Updated: Mar 12
To: Char Kway Teow
Every day apart from you has been unbearable, the heat that simmers within me has never been satisfied the way your warmth has. It has been too long, far too long since I last embraced such indulgent desires as I used to every morning with you for those six weeks.
My chest was clamped in a tight vice the moment I had to board the plane and wave goodbye to you. A hot burn crawled down my throat as I held back my tears; I didn’t want my father to catch me in such a vulnerable state. I shoved the pain down into the pit of my empty stomach and waited to leave you — something I never experienced to be so bittersweet when I arrived in Ipoh.
I am consumed by you in such an artery-clogging way, I want to go back for more… and perhaps more after that. Letting go of you was a permanent end to our temporary affair but I will never forget you.
I miss you. I want you.
I want to relive my first time — our first time. The way every tile in the market was stained with an off-white colour. The way every colour, movement and smell mingled in the thick humidity, every culinary layer became indistinguishable. The way my senses were seasoned with a sprinkle of salt and sliced ginger.
It was only until my eyes fell on you —
Everything felt like I was on a movie set for a romance. A rosy spotlight focused only on us. Frolicking prawn fairies scattered the floor with flower petals. The string quartet swelled. My pupils enlarged. I had my first taste of you. Hugged by a lavish coating of soy sauce, the flat white strips of rice noodle curled with the fresh pieces of chilli that prickled my tongue. The bean sprouts burst with crisp juiciness. The prawns stole my heart and my arteries with their gentle texture and tenderness.
My second bite and a mariachi band appeared. My third bite and a Bollywood performance overtook my mind with a chorus of sitars and high-pitched hums. My Facebook status changed from ‘single’ to ‘it’s complicated’.
If anyone told you that finding your favourite meal wasn’t like falling in love in a film, they would be lying. They haven’t yet found someone like you. I found my love with plastic cutlery, and a fish in a nearby tank glaring at me whilst we had our moment. I think they were jealous of our intimacy.
My first time with you, my darling char kway teow, played out like a romance novel with poor relationship morals. I tried to fulfil the gaping need I had when we parted ways. I do not wish to lie to you, I attempted my best to forget you. To cheat on our time with any alternative I could encounter in Plymouth. They were casual and loveless; they all provided some sort of needed release, but it was never the same. Indeed, I am a noodle slut. But, none of them can compare to you, my love.
I’m sorry for my unfaithfulness. I know what we had together can never be replaced. I can only hope that in time, our paths shall cross again.
We’ll always have Ipoh.
Pronounced char k-way tee-ow, this dish is essentially stir-fried noodles with a mix of soy sauces, shrimp paste, chilli, prawns, bean sprouts, amongst other ingredients depending on availability and your choice of the wet (in a soup) or dry version. The kway teow soup version is the wholesome angel to the hearty devil that is dry char kway teow. But I don’t mind going to the dark (soy) side and diving into indulgence. Despite its popularity as accessible street food in Malaysia, it was my equivalent of a tall dark European taking a sudden interest in my plump dumpling figure.
This noodle seduction all began when my Dad and I went to Ipoh for six weeks in 2016. After hours of travelling by bus, plane, and taxi, we arrived in Ipoh absolutely drained. Tired, sweltering and feeble, Dad and I craved food — any food. One of my Dad’s younger brothers, Veramani, kindly picked us up from the YoYo bus station and drove us to an indoor food market. This was my second time experiencing where Dad was born and raised, and my first time with char kway teow.
Ipoh’s status as a food capital derives from the range of ethnicities and cultures that permeate Malaysia’s food history. According to livepopulation.com, Malaysia’s 31.2 million population (approx.) consists of Malay (50.1%), Chinese (22.6%), Indigenous (11.8%), Indian (6.7%), non-citizen and other (0.7%). These ethnicities and cultures create a prismatic abundance of family recipes and a marriage of interracial flavours. Food writer Susan Smillie claims this derives from the fact that Malaysia’s spice run attracted Chinese traders, labourers and Indians.
The Portuguese rule in Malaysia during the 1500s inspired a lifetime of cooking techniques and ingredients, such as sweet tamarind and spicy chilli (Smillie). Without the chilli, the sambal may not have existed. Sambal is the hotter cousin of ketchup, a sauce/paste that gently warms the throat or punches you in the pipes depending on your chilli tolerance. If Malaysia were a dish, it would be crammed with an indescribable blend of ingredients. And without this, I would have never found love as rich and handsome as char kway teow.
