Before a recent trip to Malaysia, I asked some friends if they had recommendations for exploration: things to do; places to see. Everyone I spoke to insisted, boldly: “You have to try the food!” And so, when we arrived in Penang, my wife and I and two of our friends went on a hunt for some of the best eats we could find. We weren’t looking for fancy restaurants or five star chefs; rather, we were searching for those individuals that strive, day in and day out, to perfect their one signature dish. Thanks to some research and help from an enthusiastic taxi driver, we found two such masters of their crafts.
Air Itam Assam Laksa, located near the Kek Lok Si temple, was originally founded in 1955 and is still run by the same man (known as “uncle”) who began cooking at this roadside stall over 50 years ago. Unlike the coconut-base laksa more commonly found in Singapore, the Assam Laksa of Penang has a tamarind and mackerel broth and is mixed with chilies and shrimp paste to create a perfect blend of sweet, spicy and sour. Air Itam Assam Laksa’s dish is perhaps of one the most famed in Penang; in fact, it was even featured on Anthony Bourdain’s television show, No Reservations.
“If you’re a food adventurer and want to try some delicious bites, Penang is a great destination that will definitely satisfy your taste buds.”
It was amazing to watch the staff of Air Itam Assam Laksa work; they operated like a well-oiled machine. Bowls were constantly being lined up and filled with rice noodles, fresh herbs and vegetables before being passed to the large boiling pot of tamarind fish broth. The process from then on was incredible to watch: Uncle poured a ladle of broth into the bowl; then, the bowl was tipped so that the liquid trickled back into the master pot. The cycle was repeated twice before the bowl was eventually filled to the brim. As we understood it, this helps to cook the noodles and veggies, and also brings flavor back into the broth itself. The end result is a hearty soup layered with flavors.
Our next destination was a tiny stall on the corner of Siam and Anson Roads serving some delicious Char Koay Teow. An older uncle rides his bicycle cart to this unassuming street corner every morning and sets up his charcoal fire stove, drawing in a line of customers that rounds the block. Each order is prepared individually, so anticipate a wait of an hour or more. Most patrons head across the street to the Hock Ban Hin Cafe to have coffee or a drink until theirs is ready. Regardless, the wait – no matter how long – is absolutely worthwhile; you are treated to a perfect dish of broad rice noodles, fresh shrimp, bean sprouts, green onion, egg, and Chinese sausage.
How can such a simple noodle dish create such a dedicated following? The taste is superb, and part of the wonderful flavoring comes from the wok hei, or the smoky fragrance created from the high heat of the charcoal fire beneath the wok. Uncle masterfully controls the heat with a straw fan as he stir-fries the Char Koay Teow. The result is a dish that can hardly be replicated in any home kitchen. It is so good, you might even want to order two plates for yourself (I’m not ashamed to admit that I did!).
If you’re a food adventurer and want to try some delicious bites, Penang is a great destination that will definitely satisfy your taste buds. There’s a reason why this island in Malaysia has garnered such a reputation as a foodie’s retreat: the ingredients are fresh, and the people who prepare them spend a lifetime perfecting their dishes.