Firing up the taste buds

Flavourful noodles: Ang and his daughters serving customers at their assam laksa stall beside the Air Itam market in Penang. — ZHAFARAN NASIB/The Star

GEORGE TOWN: Sour, spicy, tangy and, most importantly, with a delectable umami flavour that packs a punch in the syrupy black shrimp paste known as hekor.

That would sum up the taste of the piquant Ayer Itam assam laksa.

The flavourful rice noodle dish was sorely missed during the pandemic due to shuttered businesses.

But with so many Malaysians now fully vaccinated, the operators of one of the more famous stalls – that is three generations old – decided to open up for business again, much to the delight of foodies.

Patrons thronged the stall located next to the Ayer Itam market on Saturday and yesterday, with many saying they had been craving the familiar taste. The stall is currently only open on weekends, from 11am to 5pm.

Retired contractor Tan Chuan, 60, from Kuala Lumpur, said the assam laksa in Ayer Itam is a cut above the many others he has tried.

“I’m on vacation; the moment I heard about this stall reopening, I came immediately. The shrimp paste here is so fragrant,” he declared.

Accountant Regine Yen, 27, who was on holiday with her friend Loh Yik Shan, 28, rejoiced upon seeing that the stall had reopened just as they were headed to Kek Lok Si Temple.

“We knew it had been closed, so when we saw that it had reopened, we just couldn’t resist,” she said.

A crowd was seen queueing for takeaway while many others, mostly tourists, dined at tables along the five-foot-way next to the stall.

Stall owner Ang Kak Seong, 72, was seen busy preparing the sour-spicy fish broth and blending the chopped mackerel and soup for each bowl.

His daughters, Kar Oon, 44, and Kar Siew, 42, as well as grandson Yong Jing, 18, were helping out.

Ayer Itam assemblyman Joseph Ng said he was glad to see them back in business.

“Since they stopped in May, the hustle and bustle of the market in that area came to a standstill despite many businesses resuming. We noticed that traffic would bypass the area.

“Considering that the stall is an icon of Ayer Itam with a long history, we tried persuading Uncle Kak Seong to come out of retirement.

“After a few rejections citing a lack of manpower and the tedious preparation, he finally agreed on condition that he only sells this dish during the weekends as some of his family members are working during weekdays.

“Hopefully, the reopening will help revive the economy here and benefit the market traders and shops,” said Ng.

In November 2012, the late TV food celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain dropped a 2.46 minute YouTube video about this stall, calling it “Everything I love in one bowl” and “bloody magnificent”.

Ang’s mother, Lee Lay Hua, opened the stall in 1955. In May, after operating for 66 years, Ang took a break due to dwindling business caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and family disagreements.

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