To: Chow Mein
I know it has been a while since I last wrote to you. A lot has been going on in my life and I couldn’t afford the time or money to go out and see you. But don’t take that silence as an emotional absence on my part. You still matter to me dearly.
I know that I spoke so highly of my summer affair, but you have to understand that it was a once-in-a-lifetime story, and its chapter has closed. Not even the instant gratifications satisfied me the way I thirsted for your sweet and luscious broth. As long as I am here, I am all yours — and always have been since we were young.
My gosh, we have changed so much! You occasionally have oyster mushrooms and honeyed meat mingling with the rest of your flavours — and I grew out my side fringe… Do you remember where we first met? I forget whether it was the place with the fish tank and beaded curtain, or the one with the laminated town map and white tiling that covered every speck of floor, seating and wall. I’d say you have a better memory than I do, but whenever I call for you to come over to my place, you have a different look. Sometimes your sauce was light, loose and juicy. Other times it was dark, syrupy, and intense. Depending on when and where, we shuffled between blushed and flirty glances, or alluring and hypnotic glares.
This may be embarrassing for me to say, but since I have somewhat taken the unnecessary way of communicating to you via a hand-written letter (postage and packaging included), I might as well speak my truth. I set up a dating profile on ‘Just Eat’ to check out- I mean, check-UP on you. I know you often get called to spend the night with someone…or, many someones. Listen, I’m not one to judge where you go or who you speak with, I just wanted to see (not stalk!) how your business has been doing. It simply reminds me that after all these years, you still look divine.
I know both of us often have our dinner times occupied by other people, but it doesn’t hurt to see each other more frequently, does it? I understand that ever since I moved, you’re currently going through a garlic phase. I know that ever since we reunited a few months ago, the feeling in my mouth is grittier. The sauce slips past my tongue, but the occasional tumble of garlic pieces invite a texture I am welcome to familiar myself with.
My favourite thing about our time together is how I gather you in swirling clusters; it is as delicious to watch as it is to taste — to consume. And every morsel of you is a swift way to drift into a trance. Mindlessly slurping on you, sedating my hunger in the messiest, most rewarding way. I still have to be wary of you making a sticky mess on my bed sheets if I was sloppy with my handling (crossing our fingers that my parents wouldn’t have noticed..).
Regardless, every experience with you was music. The spritely crisp of bean sprouts sliding between my teeth. The succulent water chestnuts with a crunch as sharp as freshly picked green apples. The bouncy bite of plump prawns that would burst when I’d sink my teeth into silky skin.
Even the chunks of chicken and honey-roasted pork carried a meaty tenderness to our naughty nights in, the way they softly sweetened the evening and bloomed the pockets of my cheeks every time I impatiently shoved another piece into my fat food hole.
It was engulfing myself in the song you orchestrated. I was privy to your artful seasoning of flavour notes, and your life-long mastering of every instrument in the dish. Each waft of your cologne would sing flirtatiously into my senses, pressing into my chest like malleable dough or honeyed ribs. Expanding my bulging face like a hankered hamster, I’d smile — so happy. So, so happy whenever we had dinner together with my family.
Of course, you’re family too.
No matter how old we are, I am entranced with the need to remember you again. Every time I suck in my breath to inhale the intoxicating scent of oyster — you are home to me. It has been far too long since I have physically felt the love of my family, yet every time I invite you over I am reminded once again that you are home.
Your memory lingers the same way the seething sparks of a steamy wok fizzle down into a content hum of warmth. You cloud over my homesickness like a humid roof above my head, a safe shelter with the same postcode. A regenerating map with a constant landmark.
I hope to see you soon. Even if it is to sneak you into the dark for a few hours without my housemates waking, I want to see you. I want to reacquaint myself, to stir old memories with new ones. I’ll be sure to go online and check availability.
Don’t be a stranger, visit soon!
According to an article from The New Yorker in 1972, “chow mein is a bastardized form of an authentic dish called, in Mandarin, “ch’ao mien”, or “stir-fried noodles”. The authentic dish is prepared by frying boiled noodles with a few bits of meat and vegetables” (Chen). Based on this definition alone, one of the major takeaways is that chow mein does not necessarily follow a strict definition rooted in tradition and authenticity, but can be used in primarily western food establishments to describe how egg noodles are cooked with a variety of meat and vegetable options in a thickened oyster and soy sauce.
Although many people may argue that chop suey is the poster child of Chinese takeaway cuisine in Britain, I have a personal attachment to chow mein and how this dish is representative of the many ways in which the history of British takeaway cuisine has been largely shaped by Asian influence and adaptation.
