Where: Lulu’s Char Koay Teow, 27–31 Hardware Lane Melbourne
What: The best char koay teow in Melbourne (without any close contender, now that Aunty Franklee has sadly shut down)
Who: Papa Whatever Floats Your Bloat, Mama Whatever Floats Your Bloat
Bloat score: 0 – Living the dream (with the caveat that I had to rush almost immediately to the toilet after)
I’m loving the number of Malaysian specialty restaurants that are popping up in Melbourne, from Hainanese chicken rice maestros Gai Wong and economy rice restaurant Sarawak Kitchen Express to pan mee masters Jojo Little Kitchen. These places exemplify the restaurant culture in Malaysia, where each hawker stall concentrates on one dish and becomes an unparalleled expert in that dish. Lulu’s Char Koay Teow is the latest addition to this tradition.
Char koay teow, or char kway teow, is a dish of wok-fried rice noodles cooked with soy sauce, belacan (shrimp paste) and prawns, and traditionally stir-fried in pork fat, although many chefs use regular vegetable cooking oil for health and religious reasons. As with many dishes, it originated as a dish for labourers, but in char koay teow’s case, it was due to its high fat content and low cost – it was often sold by fishermen, farmers and cockle-gatherers who doubled as char koay teow hawkers in the evening to supplement their income. Char koay teow is only ever cooked one serving at a time in a wok to enhance its ‘wok hei’ (wok breath), that is “the complex smoky flavour that is only achieved by cooking fresh ingredients over extreme heat”. Char koay teow is now a popular street food dish and though it’s available throughout Malaysia, its most popular rendition can be found on the island state of Penang.
When we visited Lulu’s, there was a queue of people waiting to get inside, but it moved quickly. You get allotted a table and table number, after which you have to line up to order your food. It’s a no-frills setup where you help yourself to your own cutlery and water.
True to its name, Lulu’s serves six variations of char koay teow. The classic char koay teow with prawns, Chinese sausage, pork lard, eggs, bean sprouts, chives and chilli costs $14.90 and if you want to add squid to it, the price remains the same. The prices climb upwards to $15.90 if you add duck egg and $16.90 if you add blood cockles or razor clams. The most expensive char koay teow on the menu is the jumbo prawn one at $18.90.
Vegetarians and vegans, take note – there are options available for you too. And if you don’t feel like char koay teow, there are variations of curry laksa and snacks like curry puffs and kuih (bite-sized Malaysian sweets). The drinks menu is short and sweet with teh tarik (condensed milk tea) and coffee.
I visited with Papa Whatever Floats Your Bloat and Mama Whatever Floats Your Bloat, and all three of us decided to go for the classic, seeing it was our first time. If I could have had my time again, however, I may have added the blood cockles – it’s a common addition to any char koay teow you get in Malaysia and I personally love the saltiness they bring. You can also choose which spice level you want your char koay teow to be, ranging from mild to medium to hot to extra hot. Mama Whatever Floats Your Bloat’s friend, who I have it on good authority can tolerate her spice, said the medium one was more than spicy enough. My stomach wasn’t feeling great when we visited and I couldn’t see any clear signage for the toilets, so I played it safe and got the medium too.
Each of our char koay teows arrived minutes apart, which meant they were cooked consecutively in the wok and served to us as they were freshly fried, which I loved. The serving size was much bigger than what you’d find in Malaysia, but it thankfully didn’t detract from the ‘wok hei’, and I loved that it was served on a fragrant banana leaf. We’d previously crowned Aunty Franklee as having the best char koay teow in Melbourne so we used it as our benchmark – Papa and Mama Whatever Floats Your Bloat observed that this char koay teow was wetter than Aunty Franklee’s but less greasy, while I noticed its colour was a lot lighter than Aunty Franklee’s dark soy-saturated one and more akin to what you’d find in Malaysia.
I enjoyed this thoroughly – the pork lard croutons added a pleasant crunch and burst of fattiness, while the generous number of prawns included were big enough (despite not being jumbo prawns), fresh, and pleasantly charred from the wok. The medium spice meant there was a considerable twinge of heat after every bite, but I think I’d go the hot next time, just to test the limitations of my gut. Love to live my life on the edge!
To compensate for the lack of extreme heat, I got a side serve of sambal but it was less of a sambal and more of an immensely spicy hot sauce. I approached it with caution, dipping the edges of my prawns in them, and wondered if this was the same hot sauce the spicy char koay teow is stir-fried in – if so, I may refrain for the sake of my butt.
Papa and Mama Whatever Floats Your Bloat got some curry puffs to go and were divided. Both loved the shortcrust pastry, but while Papa Whatever Floats Your Bloat enjoyed the sweet potato, egg and chicken filling, Mama Whatever Floats Your Bloat found it too sweet.
I felt pretty good in the immediate aftermath, but as Papa and Mama Whatever Floats Your Bloat drove me home, I felt a familiar stomach ache come on and knew I’d have to make a run for the toilet as soon as I got home. Whether it was the high fat content of the char koay teow triggering my gallbladder-less body, or my gut responding to the high-histamine ingredients like prawns and sauces, we’ll never know.
Lulu’s Char Koay Teow is open Monday to Thursday from 11am to 3pm and 5pm to 7.30pm, on Friday from 11am to 3pm and 5pm to 8pm, on Saturday from 11am to 8pm, and on Sunday from 10am to 3pm.