Eince I moved to London two years ago, I’ve been on the hunt. In almost every new or unheard of Malaysian restaurant I come across, I order one thing. What I’m looking for is an exact copy of a certain dish loved by almost every Malaysian (and anyone who has the immense privilege of tasting it).
This dish is called char kuey teow. It is a very popular fried flat noodle dish in Malaysia and Singapore and available in a variety of versions. But IMHO the best is on the island of Penang, Malaysia, where peddler cooks have perfected the art of “wok hei”.
Char kuey teow usually contains shrimp, bean sprouts, chives and eggs. The versions I enjoy the most are non-halal, cooked with pork lard and Chinese lap cheong sausage, but halal versions that omit these ingredients are also popular.
However, it is “wok hei” that is the most popular flavor I have found and the hardest for cooks in London to achieve.
The term “wok hei” means “breath of the wok”. It involves sautéing the ingredients over very high heat, imbuing the dish with a deliciously smoky, charred flavor. In Malaysia, hawker stalls use such high heat that it’s common to see sparks flying out of the wok as the cook quickly moves the pan back and forth against the roaring flames with a flick of the wrist.
All that to say that I haven’t been able to find a char kuey teow that quite captures that flavor. I can only guess that seeing a cook fanning huge flames and sending sparks from a stove would send health and safety in the UK into a panic attack. It’s a shame, but I kept hope. So when I saw Twitter foodies hailing Putera Puteri in Bayswater for their char kuey teow, I knew I had to try it for myself.
Putera Puteri is a small Malaysian restaurant tucked away in a quiet corner of Bayswater. It has been serving halal Malaysian food in the neighborhood for several years now, but was taken over by Noor Amy Ismail just before the Covid pandemic hit. As the pandemic deprived many much-needed jobs and income, Putera Puteri began donating meals and funds to homeless people and others affected by the crisis.
Attention quickly fell on this welcoming little establishment after it was featured in the Vittles Food Bulletin by the generous Jonathan Nunn. According to Vittles, Noor refers to his chefs as “wok hei specialists.” That was all I needed to hear to convince me to try Putera Puteri. Could their char kuey teow be what I was looking for?
Perhaps I should add here that this review comes at a time when my homesickness has peaked. I haven’t been home since June 2019, and as Malaysia’s quarantine requirements continue to prevent me from returning, I’m desperate for as many tastes of home as possible.
I was wondering if it was a good idea to revisit a Malaysian restaurant in a foreign country at the height of homesickness. I questioned the ethics of this; would my standards be too high? What if I made holes in every dish just because of how I feel? Would that be fair? But I figured if Putera Puteri’s char kuey teow could come even one iota close to alleviating the house’s gnawing desire, it would be 100% worth a review.
After spending way too much time umm-ing and ahh-ing, wishing I could order every thing on the menu, I finally settled on the char kuey teow (of course). My dining partner orders the vegetarian version of mee goreng Hokkien, which is Hokkien-style stir-fried noodles, another wok hei star in my books. We share a plate of keropok lekor, crispy fried fish “sausages” cut into pieces and kangkung belacan, morning glory sautéed with chillies and shrimp paste.
My order is taken by a Malaysian waiter, while Malay jiwang (emotional) music plays in the background. I see an Indian chef briefly appear from the kitchen, before disappearing inside. The familiar tones of Cantonese spoken in the kitchen float. I smile to myself, because it feels like home.
The char kuey teow arrives, piping hot and filled with sliced shrimp and fish balls. My first bite confirms that this is without a doubt the best version of a real char kuey teow I’ve had since arriving in London. It’s smoky and suitably greasy, the flat rice noodles are crispy (but not wet) and pleasantly chewy, and the prawns are succulent. The wok hei is making a name for itself, a far cry from some other versions I’ve tried before.
I relax happily. Although I still think the char kuey teow is the best with the main umami hit that the pork lard offers, the halal version of Putera Puteri satisfied my cravings enough to keep me coming back.
However, the same cannot be said for the Hokkien noodles, which are really lacking in not having the crispy little pork scratches that are usually found in the dish. I totally understand that the restaurant is halal, and if the dish wasn’t called the Hokkien noodles, I would have had different expectations. But I guess I can also attribute that to my incredibly high standards of homesickness.
But in all honesty, the biggest winner of my dinner was the kangkung belacan. I think I could have easily torn down the mound of crunchy, hollow morning glory stems and slats of wilted leaves, all covered in that salty, prawny, spicy belacan with a bowl of steaming rice, and been the most happy in the world. There’s something about belacan – a fermented shrimp paste that has the ability to stink entire homes – that is so complex and full of depth. You just have to try it.
It’s all washed down with a hot teh tarik (pulled milk tea), the best I’ve had in London. Some teh tarik I’ve come across here were either too sweet or too bland, but Putera Puteri hits are in just the right place.
At the end of the day, maybe I wasn’t really looking for char kuey teow. I was looking for a home – and in Putera Puteri, that’s exactly what I got. I will be back soon to sample all the rest of the menu, I have a keen eye for the beef rendang and kari ikan (fish curry).