“Do you know where you are going?” I ask, a variation on the evergreen road trip query “Are we there yet?”
“Of course,” you claim, “I must just have missed a turning. Or maybe two, at the most.”
We are back in Johor Bahru for the Lunar New Year. Your hometown looks almost spanking new after the recent rains, a boon after the inevitable heat this time of the year when everyone embarks on their balik kampung pilgrimage, risking a heatstroke in the process.
Finally we sight a signpost announcing ‘Taman Pelangi’ and we enter your old neighbourhood. The morning market is in full swing, with the vendors’ vans and cars arranged haphazardly on both sides of the road. Fresh vegetables and fruits, the thump of a chopper on the butcher’s block, small plastic toys and bottles of traditional medicine – this could be any pasar pagi in any neighbourhood in town.
Well, maybe there is one exception – you won’t find the best chee cheong fun in any of the other morning markets.
Naturally, claiming that any one variety of or stall serving chee cheong fun is the best may well constitute a call to war. Everyone has their own favourite style or secret stall location, and some may be prepared to defend to death their choices. To each their own; this is surely fair enough.
For fans of the local variety, most are familiar with the ubiquitous Penang-style chee cheong fun where thick pieces of steamed rice noodle rolls are served with a sweet sauce, a dash of oil and some hae ko, a fragrant shrimp paste. These pre-cooked rolls may be filled with shrimp, pork or other ingredients. Other options range from adding some spicy red chilli sauce (some would argue this is a must) to some pickled green chillies for a hit of tartness.
However we prefer the original Hong Kong-style version. These rice noodle rolls are usually made fresh and far thinner as a result. The flavours are cleaner and more subtle; no thick sauce to weigh down these smooth, steamed rice noodles. Instead, a lighter soy-based sauce is used while the chilli paste is more fragrant from frying with dried chillies. A scattering of toasted sesame seeds and fried shallots completes the dish.
We won’t have to travel to Hong Kong to enjoy this version though, as the best we have tasted is just around the corner. In one of the alleys, lodged between a stall selling tau foo fa (soybean curd) and another one selling yau char kwai (Chinese fried crullers) sits a pushcart half-hidden by a cloud of wafting steam. We have found our chee cheong fun stall, still around after all this time.
The middle-aged couple running this stall have been making chee cheong fun for 20 years now, every morning without fail, closing only during the first few days of Chinese New Year. While his wife prepares another customer’s order, the affable uncle tells us that he first picked up the techniques for making Hong Kong-style chee cheong fun from a master in Kuala Lumpur more than two decades ago. He then brought it back to Johor Bahru and started this stall.
Soon it is our turn as the auntie stretches a clean piece of muslin cloth over the rectangular steamer pan dotted with holes from which the steam escapes. Next she ladles some thin batter made from a mixture of rice flour, tapioca flour and water over the cloth. She spreads the batter evenly using the back of the ladle before covering the steamer pan.
Once the batter has set but before it is fully cooked, she adds some of the filling – we ask for a half-half combination of char siew (barbecued pork) and fresh shrimp. After a couple of minutes, the shrimp is cooked. Now a bit of quick handwork is needed as she lifts the entire muslin cloth from the steamer and flips it onto the lightly-oiled metal table top next to it. Using a scraper, she separates the rice noodle from the cloth and shapes it into the rolls that give chee cheong fun its unique name in Chinese – it does somewhat resemble pig’s intestines.
Slicing the rolls into bite-sized pieces, she transfers them onto a dish. The uncle then takes over, dousing the chee cheong fun with the requisite soy-based sauce and dried chilli paste made from his secret recipes. A final sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds on top and these freshly-made rice noodle rolls are ready for eating. We notice they do not add any fried shallots as others do and indeed, the dish doesn’t need any further embellishment when it is so fresh – the steamed rolls smooth and silky, the sauce fragrant with his special spices and the chilli paste terribly addictive (we always ask for extra).
Is this the best chee cheong fun in Johor Bahru? Maybe, maybe not. The final verdict doesn’t really matter. Our craving and longing for these rolls have much to do with its irresistible flavours, true; but it’s the fond memories of our road trips from Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru, getting stuck in traffic jams along the way and looking forward to tasting this treat, that keep us coming back for more.
Taman Pelangi Chee Cheong Fun
Jalan Sri Pelangi, Taman Pelangi, 80400 Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia.
Same row as the Marrybrown Restaurant. Open mornings only.