn crisps and tofu were blander than I’d have liked.

  1. Asam laksa - the typical Penang-style asam laksa: rice noodles steeped in spicy fish-based, sour tamarind-inflected soup, garnished with shredded Chinese lettuce leaves, raw onions and fresh mint leaves.
    The version here is topped with wispy flour biscuit crisps, which provided a pleasant textural crunch.
    Overall, again, this is a Teochew take on the dish: hence much lighter and blander than the standard ones over on Penang Island/George Town.

  1. Koay teow th’ng - the classic Teochew rice noodle soup dish, elevated to almost an art form here - the version here came with the works: flat slices of pork-meat, minced pork, pork-meatballs, pig’s skin, strips of pig’s stomach, intestine, spleen and liver. Typical of its Teochew roots, beansprouts and fish-balls were also added.
    The pork broth was clear & light.
    Best-ever rendition of this dish I’d ever come across.

Aik Huat Cafe
172, Jalan Pintu Sepuluh, Kampung Pengkalan, 14300 Nibong Tebal, Penang, Malaysia
Tel: +6010-846 5197
Opening hours: 11am-8pm, Mon-Tue, Thu-Sun. Closed on Wednesdays.


Great story behind the meal. Thanks, Peter.