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Feb 13, 2013 06:26 AM

Penang, Malaysia - "American" Fried Bee Hoon for breakfast

One quirkily-named breakfast dish in Penang is the "American" fried bee hoon ("mi fen" or 米粉), which is a term which some locals used to refer to "economy fried noodles" (either rice vermicelli or Hokkien noodles), a spartan dish which involved frying the noodles in oil/lard with beansprouts, flavored with light and dark soysauce. The dish is common in the West Coast of Peninsula Malaysia and also Singapore. Side-dishes available these days include fried eggs, fried tofu, 5-spice rolls or deep-fried spring rolls - but these additions are not available in the original version of this dish. Normally, pickled green chillis, plus chilli paste are added as condiments when serving, plus some crisp-fried sweet beancurd sticks ("foo chok") . That's why this dish ended up with the tag "economy" - a reference to its humble beginnings.

But I'd never heard of the "economy bee hoon" being referred to as "American bee hoon" anywhere else (not in KL or Singapore) except in Penang. I asked a Penang friend about the origins of this term, and he attributed this to the Penangites sense of humor: in the 1950s/60s, anything "American" is deemed to be expensive. But the locals nicknamed the humblest of all street foods in Penang: the plain fried breakfast "bee hoon" as "American bee hoon" as a joke. But the term was so popular, its usage became pemanent!

I am addicted to this dish - and so are many Singaporeans.

This morning, I tried the Penang version - every bit as spartan as its Singapore counterpart, yet its Hokkien (Fujianese) flavors were there. Sheer comfort food - bliss :-)

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  1. Your story sounds like the one you mentioned about the American fried rice in Thailand where the cooks who used to work in American army camps during the Vietnam war threw together everything they thought Americans like, like fried chicken, sausages, eggs, raisins, tomato ketchup to come up with the 'American fried rice' :)

    1. Actually, many hawker stalls in Penang started right after World War II when jobs were scarce and people looked for cheap meal alternatives. Before the war, there are not as many street stalls. Most of today's famous hawker stalls on Kimberley Street, Carnarvon Street, Penang Road, MacAlister Road, Burmah Road etc are started almost immediately after the war and are now run by the 3rd generation offspring of the original founders.

      We don't have much American influence even at the height of the Vietnam War and the R&R places are in Thailand and the Philippines. But you are right that American products are seen as expensive and calling the breakfast noodle as American bee hoon is a tongue in cheek nod to American consumerism.

      1. haha what a weird name. looks good though, interesting story as to why they would call it that

        i was originally thinking bc its super fried and unhealthy. I remember when i lived in asia anytime they was a "western" food stall they would just deep fry everything, i always got the impression that was their view of american food. i remember getting "french toast" at this stall close to NTU and they deep fried that, i stuck to pancakes after that

        9 Replies
        1. re: Lau

          Deep-fried French toast - that's a nasty one!

          Well, the people in this part of the world have always had this knack of naming stuff after some foreign nationality - for example, soursop were called "durian Belanda" or Dutch durian by the Malays, and "Mee Siam" which is actually native to Singapore/Malaysia cannot be found in Thailand (Siam).

          1. re: klyeoh

            haha yah i think alot of places do that. the singapore mai fun in the US is kind of like a dry stir fried curry bee hoon, but resembles nothing that actually exists in singapore

            1. re: Lau

              Oh yes, Singapore mai fun - it's invented by enterprising HK restaurateurs in the US. Absolutely no noodle dish in Singapore looked like it :-)

          2. re: Lau

            You can get real French toast in Taipei, too. And I've definitely seen and eaten deep-fried French toast in the States! What I remember most is how different Taiwanese versions of American, Italian, French, etc. was from the inspiration.

            1. re: mookleknuck

              really you've had deep fried french toast in the US? i guess i could see that happening, but ive never actually seen it

              1. re: Lau

                Yeah, I can think of at least three places off the top of my head that I've been to in Philly and its suburbs that had that on their menus. Not to mention the variations they serve with it, eg, monte cristo, nutella, fruit.

                1. re: mookleknuck

                  interesting...was it good?

                  my experience was terrible obviously haha

                  1. re: Lau

                    It depends on your tolerance for deep-fried. I thought it was good for the first four bites... and then I had plate envy and regret.

          3. One of my favourite fast food that reminded my humble beginning :-) Favourite hunting places for me are Kimberly Street and Pulau Tikus Market @ Night from a Chinese Uncle whom I knew through my friend (they were neighbors). I'm not sure about the nickname ' American ' fried bee hoon though :-D My friends always called it as ' Kin Che Bee Hoon' or ' Tiong Kok Hoo Chee' literally means 'China's/Chinese Sharkfin'.

            Most of the times, I like it plain simple with extra fried sweet beancurd pieces or add on of 'Chee Cheong Fun' :-)

            1. Interesting that fried rice noodles in Japan are called "bi fun" which sounds like a similar pronunciation.