Woh Kee (和记) was one of Penang’s most popular traditional Chinese noodle houses, dating back to the late 1960s. It was run by Chef Lim Kim Maou on Chulia Street, part of the Cantonese enclave within George Town’s historic Chinatown district, after apprenticing for 3 years under a Cantonese masterchef, Leung Kam Siew, Guangzhou-born but who emigrated to Penang in the early 1900s.
The year Chef Lim (known to local Penangites by his nickname “大炮和” or “Big Power”) started his apprenticeship with his master, the Beatles released Eleanor Rigby.
3 years later, in 1969, Masterchef Leung, recognising Lim’s talent, decided to handover the ownership of Woh Kee to his star apprentice, then just a 19-year-old lad! From the beginning, Woh Kee was very popular among Penangites for its “Sar Hor Fun”, a noodle dish which utilises a combination of two types of noodles: (1) “sar hor” (or “shahe fen”, a reference to its place of origin, Sha He district in Guangdong province) - a thick, broad type of rice noodles; and (2) “mi fun” (thin rice noodles). The two types of noodles are first combined and wok-seared in lard and soysauce/fish sauce till fragrant and slightly-charred. Then, a thick, unctuous freshly-cooked sauce with garlic, pork, shrimps, pig’s liver, “choy sum” vegetables and egg would be poured over the noodles, blanketing the whole dish.
Elsewhere outside Penang, the Cantonese have a somewhat similar dish - “wat tan hor”, but that dish utilises only the wide “hor fun” noodles and, taste-wise, is not as intense and flavoursome as this very Penang-Cantonese dish.
For me, “sar hor fun” is childhood comfort food - and it was only available in the evenings, thus making it a dinner-time or supper dish back until as recent as the 1980s. These days, “sar hor fun” is offered by hawker stalls even in the mornings, and were made available all day long. The Hokkiens (Fujianese) who are predominant in Penang even bastardized the term and called it “char hor fun” (“char” is a Hokkien word for “fry” or “fried”), hence coming up with a hybrid Hokkien-Cantonese term meaning “fried broad rice noodles”. Many of my Penang friends now call the dish “char hor fun”. Try as I might, I couldn’t bring my self to use that term - for me, “sar hor fun” will always be “sar hor fun”.
Another dish which every “sar hor fun” eatery will offer is “yee fu mee”. This is my favourite dish from as far back as I can remember. Made of wheat flour and eggs, these noodles (called “yee fu”, “ee-fu” or “yee mein”, depending on your dialect) are formed into large cakes, 6-inches to 1-foot in diameter and deep-fried till crisp, before beng drained and cooled. The noodles are very aromatic and has a spongey/springy texture which is unlike anything one finds in other types of noodles. To cook “yee fu mee” (the word here is an amalgamation of the Cantonese “yee fu” and the Hokkien “mee”), one blanches the noodles to soften it before giving it the same treatment as for the “sar hor fun”, i.e. first wok-seared over high heat in lard & condiments till aromatic, then pour over with the rich, braised meat-prawn-egg sauce.
In Penang, one usually orders these two dishes side-by-side. It’s almost a must-have - two very different tasting noodle dishes, because of the textures of the noodles, but with the same braised meat sauce. Some “sar hor fun”/“yee fu mee” places will also have fish-slivers, pigs intestines, or even thin slivers of “char-siu” (Cantonese caramelised BBQ pork) added to the noodles dish. But that’s the extent of variation one finds for this dish. Only “choy sum” greens are used, never any other type of vegetables or greens.
At Woh Kee, a “dry” version of “sar hor fun”, without the gluggy sauce, is also offered. It was surprisingly tasty and I quite liked it from the first taste.
The other dish which Woh Kee is famous for is actually a soupy rice noodle dish topped with fried fish. I’m not a big fan of soup noodles, so did not order that dish this time round.
Woh Kee’s first location is today a large public carpark along Kampung Malabar. Since 1999 till last year, Woh Kee had operated on Cintra Street (an old restaurant-filled street in George Town that’s named after the Portuguese town of Sintra) where Cantonese eateries congregate. However, it moved to its current location on 10 Kampung Malabar late last year, and is almost back to the very same location where it started. Mr Lim’s 42-year-old son, Lim Guan Lye, now mans the stoves on some occassions, as 69-year-old Mr Lim has had his share of health issues the past few years, but the food seemed to taste better here than when Mr Lim himself was cooking at the old Cintra Street location.
Woh Kee (和记)
10 Kampung Malabar
10200 George Town
Opening hours: 12 noon to 9pm daily, except Tuesdays (closed).