Soon Chuan Choo has spent 45 years sweating next to a sizzling curbside wok in Malaysia’s heat, frying up flat noodles mixed with chili sauce, prawns, tofu, cockles, egg and sprouts.
It might not sound like much of a life unless you grasp the priorities of her home state Penang, where cheap, spicy street food and the hawkers who provide it are venerated as local treasures.
“I grew up eating her char kway teow and still it’s so perfect and she is such a character,” said office worker Janthi Victor, referring to Soon’s trademark protective goggles, floppy red chef’s hat and sour demeanor.
For well over a century, Penang’s food hawkers have been conspicuous by the clouds of steam, pungent aromas and devoted crowds surrounding them.
However, some fear it is a dying art as a new generation shuns taking over their parent’s modest curbside stands, threatening beloved recipes and a slice of the island’s multicultural character.
“My daughter won’t do it so I don’t know what will happen,” Soon said in the Hoklo dialect spoken by many Malaysian Chinese as she brusquely plunked a steaming plate onto a wobbly plastic table of tourists from Indonesia.
Once one of Britain’s oldest Asian settlements, Penang is widely recognized as Asia’s street food capital, its mix of immigrant Chinese, Indian and local Malay flavors creating a unique culinary heritage.
Street hawkers first sprang up to meet the needs of the immigrant underclass and today operate from portable metallic stands on lanes in and around Georgetown, Penang’s capital.
Street food is prevalent across Malaysia, but most dominant in Penang, whose name is evoked by hawker stalls across the country as a mark of tastiness.
Penang’s hawkers serve up a diverse array of dishes unique to Malaysia, typically based on noodles and packing a spicy punch.
Char kway teow is considered a signature dish, typically kept moist, but not oily, by added lard.
The rice noodles of curry mee swim in a broth of curry, coconut milk and pig’s blood, while various other rice and noodle dishes are packed with intestines and other organs proudly advertised on hawker signs as “offal.”
Locals develop strong allegiances to certain hawkers — an iPhone app helps them keep track of who is cooking what and where — and often closely watch cooks in hopes of divining their fiercely guarded secrets.
Soon became a target of such passions in 2010 when a Facebook boycott was launched after a customer reported being verbally abused by her while waiting for a 7 ringgit (US$2.28) plate of her char kway teow.
However, the boycott campaign fizzled and the demanding crowds keep her as grumpy as ever.
When celebrity TV chef Anthony Bourdain visited recently for a piece on Penang, he asked Soon if she spoke English, Penang Global Tourism Director Ooi Geok Ling said.
Soon snapped in Hoklo: “If I could speak English, I wouldn’t be doing this, would I?”
Her polar opposite is Mahboob Zakaria, a garrulous ethnic Indian Muslim whose family has for more than 80 years sold its delicious mee goreng — thin noodles fried with a smoky tomato-chili sauce, squid, potato and other ingredients.
A showman, the 57-year-old Mahboob spins his sizzling wok with a flourish while tossing in the ingredients as he banters happily with customers in English, Tamil, Malay and Hoklo.