Makansutra: Mad for this moist millennial char kway teow
Heeding customers' advice, young hawker adds a splash of stock to the dish and it makes all the difference
How can something so ugly be so good?
That was the reaction from late celebrity chef and food show host Anthony Bourdain when I first took him to try char kway teow.
Indeed, besides rojak, it is one of the hardest dishes to photograph.
It is essentially a dark brown blob on a plate, with bits of green, cockles and Chinese wax sausages peeking out amid the mound of kway teow and yellow noodles.
So why did Mr Cody Tan, 31, embark on a journey to become a hawker of this "uglylicious" dish?
He was a marketing and sales executive helping out at his father's poultry and egg supply company. When the elderly man fell sick, Mr Tan had to take on the delivery role.
One of his customers from a famous char kway teow stall at Old Airport Road Food Centre liked his friendly demeanour and offered him a job.
Mr Tan accepted it and a year later, he was helming the stall alongside his boss.
When Mr Tan quit last year, his regulars told him it would be a waste if he did not "continue this craft". So Yong Xuan Fried Kway Teow at Wiseng Food Place in Crawford Lane was set up late last year.
His style of char kway teow (from $3) was initially similar to his ex-boss' version - dry and intensely flavourful.
But at his own place, he heeded the advice of some customers and added a little moisture to the dish.
And it worked wonders.
The sweet, black caramel soy sauce with a dash of fish sauce and seasoning was all intact, but the addition of a splash of stock made the difference.
His plate of goodness is not fried with too much water or stock, which turns it soggy and lumpy - there is enough texture and the kway teow and yellow noodles are well differentiated.
His white version (from $4) also underwent some transformation, thanks to the frank feedback of customers.
"I had to change the fish sauce and alter the stock," Mr Tan said.
I tried his original version once, and I would not have recommended it. Today's version though, is a different story.
He is now looking for suppliers of large cockles to bring back the good ol' days version of char kway teow, where each shellfish was the size of your thumb top.
On his future goals, the millennial hopes to have a bigger stall and larger customer base so that he can better provide for his family.
His wife Hui Ling helps out at the stall and his father looks after their kids aged 10 and eight, all living in a two-room Housing Board rental flat in the east.
Any regrets? No, was his retort. He is content and always happy to see new customers become regulars.
After being rated in our new online Makansutra e-book guide - which can be downloaded for free at makansutra.com/ebook - his stall now gets patrons from as far as Bedok.
Of course, the work is tough, he told me. But if one takes pleasure in his craft, it all eventually falls into place.
The business of the one-dish entrepreneur is indeed a bright spark of opportunity in a nation recognised by Unesco for its hawker food culture.
Yong Xuan Fried Kway Teow
Block 462, Crawford Lane, #01-29
Wiseng Food Place
Opens 11am to 8pm
(Closed on Wednesdays)