Jelutong is a working-class neighbourhood on the island of Penang. It grew out of a fishing village, and its wet market in the mornings heaved with the fresh catch of the day brought in by the Hokkien fishermen who formed the bulk of the inhabitants there. The market grew & grew through the decades when farmers brought in their vegetables, their chickens and ducks, the Muslim butchers purvey beef and goat, and the Hindus their fresh spices & vegetarian produce. All types of Penang hawker/street food can be found there: from Indian sweet appams to Malay nasi lemak, from Chinese fried “koay teow” noodles to Nyonya “kuehs”. Then came the sellers of all sorts of knick-knacks which local Jelutong denizens would want - the Punjabi Sikh vendor purveying colourful material, side-by-side with the Malay trader selling freshly-grated coconut and coconut milk.
My destination amidst the din and busy crowd in Jelutong market this morning is Bamboo Cafe’s popular curry mee stall. Set in a traditional Chinese coffeeshop, the stall is run by a 60-something year-old Mr Tan (that’s what he calls himself, not giving away anymore about his identity) who seems to have an OCD about cleanliness: constantly wiping his stall’s work-top and utensils.
He also happens to turn out a killer version of Penang’s “white curry mee”. For those of you who don’t have the opportunity to visit Penang, you can always opt for MyKuali’s Penang White Curry Noodle, which Ramen Rater put at #1 for 2014 his Top Ten Instant Noodles list (not a mean feat, considering that Ramen Rater aka Hans Lienesch has tasted over 1,100 instant noodles).
But for those of us who has the fortune to be in Penang, we all know that the fresh version of the white curry noodles (called “curry mee” in local Hokkien-Chinese parlance) knocks the instant version for dead.
Penang white curry mee is a combination of yellow Hokkien wheat noodles, the thinner white rice “beehoon” noodles and blanched beansprouts, served in a thin, spicy broth enriched with coconut milk, and usually garnished with pig’s blood cubes, tofu puffs, cuttlefish strips, cockles and shrimps. The Penang version differs from those in Singapore (usually served in a chicken-and potato curry broth, with tofu puffs), Kuala Lumpur (stronger, spicier broth, with the addition of long beans, eggplants and chicken) and Ipoh (drier version, much more garlicky, and with the addition of roast pork). Only the Penang version has pig’s blood cubes, and only the Penang version has this liquidy, salty-savoury, very slightly coconutty deliciousness which I find so addictive.
Mr Tan is pretty meticulous about his curry mee preparation - blanching the noodles and beansprouts in boiling water for a minute, just enough to heat them through, before dishing them out into a bowl, and pouring over the aromatic broth together with the ingredients.
Mr Tan does not provide cockles, nor shrimps. But one can opt for one of the large prawns as an add-on - but these do come with a price: RM8 (US$2) for a large, very fresh prawn on top of a RM4 (US$1) bowl of noodles. Yes, you triple the price of your order with the addition of a prawn, but the sweetness of its flesh, and the tastiness of the prawn (Penang hawkers, like Japanese chefs, usually eschew freezers as they only want to use fresh seafood caught the same day) made it all worthwhile.
Mr Tan seems to have mastered the art of earning enough to sustain a relaxed, laidback lifestyle - his stall only opens 3 days in a week: Saturday, Sunday and Monday. He’s achieved something which the Scandinavians are still working towards: a 3-day work week!
The flavours of his noodles were perfect - the spicy dollop of sambal provided on the side upped the ante, and his version has really, in my books, set the new benchmark for Penang white curry mee.
Curry Mee Stall at Kafe Bamboo
Junction of Jalan Penaga and Jalan Jelutong (near Jelutong Market).
Sat, Sun & Mon only: 7.30am-11.30am, 1pm-5pm.