At the base of Kek Lok Si Temple is the most bustling morning market in Penang - the Air Itam Market.
Quick footed aunties pulling their shopping trolleys, vegetable and tropical fruit carts spilling over on the two lane road, Rapid Penang buses squeezing past each other, hawkers yelling and clanking their woks, steam rising with aromas that draw hungry locals in, pork and beef and lamb and chicken and fish lining rows of wet tables, traditional spice traders scooping colorful curry pastes that they grounded the night before, Indians and Malays and Chinese eating, buying and selling side by side, motorbikes zooming through any open space, dogs resting, cats running, horns honking...and the sun just came up.
Amidst the commotion, along a narrow lane between numerous fresh produce and food vendors, there are two happy, wrinkled faces that are oblivious to it all. It is just another day in the over half century they have been selling curry mee at Air Itam Market.
Adorably known by locals as the Siamese ‘Ah Ma’ (grandma), the two elderly sisters continue their parents’ tradition of cooking up the famous dish.
But it is easy to miss them if you are not looking down.
Mark had walked right by, but I caught a glimpse of a large rattan basket and the glow of a charcoal fire, with the two women behind, crouched down on ‘bangku’ (wooden stools only a few inches off the ground). They were surrounded by chili paste, yellow noodles, bean curd puffs, cuttlefish, bean sprouts, and dozens of cooking tools, all perfectly placed within reach. Between them, a pot of boiling, fragrant curry soup that finally seemed to catch Mark’s attention.
“Hello. You can sit anywhere you like.” One of the energetic ah ma called out to us in Hokkien as we watched them. She gestured at the tables next to a giant tree, and more on the opposite side of the lane.
“Can we sit here instead?” I pointed at the old 'bangku' in front of them. Just like the ones they were sitting on.
“Oh yes! Of course. If you’re comfortable, sit there.” They laughed at the awkward way we sat.
She handed us two bowls of curry mee.
“He says no problem. It’s ‘ho chiak’ (delicious).”
They both smiled and continued preparing bowl after bowl of curry mee for their line of customers, showing no signs that being in their 70s means slowing down.
The sisters cook and serve their regulars every single day at the Air Itam Market from 8am to 1pm. We won’t tell you the exact location this time, so go out and explore the market and you’ll be as thrilled as we were when you find them.
But before you go, learn a few Hokkien words. It may not be enough to chat with the Siamese Ah Ma, but you will definitely put a smile on their faces.