Wan tan mee can be rated by its components making up of the soup, the noodle, char siew and wantan. In the early days wan tan mee does not have curry soup, it was either the dry or soup version. Also, the prawn dumpling or sui kow, roasted meats, mushroom and stewed chicken feet, stew beef, stewed pork ribs, dried curry chicken, prawn wantan and many other add-ons found these days are later years’ additions.
These days a good wan tan mee could only be found at street stalls, usually manned by an old couple who have plied the trade for 40-50 years or the second generation of the family. The ones at food courts run by foreign workers I will avoid.
A good soup should be clear and smell strongly of ikan bilis and dried flounder fish meat. The soup will be deliciously sweet. Ikan bilis are of several grades and stalls usually use a cheaper quality which is big and have a flaky silvery skin. To avoid the flaking ikan bilis skin and have a clear soup, the ikan bilis has to be put into a cloth bag and tied at one end. So, if you see a blackish bloated bag floating in the soup, be assured that it is ikan bilis soup you are getting. Some stalls use pork bones and the soup can be easily recognized as it is milky white in colour. I prefer the clear soup. If neither of this is used then beware – it is monosodium glutamate that they are using. This you can observe when they spoon into the soup soya sauce laden with the msg. For ikan bilis soup no further flavoring is needed.
Wan tan noodle in Kuala Lumpur these days are not made by the noodle seller but at some small supplier factories. In smaller towns where demand cannot sustain a noodle supplier, the wan tan noodle seller makes his own. The noodles are available in various grades dependent on the quantity of eggs used. The more eggs are in the noodle, hence more expensive, the springier it will be. This grade, in Cantonese, “chin tan meen” meaning only eggs ( used in the ) noodle. Springy noodles with thinner strands are the better noodles. Generally, the thinner noodles you see are the noodles that are springy. Only established stalls have this grade of noodles.
Char siew or barbecue pork is usually dyed red but there are those marinated with thick black soya sauce. I much prefer the latter as it is probably healthier without the chemical dye. Good char siew should not be made with lean meat but instead has substantial fat. Its called half fat and thin, literally translating from Cantonese “poon fei sau”. Besides being moist, the oiliness from the fat gives the meat its juicy texture. If you are afraid of the fatty meat you are not eating a good char siew. The meat is usually marinated with salt, sugar and five spice powder besides the colorant which will come from either the thick black sauce or the red dye.
In Malaysia the Muslim market is a big one and food court uses chicken meat for the halal version of char siew. The lean chicken meat is not so tasty. The seasonings used I suspect is different.
Nowadays many stalls fry cook their char siew in a wok. This is a short cut and the end product is not roasted meat which the char siew is. Such char siew is usually not moist and taste more like woody fibre. The best char siew is roasted in an oil drum with both ends removed and over a strong kerosene fire. This char siew comes in the long strips when roasted. Parts of the strips will have burnt ends called in Cantonese, char siew tow meaning char siew head. Some connoisseurs asked for a separate plate of these burnt char siew as the bitter burnt taste can be delicious, ignoring health advice that burnt meat can be carcinogenic.
The wantan skin does not require any special ingredient except flour. A thick skin will slow cooking and taste of too much of flour. The minced pork used should have some fatty bits as just lean meat does not taste good. Machine mincing the meat is not as good as chopping it manually. The former method gives you a paste whilst the other method let you taste the pork better with its unevenness and fatty bits. Many good stalls use the dried flounder fish meat as an ingredient in the wan tan. The fish meat which comes dried is roasted over a low fire and than grounded roughly. However, these days they can buy them ground and in a tin.
Boiling wantan requires hot boiling water so that it is quickly cooked. Slow cooking melts and soften the skin and the wantan does not look and taste freshly made. Some operators when they are busy ignore changing the boiling water and accumulated flour from cooking much noodles and wantan make the water slimy and thick. This will also form a film and mask the wantan’s taste. Those who pre-cook their wantan makes them soggy and unattractive to eat.
Sometimes you get deep fried wantan. I believe they originated from excess wantan from a previous day that could still be sold by deep frying them. Only the freshly fried ones taste nice. This item has found its way in hotels as items in tim sum, starters in a banquet and buffet line.
The sui kow, a bigger version of the wantan with more ingredients and considered a family member of wantan noodle. I love the delicious prawn in big chunks found in it. Other ingredients include bits of water chest nut for its crunchiness and thinly sliced black fungus for its crunchiness and rubbery texture. Chopped spring onion and chopped carrot are also included. There is a version of sui kow without prawns for those who do not eat prawns because of cholesterol fear.
The oil used to mix the noodles should preferably be pork lard as it is more fragrant than other oils. Using pork lard only requires some soya and thick black sauce. There is no need for oyster sauce. Some use a mixture of oyster sauce, soya sauce, sometimes gravy from char siew and msg in the gravy spooned in after mixing with the black sauce. I do not like the latter mixture.
Sawi or mustard leaf vegetable in its full length not cut into shorter pieces is the traditional greens added to the noodle. Some use baby kai lan but this is at the more pricy places. A very important accompaniment is green pickled chillies. Freshly made chillies is revealed by its crunchiness and the clear vinegar water in which it is kept in. Popular stalls where the turnover is high prepares their pickled chillies daily.
Chuah Soon Guan