Probably like many British families, my parents and I saw Chinese Takeaway as not only a cheeky treat for dinner but as a financial luxury. It is no secret that Britain can be considerably more expensive to experience depending on your income and currency; therefore, it is not difficult to imagine that Chinese Takeaway businesses need to charge prices that are higher than the probable cost of scratch cooking, to be competitive with other businesses as well as the overhead costs of running a business, paying the staff, and ensuring the business owners have enough to live on too.
For my family, budgeting for a Chinese takeaway was an indulgent investment to somewhat experience a sampled taste of China — even if the ‘taste of China’ has been heavily adapted due to resources, historical circumstances, and Britain’s (*cough cough blander*) palette.
The British Library accounts that Britain’s demographic during the 1950s and 1960s had an increasing Hong Kong Chinese Population, and many individuals or families decided to start a restaurant — likely as a way to profit from a cuisine that was ‘familiar’ to produce, but was also an opportunity for curious Brits to explore something ‘unfamiliar’. Furthermore, the British Library states, “[s]everal Chinese takeaways cleverly adapted to their British customers’ tastes in food by offering buttered bread, pies and chips alongside Chinese dishes”.
The adaptation to British palettes with C A R B S was — frankly, smart. I am a simple woman: I see carbohydrates, I swoon. I dip my head backwards with a single heeled foot in the air, as I hope a plastic takeaway container catches me mid-fall, and we lock eyes for a prolonged moment whilst cherry blossom petals scatter our surroundings with a beige-tinted hue of starchy delight. Appealing to the average Brit with 70% of their average calorie intake is not the only method restaurant owners have catered to the general public.
Winner of the Fortnum & Mason Cookery Book Award, Fuchsia Dunlop corroborates the adaptation of Chinese cuisine in Britain by explaining:
Most takeaways were Chinese outposts in largely white communities […] many appeared when Chinese families took over former fish-and-chip shops, which may be why chips — often with curry sauce — became a fixture on their menus. […] The food on offer was far removed from what Chinese people ate themselves: there were no broths, bones or shells, few vegetables and far too much deep-frying. With no access to fresh Chinese produce, takeaways relied on tinned bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, as well as bean sprouts grown from dried mung beans. Fresh peppers and onions offered the requisite crunch; flavours were childishly appealing. (Dunlop)
In my opinion, Dunlop’s assessment of ingredients that replaced produce inaccessible in the UK highlights my appreciation and fascination for chow mein. In terms of culinary complexity, the dish plays into the ‘childishly appealing’ nature of anglicised Chinese food; the classic bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and bean sprouts give a nostalgic bite to my upbringing. However, these elements are representative of a rich history of Chinese cuisine and how an Asian community had significantly helped shape modern eating habits in Britain — as rich as eggs noodles drowning in oyster sauce.
My stomach may be grumbling out of a desperate need to booty-call a Chinese takeaway, but I leave no room for tolerating any despicable hate Asian communities receive from the British population. A paramount part of British living, of my childhood, would be significantly staler without Asian communities in the restaurant industry.
To: Instant Ramen
I hope you are well. If you haven’t gathered already by this message rather than meeting in person, I think we need to talk.
I think it is time that we — that I — accept the fact that this seesaw game we have with each other is just not good for me. I can’t keep coming back to you expecting a different end to our story. Yet I do, and that’s a problem.
I can not deny that I have had some very fond memories with you; watching television on the sofa with my Dad and diving into the soothing presence and remedy you always brought me. Although the nicknames we shared seem silly now, they are precious. My mum always disapproved of how many days we would spend time together, but it was fortunate that Dad took a respectable fancy to your charm.
Reacquainting myself with you after school was like tumbling onto a sofa with a stacked nest of soft pillows. It was the feeling of oil-laced broth flooding my throat and swallowing down the comforting coils of familiarity. It was sitting cross-legged on plush bedding and leaning on a sturdy shoulder for assurance. It was channel hopping between any film programming to aimlessly experience the sudden euphoria of missing the ad breaks. It was nostalgia.
Every time I pass by anything with your faint resemblance, I am swept away by the numbing buzz of a disconnecting TV and licks of steam that roll across my cheeks in hazy curls. I think of your perm-like tendrils and the intoxicating taste of sodium and swollen noodle strands from overcooking.
However, no matter how much I am enchanted by our simple times, of how I continue to leap back into your presence, I can’t let go of the fact that you’re not good for me. I know the stories. I know peeling away the secrets you package will reveal your risks. Our bond is bound to be torn; its jagged edges are reflective of the way I keep going back for a dangerous taste. Too much of your rebellious nature is a risk to my health. It will only be a matter of time before my heart balloons at an alarming rate from high blood pressure.
