Hawkers Delight

Posted on February 20, 2013


It has become a ritual for my sister and her husband to take KuKu and myself out to supper during our annual reunion. I had been eager to get to the night market and soak up the red lantern in its magic life of fire. Seeing KuKu again would always be top billing on this trip home. But now we were re-united, it was time to spend some quality time with a stroll through the night market.

This idea lit up my aunt’s face. Red Garden in Leith Street at night is a carnival any time. During a festival, its colour and movement can rejuvenate any age of person. That aside, Chinatown is somewhere she is always among friends, having been acquainted with many of the famous vendor families for generations. However, the bustle and what may lurk in the darkness had made her reluctant to go back there alone at night. Of course, the ghosts of a place with such a colourful history as Georgetown were one thing. But also, consider the city’s colourful present and its attendant wealth – such magnets for a naked blade. It isn’t a likely scenario at all these days, in reality. But the emotional side of us that makes decisions about things like that is driven by older memories.

She felt much safer with us and I think she had been waiting for me to suggest the foray. Immersed in seasonal spirit, I fished out my red t-shirt with the propitious ji character emblazoned across it. The emblem resembling a ghost ship sailing into a smoky horizon, neither underworld could hope to taunt us.

We drove through the old city, past the Unesco World Heritage listed colonial buildings that give the city its character, toward the avenues of hustling street vendors and coffee shops who are its soul. We drove through famous streets – Penang Road, Cintra Street and Campbell Street. But for the two of us that night, all of them led to Memory Lane.

It’s a good job hawker food is served cheaply and in small portions. It lends to variety. These days, night markets (and all hawker centres) cater primarily to tourists, or locals who will linger and make a very satisfying meal of exquisite little snacks. It’s the Asian equivalent of the cafe society.

The origins of hawker food stem from the natural outcome of mass immigration and urbanisation. In colonial times, the itinerant hawker catered to the needs of an itinerant working class. Chiefly male, the workers didn’t much care for cooking. The trick was not to set up a restaurant. It was to find one recipe that became a hit: Variations on a theme, food with medicinal qualities, or just the best there was at an old favourite. Food hawking is the easiest way of having one’s own business and it requires the least capital. It was for this reason that KuKu and her mother was able to start their yam cake business to support our family. It started off as a family business where the father or mother does the cooking and the children do the serving. However the hawker business nowadays has evolved beyond the simple family business. Most successful businesses have branches in various coffee shops and food courts. Foreign labour from Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh is employed to run the stalls.

Competition was and is fierce – it is the reason Penang’s food is world-renown, even among the federated states of Malaysia, where its cultural melting pot has been replicated. Somehow the unique and distinguished taste has managed to remain original despite change and modernisation that this island has gone through over the years. Some of these hawkers are found in and retained as part of the core Unesco World Heritage site in Georgetown, while a number of them have spread over town and into food courts in shopping plazas.

The most successful concoctions would cater to more than one ethnic group. Mee Goreng is a good example, combining the wok-fried noodle, a staple of southern China, with the spicy flavours of southern India. Many of the biggest names in Malaysian food came up through these mean streets.

Mee Goreng (Indian Fried Noodles) Recipe

Ingredients for chilli squid and potatoes

250g potatoes, peeled
1 tablespoon tamarind pulp
1 cup warm water
250g small squid
4 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 teaspoon chilli powder
2 teaspoon turmeric powder
10 curry leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar

Ingredients for main

650g fresh yellow noodles
250g bean sprouts, root nipped
250g Chinese cabbage or bok choy, leaves cut into 5cm length
8 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 tablespoon tomato sauce
6 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon chilli sauce
3 teaspoon vinegar
6 tablespoon water
6 eggs

Ingredients for garnish

1 lettuce, peeled and shredded coursely
2 stalks spring onion, chopped finely
4 large red chillies, deseeded and sliced thinly
2 green limes, halved


  1. Boil potatoes for 20 min. Drain and cut into quarters. Set aside.
  2. Soak tamarind pulp in warm water for 15 min and strain. Keep juice.
  3. Wash and clean squids. Drain and set aside.
  4. Heat oil in a wok or saucepan and fry chilli powder, turmeric powder and curry leaves at low heat.
  5. Add squids, tamarind juice, salt and sugar. Allow to simmer until squids are very tender ( 3-5 min). Mix in potatoes and simmer for another 2-3 min. Remove and set aside.
  6. Blanch noodles. Drain and set aside.
  7. Heat oil in a wok at high heat. Add Chinese cabbage, bean sprout and noodles in that order. Stir-fry quickly.
  8. Add tomato sauce, light soy sauce, chilli sauce, vinegar and water. Mix well.
  9. Spread noodles to the side and crack eggs into the middle. Scramble and mix into noodles.
  10. Add chilli squid and potatoes. Stir-fry briefly.
  11. Transfer to a plate and garnish with lettuce, spring onion, red chilli and green lime.

Serves 4

Note: For better result divide the ingredients into two and prepare separately.

Mee Goreng3