Saturday, 27 August 2011

Char Siew Hustle!

Remember the 2004 hit comedy Kung Fu Hustle directed by Stephen Chow? Remember its famous chain-smoking, curlers-in-hair, landlady?  If she were a real-life person, she would be this hawker lady I met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

She holds court like a dowager, and wields her meat cleaver with bloodthirsty gusto. She swears at her husband, who’s her stall helper, with the choicest Cantonese vulgarities, and repeats your order with a voice as if you were standing 10 metres away from her. Yet, she packs them in; and the crowd doesn’t seem to mind her at all. In fact, they seem to love her.

Her roadside stall is built around a huge tree, and roofed by a makeshift patchwork of large umbrellas and pieces of tarpaulin and canvas. There is no signage whatsoever; just some battered-looking aluminum counters, with slabs of roast meat hanging behind a glass panel. Behind her a huge pot sits on a charcoal stove, containing soup brewed from leftover bones and winter melon. Another pot holds stewed vegetables.

When we arrived for lunch, the tables were filled with mostly office workers. An executive-looking guy in a tie was helping himself to the soup, ladling it gingerly into his bowl from the steaming pot. Otherwise, everyone gave the dowager a wide berth. The husband was hard at work serving and clearing the tables. Listening to the “communication” between the dowager and her husband alone was worth the price of the meal. It consisted of an ear-splitting stream of instructions, curses, profanities, and banter.

We were told the char siew was some of the best around; and it certainly looked the part. Unlike the super-lean char siew that’s mostly served up in these health-conscious times, this char siew looked like it was about 15% fatty, like in the good ol’ days. We noticed the meats were all moving faster than one could say “char siew”, so that by the time we placed our order, the dowager was largely sold out. She looked up at us and declared, “You came late; so you just have to take whatever’s left”, then turned back to her chopping block.

Just then, another customer shouted a request from his table, playfully mimicking the dowager’s tone and manner. She appeared stunned for a millisecond; then to our astonishment, flashed a girlish smile to acknowledge the order!

We helped ourselves to the soup; it tasted nostalgically of the free soup dished out by roadside char siew stalls in Singapore in the 60s. Then, about fifteen minutes later, the meat arrived: a motley platter of char siew chunks, roast pork, and pork ribs. The first bite into the char siew told me why it was so popular, despite the stall owner’s antics.

It was succulent with a slightly burned aroma, tender in the center and crisp on the outside where it was deeply roasted. The meat was well marinated with a hint of malted sugar that came through with each bite. The same flavors and texture applied to the pork ribs. As to the roast pork, its skin was still very crispy despite being so near to closing time; and only the best parts of the pig were used as they yielded better texture and bite.

After the meat had sold out, and realizing we were first-timers at her stall, the dowager stalked over to our table. Oh, oh, we thought; and braced ourselves. Instead, she turned out chirpy and amiable, proclaiming herself Queen of Vulgarity (烂口皇).

She got serious though, when talking about roasting techniques and selecting the right cut of meat. She told us she used only charcoal for roasting – no compromises. Her pride in her work wouldn’t even allow her to keep leftovers for the next day. She would simply increase the size of the portion, when business was slow, to avoid leftovers. Her regular customers, she told us, could detect overnight meat no matter what method she used to “refresh” the stale meat. In fact, just the day before, she chuckled, she had to frantically phone her regulars to come in to help her “clear stock” as a sudden downpour had washed out her lunch business!

It seems that with the lunch crush over, the dowager was a lady transformed. She admitted she had always felt the pressure to make her daily earnings from that one or two hours of afternoon business; and that made her impatient and grouchy. Otherwise, she was obviously fun – and funny. She even talked in a civilized (dare I say, almost wifely?) tone to her old man when he joined us halfway through the conversation! This is one hawker lady I won’t soon forget.

Junction of Jalan Angsoka and Jalan Bedara
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Operating hours: Lunch only

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