Get it while it's hot: Kooi Heang (left) and Kooi Lye posing with their famous curry mee while customers eagerly wait their turn at the stall in Jalan Paya Terubong, near the Air Itam wet market.
GEORGE TOWN: Instant Penang curry noodles may be a hit with those staying outside the northern state but for locals and visitors to Penang, nothing beats having a piping hot bowl of the authentic fare even if it means sweating it out under the hot sun.
Near the famous Air Itam market here, a steady stream of customers patiently queue up to place orders for the curry mee sold by two elderly sisters outside a church.
When it comes to street food, Lim Kooi Heang, 82 and Kooi Lye, 80, are perhaps one of the island’s best living heritage examples – the sisters of Teochew descent have been selling the mouthwatering fare for over 60 years, their fame spread by word of mouth and more recently, through the social media. Their customer base has expanded to even English, Australian, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japanese tourists apart from the locals.
It is a backbreaking job for the unmarried sisters who wake up at 4.30am to prepare the ingredients and cook the curry over a charcoal stove at their Jalan Kampung Pisang home. They then load the pots onto a bicycle and push it to their roadside stall where they start selling at 6.30am, rain or shine.
Sitting on low wooden benches, the sisters will tirelessly scoop curry from a huge aluminium pot onto bowls of blanched mee, cockles and cuttlefish until all the food is sold out by about 2pm.
Kooi Heang said they would return home for a bath and nap before preparing their special chilli paste in the evening.
“We usually start frying the paste around 8pm. This is done slowly and thoroughly so that it’s well-cooked as we do not use any preservatives in our cooking. The paste is used to cook the curry in the morning,” she said, adding that they normally had dinner at 11pm and slept around midnight.
She said cooking over charcoal added flavour to the curry and kept it simmering over a longer time.
Robert Yeow, a loyal customer from Kuala Lumpur, said he would never fail to visit the stall whenever he returned to his hometown in Air Itam.
“The broth has a special fragrance to it and the cuttlefish is really good. I have been coming here since young as I used to live nearby,” said the 53-year-old engineer who packed six packets of noodles home for his family.
Wedding planner Lau C Hun, 44, said he ate the curry mee at least twice a week and had recommended many friends to give it a try because of its unique flavour.
“Hopefully, someone in their family will continue with the trade. It would be such a shame if it is not so,” he added.
According to the sisters’ niece, Teo Soon Nye, 61, the business was started by their mother just after the Japanese occupation in the 1940s.
“A bowl used to only cost 20 sen back then. Now the price for a standard bowl of noodles is RM3 and an additional RM1 for those who want extra cuttlefish,” said Teo who helps her aunts on weekends.
On whether the trade would be handed down, she said it was up to the younger generation in her family.
“We want to keep it in the family for sure but it is really up to the younger generation to take up the task. My aunts can still manage for now,” she said.