While at first glance it may look like a knock-off of Thailand’s popular Pad Thai, the unmatched flavor of Char Koay Teow (literally translated as stir-fried ricecake strips) is solely its own. We watched as the street food vendors in Penang took rice noodles, salty soy sauce, hot chilies, and seafood and stir-fried it in large woks until slightly charred. We ordered this spicy, smoky dish twice in Penang and were not disappointed. Once back in Korea, I set about recreating the dish at home.
Char Koay Teow is quite easy to prepare at home, though those made uneasy by the concept of blood cockles (a species of clam with a small portion of blood inside, also known as blood clams) may beg to differ. Those opposed to the shellfish or living in areas difficult to obtain them can substitute regular clams or small oysters. If using the shellfish, it may be difficult to purchase fewer than a pound at a time. If this is the case, steam all of the clams and feel free to add a few extra to each portion. You can reserve the leftover clams for an addition to pasta the following night.
Though the Char Koay Teow in Penang was made with lard and a bit of bacon pieces, I omitted this out of preference, and used ghee instead. Remembering a poor past attempt at Pad Thai, I was a bit nervous preparing this dish without the traditional well-seasoned wok. However, my non-coated pan did an excellent job, something I attribute to the use of ghee. The dish came out quite well, full and rich in flavor and texture. In fact, it made for a heavy dinner. It may be necessary to make one large portion to share and serve several light vegetable sides along with a clear soup. This is what I plan to do in the future.
Ingredients (makes 2 dinner portions)
5-6 fresh red chilies, seeded
1 teaspoon ground dried chilies
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons honey (or sugar)
6 shallots, peeled, roughly chopped
1 large head of garlic, minced
2 small handfuls of green onions, finely chopped
2 small handfuls of beansprouts
8 ounces flat, uncooked rice noodles (yields about 3-4 cups cooked rice noodles)
4 tablespoons ghee + more
12 blood cockles (or more if desired)
Freshly cracked black pepper
Tip: As with making Pad Thai, Char Koay Teow’s preparation is slow and the cooking quite fast. Assemble all of the ingredients on the counter beforehand and have them easily accessible before the pan touches the burner. You will actually be stir-frying each of the two portions separately, so plan and halve the ingredients accordingly.
Start by giving the blood cockles a preliminary scrub. During this time, check to make sure all the clams are tightly closed. If one is open, give it a tap. If it does not close shut, discard it, along with any that have broken or chipped shells. After scrubbing, fill a large bowl with cold water and add a 1/4-1/2 cup of salt. Place the clams in the salty water and allow them to soak for 30 minutes to help loosen extra sand and grit. While they are soak, peel and clean your shrimp, set them aside, and prepare the rest of your ingredients:
- Combine the first six ingredients in a small blender or food processor and pulse until smooth.
- Prepare the rice noodles by bringing a pot of water to a boil, turning the heat off and adding the noodles. Let them sit in the water until just tender, and quickly remove them. Add a small amount of ghee to the boil of noodles to avoid clumping.
- Separate the portions, and layout the onions, beansprouts, eggs, seafood, noodles, and garlic.
Drain the salty water and give the blood cockles a final scrub. Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil on the stove, and add the clams. After a minute, drain the water. Many of the clams will be opened, though some will need a gentle nudge with a fork or butter knife. If a clam is closed tightly, however, discard it. Alternatively, you can steam the blood cockles in a lidded pot with a cup of water for a few minutes until the shells open/loosen. Scoop the clams out of the shells and set them aside.
Heat two tablespoons of ghee in a non-coated pan and add half of the minced garlic. Stir-fry until fragrant and add 4 shrimp and half the blood clams and cook for one minute. Add half the noodles, one handful of beansprouts, and half of the sauce, continuously stir-frying and shaking the pan. If at any point during the process the mixture begins sticking to the pan, add a bit more ghee. A bit more dark soy sauce can be added as well, but with a light hand.
Move the noodles to one side of the pan and crack the egg. Scramble it well before incorporating it into the noodles. Continue stir-frying until the noodles turn the color of kraft paper. The entire cooking time for each portion should be about five minutes.
Add one handful of the green onions, give it a few stirs. Plate it with a few turns of the pepper grinder and serve it immediately. Repeat the process for the second portion.