Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sisters' Char Kway Teow, Penang

Want to start a vigorous debate with a Malaysian? Make it about food, specifically the best or most authentic version of something or other.

Char kway teow (stir-fried flat noodles with egg, prawns, bean sprouts and other good things) is an all-time classic of the Malaysian-Chinese culinary canon. If I could only eat one noodle dish for the rest of my life it would be this one. So what better place to search for the best CKT in the world than Penang, the spiritual home of Malaysian-Chinese cookery?

Sisters' Char Kway Teow comes with a reputation as making one of the best CKTs, if not THE best, you'll ever find. Of course, many will hotly dispute this, which is to be expected considering CKT is one of the most common dishes served in Malaysia, so there is no shortage of rival establishments with claims to making the best. And of course, a lot depends on personal taste, and no two dishes will be exactly the same - there's always a possibility that a top-notch place will serve you an aberrant substandard offering.

Sisters' is a hawker stall situated at Ham Leng Cafe, in McAlister Rd. It is a humble-looking but much-vaunted institution of Penang's food scene, but for all those who sing the place's praises, there are just as many who review it unfavourably compared to some other locations. I've read a few reports on various blogs that describe it as overpriced or the service was arrogant. Pleasingly, I had no such impression - the staff of Ham Leng and the two hawker stalls all had the vibe of benevolent uncles and auntie, characteristic of Malaysia's best old-fashioned corner coffee shops.

One reason Sisters' has become well-known is its long history. The two ladies who make the famous dish have been doing it for 50 years. Seriously. Usually only one is in attendance at any given time (they do either the morning or evening shift). The diminutive veteran we observed around lunchtime was apparently 75 years old, still commanding her wok with calm authority. She was also very amenable to us taking photos of her, putting on a few "in action" poses for our benefit.

But of course, the main game here is the char kway teow itself. Is it really that good?

Well I certainly don't have the time to sample all the CKT in Malaysia (or Singapore, for that matter) for comparison, and would certainly die of heart attack even if I did try. But let me say this - it was damn good. A strong chili kick without being overpowering, and that all-important slightly charred flavour from the wok. Not too oily either. I had the vegetarian version, while Aveena had the standard recipe with juicy prawns and shredded dried crab on top. No trace of the lap cheong (Chinese sausage) which is found in many versions, though that is by no means a necessity.

It's a small serving - I easily shared an extra half-serve without feeling like I'd gone too far, and a great pleasure it was, too.

Strangely the cafe was almost empty at midday when we arrived. Yet we contravened the first rule of selecting a place in SE Asia (go wherever you see the most locals), and were not disappointed. I can't even say if it's the best in Penang, but its certainly worthy of a look in.

For more on food in Penang, try here and here.

For more on food in Malaysia, try:

The Guide to Ordering Food in Malaysia

Terengganu Cuisine

The Malaysian-Indian Food Experience

Addicted to Kuih

Roti Canai Terbang - The Way of the Flying Roti

Breakfast at Bakti Woodlands, Kuala Lumpur

Lina's Popiah, SS3, Petaling Jaya

Vegetarian Dim Sum at Nature's Recipe Cafe, Petaling Jaya

Salam from Malaysia

Cooking up a storm in Malaysia


  1. Hey Chris great blog :) Gotta ask, what is that white stuff on your CKT?

    Been trawling through your archives to get through this snoozefest in the office. LOL.

  2. The white stuff on my CKT (teehee, that sounds a bit rude) is some kind of grated crab. Dried or preserved crab I think. We also had popiah which had a bit of the stuff, so I guess its a Penang thing.

    Keep trawling bruv!

  3. i was there about two weeks back and sister was sick and the other one not in. unfortunately it seems the sisters didnt pass the love onto their staff coz sorry to say but it was `okay'! looked the same but lacklustre.

    they've got vinyl signage now though. hope you get well soon sister.

  4. @ blazn - yeah, that's the difficulty of trying to evaluate restaurants on the basis of a single visit. There will be subtle differences between how different chefs do it, and subtle differences each time the chef produces something.

    I think the sisters are rarely in the shop at the same time - one starts in the morning and one starts in the evening. And given that they are both pretty ancient, I'm not surprised that one was sick.

  5. I was there pretty recently. It's still pretty good food although there's a much better looking sign there now.

    Link to new sign :

  6. @ SK - I wonder if the improved sign is good for business? I'm sure it probably is, but since Malaysian foodies are so concerned with grainy authenticity, some would look upon the scribbled and tatty sign as a marker of "realness".