Air Itam Takes its Famous Street Food Seriously
Penang Monthly orders famous dishes from three iconic street stalls, and absorbs the atmosphere of this wonderful town.
Disco-ing Up Supper
Unassumingly parked just opposite Air Itam market, Disco’s Café Corner has been in operation for 30 odd years. Come nightfall, the tables set up around the stall are filled with customers from near and far, all eager for a glass or two of Disco’s popular susu tarik (pulled milk).
Disco, an affable chap of 49, is behind the counter busy at work as the stream of susu tarik orders gain in momentum. His hands move in a mechanical rhythm: with one, he scoops a cup of milk from the bubbling dram and with the other, he cracks an egg into a second cup. The contents are swiftly and repeatedly poured from one cup to another. The result? A thick, frothy, eggy brew. In the background, Justin Bieber croons his latest hit from a portable radio. Disco grins a toothy smile, “I like to have fun when I work. That’s why they," he says, gesturing to his customers, “nicknamed me Disco. Because of the music.”
Once a barber, Disco took over his uncle’s business when the latter had some personal issues to deal with. “When I was helping my uncle, he only sold cups of warm milk.” Unsure if his foray into the business would amount to any success, he took baby steps by first introducing a variety of conventional beverages like Milo, Ovaltine, Nestum, Nescafe and mocha into the menu. Next, he got creative by adding raw eggs into the drinks. Soon he was whipping up Disco’s Special, a mix of any two beverages complete with a raw egg.
“My customers like it that I’ve jazzed up the susu tarik – they much rather have some variety on the menu. Also, I make sure to only use cow’s milk; this helps to intensify the flavours of the drink. I’ve been told that my susu tarik helps my customers sleep better at night as well,” he says with a wink.
Disco’s Cafe Corner opens daily from 7pm onwards.
The Iconic Air Itam Laksa
There are uncountable ways to wax lyrical about Air Itam’s laksa, but American food chronicler Anthony Bourdain says it well: it is “a bloody magnificent dish”.
Air Itam’s laksa has been the talk of Penang since it was first established in 1955. Located just beside the Air Itam market, the stall is a favourite haunt for locals. It is operated by old master Ang Kak Seong, aided by a group of relatives-cum-workers. Now in his sixties, Ang was taught the art of laksa-making by his mother Lee Lay Hua at a young age.1
It is the rich spicy-sour fish broth that makes Air Itam laksa so special. “My father gave my grandmother’s recipe a few tweaks here and there in order to get a deeper, more balanced flavour,” explains daughter Ang Kar Oon. The secret, she divulges, lies in the slow-cooking of mackerel fillet in a pot of chilli paste and assam (tamarind) water for a good five hours.2 This not only assists in amalgamating the flavours, the sour component from the assam water helps to downplay the pungency of the mackerel as well.
Thick rice noodles garnished with mint leaves, shredded cucumber and lettuce, red chillies, onions, and pineapple chunks are blanched in the fish broth several times, allowing the starch from the rice noodles to thicken the broth. A dollop of heh ko (shrimp paste) is added before serving.
The laksa made an appearance on Bourdain’s popular TV show, No Reservations. According to Kar Oon, Bourdain kept a low profile when he came to film. “It was just him and a cameraman. Nobody realised who he was until one day someone told us that they had seen us on TV.”
Bourdain’s seal of approval has spurred tourists from across America and Europe to make the pilgrimage to Air Itam to get acquainted with the laksa. Despite this, Kar Oon says business has slowed since GST implementation. “The business has undergone significant economic changes in recent years compared to the time before GST was introduced.”
Old Time Flavour
Established in 1946, just after the Japanese Occupation, Sisters’ Curry Mee has weaved its way into Air Itam’s rich history as one of the oldest hawker food stalls in the area. Helming the business operation are sisters Lim Kooi Heang, 84, and Lim Kooi Lye, 82, who despite their old age continue to dish out bowls of curry mee to eagerly waiting hands.
“We were already helping our mother sell curry mee as little girls. Taking over the business was a natural step for us,” says Kooi Heang. The stall is located just off Jalan Air Itam, away from the traffic, in a side lane leading to the Air Itam Chinese Methodist Church. It is not difficult to spot Sisters’ Curry Mee, whose makeshift stall nestles under a big shady tree. Customers will often find these charming, sprightly ladies perched on small bangku (wooden stool) with pots and pans bearing key ingredients for the curry mee neatly arranged around them.
The sisters usually begin their back-breaking business as early as 7.30am every day, come rain or shine. “We start cooking the gravy around 4.30am at home and then continue cooking it when we reach the stall.” They prefer to cook the soup over charcoal fire; this allows for the charcoal pieces to further perfume the already spiced soup with their distinctive smoky flavour.
The soup is then ladled into bowls filled with yellow noodles and vermicelli and topped with bean sprouts, tau pok (fried bean curd), coagulated pig blood and browned jiu hu (cuttlefish) strips. Homemade sambal is then added for an extra spicy kick.“In the old days, a bowl of curry mee only cost 30 cents. Now, it’s RM4 per bowl. This is because of the price hike of the ingredients,” Kooi Heang says. Even so, their customer base has grown sizeably over the years to include customers from Europe and Asia, thanks to their active social media presence (their Facebook page has over 1,000 likes). Sisters’ Curry Mee has even made it into Singaporean food and travel website ladyironchef’s list of Penang’s best street foods.
With many accolades under their belt, it appears retirement for these genial sisters is on the backburner for the time being. “We will work till we’re no longer able to and then, it’s up to our nieces and nephews to determine if they still want to carry on the family legacy.”