The humble hawker – a beacon of affordable, good eats and a symbol of Malaysian culinary diversity and ingenuity. What is it about having food cooked by a small team in a swelteringly hot coffee shop so strangely cathartic? There's something humbling and very Malaysian about braving the heat and humidity (and sometimes hygiene levels) for good food.
I've been playing a silly game with myself lately and after much rumination I think I've got the answers! You see, the premise is simple. Name the five hawker foods you can't live without in no specific order. It sounds easy at first, but you'll soon find yourself rethinking your choices.
Do I pick curry mee over wanton mee? What about nasi lemak vs nasi kerabu?
If it had to pledge my allegiance to either char kway teow or Ipoh kway teow (kai si hor fun), which would receive my devotion?
Say I were to leave Malaysia for ten years and return, what should I eat first? Maggi goreng ayam or Hokkien mee? The KL version, of course.
So many questions. Let's take a look at my answers.
1) Sang Har Mee
Now, this is pure indulgence. When I have some money to spend on pleasing the palate, I often want something satisfyingly sinful like sang har mee. What's not to like about noodles covered in a thick egg gravy imbued with the delightful qualities of plump, delicious river prawns? The umami notes of fresh river prawn really heightens the whole dish, making for one of my favourite things to eat. At my downtown family haunt, we usually order two plates – one using yee mee and the other a yin yong mix – to enjoy a greater variation of textures.
I love having sang har mee not just because it tastes divine. The dish, like many on this list, was one of my father's favourite things to eat. And because I grew up following in his culinary footsteps, so to speak, this has in turn become mine as well. If I were to leave this country in search of greener pastures, this is most definitely one of the dishes that I'll crave from time to time.
2) Bak Kut Teh
My love for bak kut teh is public knowledge. I find it extremely comforting, the whole act of pouring a herbal and meat-charged broth on rice so incredibly wholesome that all of life's troubles temporarily fades into the background. Soft, tender, fall-off-the-bone pork, beancurd skin and button mushrooms are all I need for an instant pick-me-up. Oh, and let's not forget the integral part of the BKT experience that is yau char kwai, crispy fried pieces of dough that brilliant acts as both a pre-BKT snack and as a vessel to soak up and deliver that hearty broth.
I can pinpoint the exact moment bak kut teh became a staple for me. I was 10 and my father started regularly taking us to Klang on Sundays to get his BKT fix. All these years later, more than two decades later to be exact, and I still carry on the tradition he started despite his passing. Here's to you dad.
3) Prawn Mee/Har Mee/Hokkien Mee
I have always been a fan of prawn mee. Mee hoon mee, to be exact. I remember this being the occasional treat when my family decided to have it every now and then. There's a unique savoury taste about prawn mee that I really dig, no doubt the result of that prawn and pork rib broth. Add slices of pork, or siew yoke, fried shallots, egg and dried shrimp and you've got heaven in a bowl.
The de facto version of prawn mee has to be Penang Hokkien mee. I recently returned to Penang for a long-awaited food tour and this was high on my list. I love this so much I'm actually willing to make the drive down to Penang just for this.
4) Chicken Rice
Chicken and rice, what a meal. It's a hearty, rich, flavourful, filling, protein-packed experience for cheap. But not just any chicken rice will do. No. The rice has to be a standout on its own. If the rice fails to awaken my tastebuds with the first spoon, it has pretty much lost me. The chicken has to be moist and tender too, and I fall firmly in the roast chicken camp as I prefer the smoky aromas of charred skin as opposed to the steamed variety. Next, the sauce used to add flavour and umami to the chicken has to be just the right kind of saltiness. Just salty enough to enhance the natural tastes of the bird, but not salty enough to overshadow and oversaturate. Everything else is optional.
Where do I get my chicken rice fix? It's an open secret I've shared in the past and one I'd gladly share with another fellow chicken rice lover, just ask!
5) Pan Mee
Those that know me well probably saw this coming. My affinity for pan mee after all is pretty much public knowledge by now. I mean, I wrote a 900-word love letter to my local neighbourhood pan mee stall. It doesn't get anymore soppy than that.
TL;DR – I find a hot bow of hand-torn pan mee extremely comforting. I've been having these chewy, doughy noodles with mushrooms, seasoned ground pork, fried anchovies, lard and sweet potato leaves for 27 years now. And I don't intend on stopping anytime soon.
Now that you know my five favourites, I want to know yours! Do you agree with my (mostly KL-based) choices? Did my answers offend your refined and astute hawker food sensibilities? I wanna know.
Have you read the 5 foods that can help you feel better when you're feeling down?