THE first time I saw what a “chee cheong fun” (rolled rice noodles) was, was in the early 1970s.
Growing up in the East Coast, there were no chee cheong fun — only roti paong (charcoal baked home-made buns), nasi dagang, nasi lemak, and a host of other kuih for breakfast that were indigenous to Kuala Terengganu.
For noodles, we had yellow mee, kuey teow and homemade noodles, like laksa Terengganu but no chee cheong fun.
My first encounter with the chee cheong fun took place one night when my family was living in Gombak in a Chinese village now known as Kampung Lee Kong Chian.
Nightly, there would be a lady who came around on a rickety bicycle with a wooden box mounted behind.
She had a small charcoal stove with live embers under the box to keep her merchandise warm as she pushed her bicycle around, announcing her arrival with a shrill “Chee cheong fun! Chee cheong fun!” in between hoots of her rubber air horn.
The chee cheong fun lady would make her arrival around 8pm. One night, my mother gave me 20 sen to buy some to share with my siblings as a supper treat.
Those days, 10 sen could buy you a roll of chee cheong fun. If you had more money, you could add in the side dishes such as fried beancurd skin and fishballs, which cost 15 sen each.
Otherwise you would have to settle for only the plain white rolled noodles, each about a foot long and an inch in diameter. If I remember correctly, those days, you don’t need side dishes because the chee cheong fun were lip-smackingly delicious.
The chee cheong fun lady would cut the rolled noodles using a pair of scissors, drizzle a tablespoon of sweet soya sauce over it, give it a dash of sesame seeds, and a dollop of red sauce.
If you liked it hot, she would add some of her home-made chili sauce. Sometimes you could ask for some soup, which she would give if you brought your own bowl.
This soup came from the stock she used to keep her side dishes immersed in.
You just had to pour this soup into the plate in which you had finished your noodles, make a swirl so that the leftover sauce were properly mixed with the soup, and it would make a satisfying end to the meal.
After I had my first taste of chee cheong fun that night, I like it so much that I tried making my own the next day.
I used kuey teow because I thought both were similar. How wrong I was! It was no fun to the palate and my ducks at the back of the house were thankful that day for that white mess that I had created.
When I related my gastronomic misadventure to an elderly neighbour, she told me that although both kuey teow and chee cheong fun were made of rice flour, the kneading process was somewhat different.
“Chee cheong fun are made thinner than kuey teow,” she had told me. “And that is why chee cheong fun was chee cheong fun and not kuey teow.
“And you know why it was called ‘pig intestine noodles’ in Cantonese? That’s because if you looked at its cross-section, you will see that the folds were similar to what you see in a hog’s intestine.”
Of course, I found out later that chee cheong fun also came in sheets.
In the early 1980s or thereabouts, the Hong Kong version of the chee cheong fun arrived on our shores, the idea believed to have been brought home by locals who had seen it abroad.
Simply, this chee cheong fun didn’t look like the usual rolled ones but prepared on the spot by dropping rice flour batter into in cloth-lined stainless steel tray about two feet square, and steamed. Fillings of shrimps, barbecued meat and spring onions are added to it before being served.
Much softer to the bite and served hot from the stove, the Hong Kong variant was also more expensive than its local cousin. And before one could utter “Hoh Chiak” back then, every hawker stall and food court soon had one Hong Kong chee cheong fun operator smiling to the banks.
However, in Penang those days, the Hong Kong variant did not appear to be well received by locals, I was told.
I remember having gone to George Town and my request for Hong Kong chee cheong fun had turned heads. I was immediately told to go to Swatow Lane if I wanted to know what the best chee cheong fun in the country was.
Try the Penang chee cheong fun, I was told. And when I did, it was something I have grown a liking for even today because of its simplicity — just chee cheong fun, without the trimmings of side dishes.
The secret to Penang chee cheong fun had to be the generous amount of hae koh dropped into it, apart from the brown sauce. The smelly brown paste that gave Penang rojak its zing also did wonders to Penang chee cheong fun.
You’d know it’s not originally Penang if shrimp paste was lacking, especially when you checking out those that claimed to be from Penang, especially in Klang Valley.
But if you ask me about the best chee cheong fun I had ever tasted, it must be the one in Sungai Lembing. It was sold by an old couple at their stall next to the Hakka Association Clanhouse in the quaint town.
The way it was prepared is similar to Hong Kong chee cheong fun. There were also no side dishes like beancurd skins or fishballs to accompany it. Just plain steamed chee cheong fun with egg fillings, with a sprinkling of chopped spring onions, and eaten with the couple’s home-made sauce.
A friend of mine who lives in Kuantan would drive 40km to Sungai Lembing each weekend just to have a plate of this soft and smooth textured version.
The secret, my friend believes, is in the water from the mountains that was used in the batter.
It made the chee cheong fun’s texture smooth and soft, he said.
In fact, the Sungai Lembing chee cheong fun was so popular that on weekends when hungry tourists throng the sleepy hollow, it would be sold out by noon. And so far, I have not seen this version sold anywhere else except in the former tin mining town.