MALACCA, April 28 — Failing at the national pastime has afforded me a most delicious childhood. During my primary school years, my father would take me to the Malacca Badminton Association in Tengkera (or Tranquerah, in its original Portuguese) every Saturday without fail to train in the racquet sport.
I was an abysmal athlete.
Yet I looked forward to the weekend with glee for though I was not gifted at games, I was already a burgeoning gourmand at a young age. You see, after every gruelling session of badminton, my father would reward me by taking me across the road (aptly named Jalan Tengkera) for some post-workout carbs.
Of course, at the time, I only knew it meant a steaming hot bowl of prawn cracker and fish ball noodles, the best (and only shop) in town. (These days, there are copycat shops in nearby Bachang but none may replace the original in my heart.)
The shop is in fact a converted house where the front yard doubles as the dining area with a single stationary pushcart where the proprietor would cook the noodles. There are mounds (though mountains may be more accurate) of crunchy deep-fried prawn crackers and bouncy fish balls. There are no “fresh” garnishings — no chopped spring onions, which may have added colour but not flavour; no ubiquitous bean sprouts, really more watery than they are worth — instead crispy fried shallots in oil impart a greasy punch of savoury goodness to every bowl.
There are only three choices of noodles — silken-smooth koay teow (flat rice noodles); thick and alkaline-tasting strands of yellow noodles; and thin threads of bee hoon (rice vermicelli). Go with whichever you prefer, though most patrons, if you observe, will go for the koay teow.
Besides that, ordering is a breeze: just tell the server who comes to take your order if you want a small, medium or large portion, and if you’d like “extra ingredients”, which is simply more of the prawn crackers and fish balls.
For the carb-averse, go for the small bowl with extra ingredients. For those who want to enjoy a broth that’s packed with umami, get the big bowl with extra ingredients (notice a trend yet?) and eat slowly to allow the flavours to infuse properly. It’s not unlike a bowl of ramen in Tokyo, where flavours are layered, albeit on more unassuming terms and with a lot less shouting.
Do come early to avoid a long wait. It’s not unusual to see groups of eager customers standing around occupied tables, not so subtly hinting to existing diners to get a move on finishing their meals. Yet who could blame them for taking their time? The soup tastes better the longer you allow the prawn crackers and fried shallots to soak in it.
Every spoonful of soup is hit of nostalgia; every bite of prawn cracker a revelation; every slurp of noodles a deeply satisfying act. Returning for my first bowl after years away, I expect the broth to be an MSG-laden affair, but I’m delightfully surprised at its light flavour that deepens the more time you give it. Give it time.
Be patient. Above all, do not count the number of tables still left to be served to determine the minutes remaining to your turn. I used to do this all the time as a kid till I realised it was a hopeless endeavour: there are plenty of customers who dine in and order plenty of takeaway for family members still asleep at home.
Simply wait and find some way to pass your time: check your social media feeds, take pictures to share them with your friends (so they may drool at the bowls other diners are enjoying and thank you for helping them decide where to spend their next weekend), or do that most ordinary of activities — have a conversation with your dining companion.
Waiting for a good meal is a great way to reconnect. Hawker food doesn’t need to be all speed and slurp away; the best dishes — and the best memories — can be a Slow Food experience without paying for a flight to Tuscany.
Despite the large number of orders (or back orders given the wait, but more on that later), the woman cooking doesn’t hurry and never forgets a single bowl, whatever the mix of noodles or ingredients. Times like these make me wonder why we can’t get the same level of reliable service in larger, more commercial restaurants that frequently mix up orders or worse, forget them during rush hours.
Beverages are quite straightforward: herbal drinks or barley water. During my childhood, there was a middle-aged woman who would juice fresh stalks of sugar cane in a mobile stall outside the shop. She would always wear a straw hat with a wide brim and long sleeves to protect her from the unrelenting sun.
The dark green sugar cane juice was more than a thirst quencher; it was a good reason to inspect the fun — for a child, anyway — mechanics of the juicing operations. In a stick of sugar cane would go into the juicer and out came frothy, naturally sweet liquid manna.
Sadly, the sugar cane lady has since retired and there has been no replacement. The next generation of the prawn cracker noodles shop has taken over, but will there be another generation after this? One recurring topic I’ve had with other Malaccans is the disappearing food sellers and hawker stalls; Malaccans pride themselves on educating their children as best they can, and no one wants their offspring to follow in their footsteps if the work is arduous.
Goodbye, authentic (and delicious) Malaccan food. Hello, expensive and watered-down tourist fare.
Come here, have some noodles — before it, too, is gone.
Hoo Khiew Prawn Cracker Noodles
345, Jalan Tengkera, Malacca
Open daily 6am-2pm