And yet —
As I remember folding back your layers, I deeply inhale the salty realisation that I am unbelievably fond of our history. After all these years, I still can’t seem to quit you. We need to be better than this — better than fleeting outbursts and impulsive choices for under a fiver. I can’t promise that this goodbye is permanent, but I’m doing my best to keep myself from you, to not binge myself in the memory. Maybe one day, I’ll see you with a mutual friend or acquaintance and I won’t be tangled deeply in the scalding heat of remorse.
You will always be my noo noos.
Ah yes, the instant classic. A staple of student survival and the guilty pleasure with low-calorie intake and even lower nutritional value. It is simply, the campus lad. Starch-licked locks of gold cascade in sumptuous patterns. A charming manner that leaves you blushing and taunted. A romantic bell-end but an absolute riot at pre-drinks. An uncomplicated one-night stand that you promise to never reach out for again. And again…and again…and agai- Look, we’ve all had our moments of weakness. Sometimes, all it takes is a lanky blonde with a tin-foiled tan to sway you away from ‘healthy standards’ the moment you exit the store and forget about the kale.
With your unasked permission, I am going to take a moment to be vulnerable. Even though I am fully aware that most instant ramen noodles are made from wheat flour fortified with synthetic nutrients, Iron and B vitamins (Kubala), I will continue to inhale the slurpy strings like a movie protagonist latching onto the closest bulk of testosterone during a club scene — wild with a type of desperation that is messy, sloppy, uncoordinated, unruly, and borderline-carnivorous.
The cinematic sparks I experience whenever I eat instant ramen is not only part of my nature as a noodle slut, but part of my upbringing. As an only child in a low-income household, microwavable noodles became a regular option for dinner whenever my parents would be working overtime and may not have had time to do scratch cooking. I used to call the instant noodle packets ‘noo noos with green bits’ because of the ‘vegetables’ from the seasoning packet. I have no idea what brand they were but the distinctly small squares of green in a yellow-beige broth will always signify the classic ‘noo noos with green bits’ that I had during childhood.
My Dad would try to bulk up the ‘meal’ with protein by having us tear up slices of chicken or ham in the plastic bowls to microwave with the ‘noos noos’. Of course, this is not at all a healthy and sustainable way of eating — but for some days it was enough. Almost everyone has causally brushed shoulders with instant ramen, and almost everyone has had their share of sloppy seconds. But I’m sure none of us will truly admit how many times we’ve bumped into them at the supermarket and revisited the bloated thrill of a quick and cheap night-in.
Getting to know the daddy of the dinner date can simmer both admiration and nervousness. In this case, the father of instant noodles is Momofuku Ando. According to Nissin Foods, their founder Ando bred the idea of Cup Noodles after observing Americans eating noodles out of cups rather than using bowls and chopsticks in 1966. This was a pivotal, pot-stirring moment for global cuisine, especially since areas like Japan were experiencing a food shortage following WWII and its resource-draining activities.
When it comes to Britain’s cultural and historical relationship with Asian-inspired cuisine in instant-form, a particularly stubborn stain that refuses to exit our shelves is the infamous Pot Noodle. Driven by the convenience and dexterity of holding a cup, the Pot Noodle emerged in 1979 in Crumlin, South Wales. According to the official Pot Noodle website, the noodtorious seasoning sachets were added to pots in 1992 and expanded into rice, Pasta and ‘Asian Street Style’ options between 2017 and 2019 (“Our Story”).
Britain certainly has a talent for deriving inspiration from Asian cuisine, broiling out the authentic ingredients for commercial viability, then remarketing ‘Asian flavours’ as a synthetic seasoning — rather than a complex, layered and rich infusion of multiple techniques that had to evolve depending on resources and circumstances.
Momofuku Ando exemplifies the ability to adapt a type of Asian cuisine due to circumstantial events. However, in my opinion, the Pot Noodle is a straightforward way to bloat yourself with instant fulfilment and MSG. It is like the middle-aged guy sat at the pub bar with a remarkable resemblance to pak choi — beautifully bald and bulbous! Everyone knows they’re always there, but it is an unspoken rule to never initiate conversations unless provoked. A beer-laced hook-up in cup form. And not the double D kind.
We all have those dishes that just cling to our memories and captivate us like lovers in a culinary romance; the sultry seducer, the saucy sweetheart, the simple stud. If you haven’t fallen in love yet, I can’t wait for you to experience your first time. You might even hear music.
A noodle slut.
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Editors: S.P., M.L., D.S.