Lydia of The Perfect Pantry needs no introduction. A professional food writer, author, cooking instructor, and food blogger extraordinaire, Lydia’s “The Perfect Pantry” is packed with very useful food-related articles, resources, and drool-worthy recipes. Lydia has been a supporter of Rasa Malaysia since the very early days. Her comments are always warm, insightful, but most of all, she has a genuine appreciation for Malaysian cuisine. So, you could imagine how delightful and excited I was when Lydia agreed to pen a guest post for this humble blog, and that she would share her story about mee goreng. Please welcome The Perfect Pantry to Rasa Malaysia as Lydia takes us on her travel in Malaysia many years ago, and narrated how she fell in love with mee goreng or spicy fried noodles. Enjoy!
Mee Goreng (Spicy Fried Noodles)
Guest Writer: Lydia Walshin of The Perfect Pantry
By the time we reached the tiny night market, a row of stalls under a tent on the road between Kuantan and Kuala Terengganu, I’d already tasted at least a dozen different versions of mee goreng, the Indian-inspired stir-fried noodle dish of my dreams.
We had arrived in Kuala Lumpur a week or so earlier, by train from Singapore. A city of nearly seven million people, KL embodied the juxtapositions that are Malaysia: old and new, Chinese and Indian, traditional and modern, in everything from architecture to industry to fashion and, yes, to food.
Our hotel in KL, chosen for its proximity to mass transit, sat atop the central bus station. Despite the chaos below, the hotel was clean and basic, and the budget-friendly room rate included a buffet breakfast. I’m sure there was lots of fruit and cereal, but mostly what I remember was the huge bowl of mee goreng.
Noodles for breakfast; from the first bite, I was in heaven. The noodles were a perfect balance of salty, spicy and dry (not in a sauce), tossed with cabbage and potatoes and egg and other things I can’t quite recall.
I began to see mee goreng everywhere–not in an hallucinogenic way, but for real, stir-fried to order at pushcarts all over the city. I watched, tasted, and tried to figure out how to make it, but each bowl was different, some more spicy, some without potatoes, some topped with chunks of tomato or shrimp or fried scallions, or not.
After a side trip to Melaka, we left KL and crossed to the east coast, where we began our trip north from Kuantan to Kota Bharu, meandering along the shore roads, stopping in small fishing villages, visiting markets and batik factories, taking a boat ride here, buying a sarong there, eating mee goreng at least once a day, and sometimes twice, never exactly the same.
And so we came upon the night market, on the beach on a tiny road just south of Kuala Terengganu. From the five or six stalls, we selected the one that made mee goreng. Ted and Cousin Martin sat at a small table, relaxing and watching television, but I’d had enough. I had to learn how to make the noodles that had become my obsession.
At the rear of the stall, a small counter separated the sitting area from the “kitchen,” which was a single-burner propane stove and a tiny fridge. I walked to the back, and asked the stall owner if she spoke English. She did not, nor did I speak Bahasa Malaysia. So, smiling and gesturing, I tried to say, “May I please watch you cook the noodles?”
Next thing I knew, she grabbed my arm, and pulled me to the rear of the counter. She stuck a spatula into my hand, and with a smile on her face, began to point to ingredients. I realized that she wanted me to cook! Okay, I thought, I can do this. And so we began, teacher and student. She would point to an ingredient, and then to the wok. Put this here, now stir, now add this, yes, add more and so on, until, in what seemed like a nanosecond, I had created my very first mee goreng.
I walked out from behind the counter, carrying dishes of fried noodles, to the total amazement of my husband and cousin. It was the best mee goreng anywhere in Malaysia. I’m absolutely sure of it.
Later that evening, I tried to write down what I’d learned in the night market kitchen, but I couldn’t quite remember all of the ingredients. And when I got home and began to recreate the dish, I never could get it quite right.
Years later, I interviewed chef Alfred Chua, who had opened a small storefront restaurant in Boston’s South End. When I learned he was from Malaysia, I asked him why my mee goreng never tasted the same as the noodles I’d had on my travels. He explained that a lot has to do with heat; our home stove burners simply do not get hot enough to dry out the noodles.
Undeterred, I asked him to teach me how to make his family’s version of mee goreng. I’ve played with his basic recipe a bit, and this is as close as I’ve come to the noodles I made in the night market kitchen.