It was the typical tropical afternoon. Though there was a light drizzle outside, it was still hot and humid in the building. Even with the absence of walls, the man's singlet was soaked through with sweat. He did don a light shirt, which original colour was barely discernible.
He was furiously at work. Honed by years of practice, he reached behind him and whipped out a bottle of dark soy sauce, a swig of that into the wok and the bottle was back in its place the next moment. He took a stab at the kuay teow (flat vermicelli noodles) followed by another and another in quick succession, further tossing it in the wok each time. Last added was a small scoop of still bloodied clams.
The dish was served on a waxed brown paper and quickly tied up with a piece of raffle string, carefully measured and cut the day before. Barely taller than the counter, I handed over the money that Mum entrusted me with and balanced the piping hot char kuey teow through a loop in the string that the 'char kuey teow man' had thoughtfully tied for me.
During my last visit back home, I travelled halfway across the island just to revisit the hawker centre at Stirling Road opposite Mei Chin School. I half expected the char kuey teow man still slogging over his wok. Wishful thinking on my part perhaps but not only was he was no longer there, his stall made way for an escalator, reflecting the aging population in the neighborhood after twenty odd years.
That was my memory of char kuey teow. To me, it's much more than the dish itself, it's the heat, humidity and the char kuey teow man of my childhood. And that was probably the sole reason why I ordered that at C&R when I had lunch alone that afternoon.
C&R needs no introduction; its reputation of being the place to go for Malaysian food in Chinatown is spread solely by word of mouth as it is tucked in a dingy alleyway (Rupert Court) along Whitcomb Street. Even with the opening of Rasa Sayang a couple of years, C&R retains a loyal following.
Even so, since we came to London, it's only the second time I've been to C&R. Having heard about C&R from a fellow Singaporean, Wife and I dropped by for some comfort food within a month of reaching London as we were terribly homesick by then.
Long story short, the experience while wasn't terrible, it wasn't far from it. I guess we haven't quite got used to the idea of having to pay almost ten times the price (compared to back home) for street fare and service that was dismissive at best.
The staff at C&R raised her eyebrows at me when I walked in last week, some things just doesn't change. She led me to a corner seat mumbling that it was less cold than the one right by the door. Bravo, things were looking up already. She took my order without a word and turned away as soon as I was done. No time for that, as she returned to carry on her conversation with three other waitresses by the counter.
C&R has since expanded to occupy the small shop space opposite. Given a choice, I would very much prefer not to be seated over there. Imagine having to wave frantically to attract the attention of a staff (deep in conversation no doubt) across the alleyway.
The teh tarik (£2) arrived soon after. The pipping hot concoction was more evaporated milk than condensed milk and thus could be sweeter. It did smell great though. Not nearly as good as the one at Malaysian Kopitiam but it did stave off the wintry blues.
Char kuey teow at £6.50 is probably the cheapest in central London. Despite that, I suspect most growing up eating the dish would still baulk at paying almost five times the price in London for a standard hawker fare back home.
As if to preempt that, C&R's char kuay teow is generous in portion. Not only that, I lost count of the number of prawns in it. Before you get too excited, those prawns would be labelled as large in your local Tesco, which doesn't really say much about them - anything other than the "jumbo" label would simply be large shrimps. Neither were they fresh. One can quickly taste the difference between really fresh prawns and those pumped up with preservatives. The latter just lacked the meaty texture and taste oddly flat.
There was a slight hint of the ever elusive 'smoky' taste that is much sought after in char kuay teow (the best I've tasted is at Kiasu). The sliced fish cake, which curiously was more scarce than prawns in the dish, was perhaps the redeeming factor. Smooth, firm and cooked nicely, if only there was more of it. Also absent was sliced Chinese sausage, which would have added a sweet tinge to the mix.
Two ladies settled down on the table next to mine when I was halfway through. When asked by one which dishes were recommended, the other declared, "everything is good". Nudging the other while half pointing to my half eaten char kuay teow, "want to try char kuay teow or not?" she whispered rather loudly. A quick nod was the reply.
C&R personify the typical impression of a Chinese restaurant in London - if the service is good, the food probably isn't good. If the food is good, it probably isn't cheap. Service? Forget it. There's no service charge if it pleases you. Food served isn't too bad but C&R definitely offers a great deal if you factor in the price.
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Saturday, 10 December 2011
C & R Malaysian restaurant - the original Malaysian restaurant in London's Chinatown