The History of Char Kway Teow: Hokkien Name But It’s Not A Hokkien Dish

When my boss handed me this assignment I was fearing for my life.

Malaysia’s rivalry with Singapore for food is a pretty well-known thing, that we covered a little here.

Hence a disclaimer to the Malaysians: Relax, whatever I’m talking about is the Singaporean version, and the history may or may not be similar to what you guys have.

Image: Max Pixel

The oily, darker, sweeter version that is clogging arteries and slowly vanishing to the point iEatiShootiPost named his book “The End of Char Kway Teow”.

To ease you into the boring history, here’s a random fact: Anthony Bourdain said, “How can something this ugly be so good?”, about Char Kway Teow.

This isn’t referring to the fact that I am a terrible photographer and can only take stock images, but the actual Char Kway Teow, I hope.

Hokkien name but Teochew!

Char means “stir-fried” and kway teow means the flat rice noodles in Hokkien, so it must be Hokkien lah!


It is actually Teochew in origins, and people believe to come from Chaozhou in China’s Guangdong province.

“Believe” is a very convenient word, because it means a good enough explanation for the tremendous amount of effort we put in to discover there is no conclusive evidence. Who is the “people”? I don’t know, the source is a book in association with the National Heritage Board.

But here’s the explanation.

In the early days, fishermen and farm workers liked simple dishes rich in carbohydrates and fats to provide energy. In the modern day, this means it makes us fat. Hmmm, the fragrance of lard and lup cheong.

So rice noodles, lard, dark soya sauce, done. Simple. And because they were fishermen, so they added in cockles or other meat. Only at the end so it’s juicy and not overcooked.

Transformation throughout history

In the modern day, using firewood allows you to call your restaurant Artisan or authentic, but back then, even till the 1950s, they didn’t have stoves. Doing this gave the dish a smoky flavour. Hmmm, wok hei.

But Char Kway Teow didn’t taste the same always. Can you imagine the bubble tea balls as Char Kway Teow? People living in the Japanese Occupation sure can.

Tapioca was cheap at that time, so noodles in Char Kway Teow were sometimes made with tapioca. And because they also used red palm oil, Char Kway Teow in that time looked red and tasted different.

With the bubble tea everything going on now, I propose that someone makes a Bubble tea Char Kway Teow in light of this knowledge.

Like, Bubble tea pizza. Seriously?

Image: Mothership

The Story Of Why Cai Xin Appears In Char Kway Teow

Now, this is interesting.

In the 1950s, health authorities ordered bean sprout to be grown with tap water instead of well water.

Growers weren’t too happy with this, probably because it was more expensive, and went on strike. The replacement was then Cai Xin. At this time, duck eggs were also used in Char Kway Teow.

You know those paper packaging that makes food taste better? Well back then it was even betel with the usage of the opeh leaf (betel nut palm) from the 1940s to 1970s.

Image: Reddit user Frunguper

Fishcake Wasn’t Part Of The Original Configuration

I’m not a fan of fishcakes, so with the knowledge that fishcakes weren’t part of the original dish I have one more reason to diss them.

In 1999, there was a pig virus epidemic. With the Health Promotion Board also sending out hate letters for the terrible health effects of lard, Hawkers were forced to use less of it. The solution to a less flavourful Char Kway Teow is then to add fishcakes and more vegetable, in the hopes that chewing something will somehow replicate the good taste of pork.

You will never understand the taste of Char Kway Teow until you eat it lard fried.