The selection of food in Malaysia, though vast and varied, is undeniably centered around two starches: Rice (nasi) and noodles (mee). Jessie Chien recounts a casual, yet memorable, encounter with the latter.
By Jessie Chien
After exploring Fort Cornwallis on a steamy hot afternoon in Penang, I stumbled out of the gates of the fort to find a huge outdoor hawker stand next door. In front of me was a scene typical throughout my trip in Malaysia: a cluster of food hawkers, grouped under a massive scrap metal overhang. Men and women in conservative muslim garb, clustered at tables enjoying rice, noodles, fried chicken, and grilled fish. After cruising each small cart and their respective offerings, it was pretty obvious that we were going to go for what was the most popular and simultaneously the most visually appealing- a generous pile of piping hot noodles tossed in a blood red gravy.
Though it probably would have been best to find out what was in this juicy, savory looking blood red gravy, the smells and sights of the dish alone reeled us in. When travelling abroad, it’s sometimes best to let your nose and stomach make decisions. My fellow travelling companions and I boldly stepped up to the counter and signaled three red saucy noodle dishes for our table. Literally, signaled, as I frantically pointed to the dishes being served to other customers and held up three fingers, followed by a simple utterance, “mee“, then enthusiastically nodding my head. Luckily there is more one language that all working around food can understand- the language of hunger and enthusiasm. The man behind the stall very much understood the language I was using.
Waiting for our dish to arrive, I started to read the noticeably aged news clippings posted in the cart window, where I learned that we were about to eat a big pile of sweet-spicy-sour-savory cuttlefish noodles, made by a third generation hawker.
Ahh, so that explained the odd phallic creature floating on the sign above the hawker stall.
We perched ourselves anxiously around a round formica table directly in front of the stall, and watched as streams of people filtered to and from the counter in a nonstop flow, requesting order after order of the same dish. The noodles were made in batches of 8 or 10 plates at a time, with one main, portly head chef sat at the helm of the open gas stove and two, more nimble “sous” chefs ran about garnishing plates, running orders, refilling the mise en place (though I’m sure they had no name for such), and collecting money. There were no numbers given to customers, no names, no tickets- just a nod of acknowledgement after you placed your order and a quick shout of the order to the head chef.
We watched as head chef vigorously chopped bunches of onions and greens for a quick saute in a huge wok; a wok that looked like had it been used to make the same noodle dish for decades. He threw massive handfuls of noodles into the sizzling wok, cracked dozens of eggs taken from a tower of egg crates, and squirted and poured various sauces and oils as if he were conducting a symphony. Chop, sizzle, saute, saute, squirt, crack, saute, squirt, saute, squirt. Watching one…two….three batches of noodles go out to tables around us, I could not help but wonder how the sous chefs had even kept track of who ordered what. I must admit, I began to doubt our place in the sequence of noodle orders. But I knew better than to approach these men who were endlessly making noodle dish after noodle dish for the hungry locals around us.
Finally, we received our three orders of noodles, piping hot, fresh out of the wok and delivered to us without any hesitation. Having waited for some time now, we too did not hesitate as we dug in to the steamy red pile of noodles in front of us. At first bite, I immediately taken aback by the fishiness of the squid that infiltrated the entire dish. But after a couple more bites, the once obvious flavor settled into my palate. Nuances of spiciness and sweetness and hints of sour and bites of cuttlefish seemed to become more and more distinct with each bite. Maybe we were hungry, maybe it really was great, maybe the anticipation took over, or perhaps the cheap $1.30 price tag sealed the deal. But most likely, it was a combination of all of the above.
Hameed ‘Pata’ Special Mee
6 Kota Selera, Padang Kota Lama
Penang, Malaysia 10200
Jessie Chien Bryson grew up spending sunny California Thanksgivings eating 20lb. free-range turkeys along with sides of Chow Mein, which is what she thinks cemented her insatiable interest of food cultures and sustainable methods as an adult. She recently spent two years in Guangzhou, China, where the locals were said to eat anything with four legs but a table and anything that flies but a plane. She's now on the other side of the world in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where she keeps a diary of food, travel, and expat adventures at www.jessbopeep.com