January 3, 2013

Air Itam Market @ Penang: Tale of Two Sisters and a Bowl of Legacy!

The Infamous Lim Sisters’ Curry Mee!

Happy 2013! As the New Year unfolds, I asked myself why I am so passionate about food. Actually obsession outdoes the passionate part but then both are the words to symbolize why I love anything to do with food. Although food is a need in life, I always feel that there is more to the need that it is. I love how it evokes all my senses and send neurons of enjoyment pleasure to my brain and heart. In addition, there is the question of how the food originates and the memories it comes with. Do you feel there same?

Recently, I am once reminded again how I am so obsess with food as I headed back to my hometown of food paradise in Penang. Street food is the way to go in this isle of chow and it excites me to see hawkers who are still doing their very best to keep their family recipes by churning out plates of street food the traditional way. Although most have taken the easy route out already, there are still a good handful that continues the legacy despite the hard work and sweat involved.

Today, many people see a lot of hawkers getting overboard with charging high price or taking short cuts. However, there are still many who don’t if you know where to look in those non-tourist areas. I have heard about this particular one for a while and even saw them on tv. This round, I made sure to pay a visit to see what everyone is talking about. In the bustling township of Ayer Itam, many of us tend to get focus on the famous Air Itam Laksa and the infamous Kek Lok Si Temple. Yet, there is a legacy carefully hidden in the heart of the Air Itam Market that most people have really yet to acknowledge openly.

The story of two Lim sisters, Mdm. Lim Kooi Heang and Mdm. Lim Kooi Lai, has been peddling their recipe for Penang style curry mee in the township for decades! It’s only recently that these sisters caught the attention of many through media and blogs. Open as early as 8am to 1pm or till they are sold out, the two elderly sisters are unique in their own way as they setup their stall on the ground instead of on the usual hawker stall. The sisters are located near the bridge in Air Itam, at the right of the junction of the crossover bridge where there is a small intersection junction with a row of wooden shacks lining the small side road. An extra landmark to find this small road is the Air Itam Methodist Church so one can ask the locals there about the sisters or the church.

I am guessing the sisters are at least in their seventies to eighties at a glance. After some searches, the Lim sisters have been around for more than half a century selling curry mee. Here, the Lim sisters preferred to sit on small ‘Bangku’ or stools and dish out their own recipe of the ubiquitous curry noodles ala Penang style. Extremely hardworking and happy to be, they are only closed barely a few days a year for Chinese New Year.

As soon as I whipped out my lens to capture them, one of the younger sisters smiled and called out to me in Hokkien ‘Chiak Tau Seng, Hip Seow Eng Kar Ban Bey Hiau Kin! Translated to English, the sister asked me to eat first as it is ok to take photos later! Apparently they are used to the paparazzi stardom cos I was not the only one with camera that morning… J

I smiled, quickly took a few photos and proceeded to order. Customers can also sit on the small stools surrounding their stall to enjoy the noodles or simply order them or carry them over self-service to other coffee shops that have tables and chairs. Most customers are happy enough to self-service themselves since the two sisters are too busy dishing out the noodles. The sisters also engaged some help from others for certain preparation and heavy duty workloads. However, one is rest assured that the recipe for the curry and chili paste is still prepared by the sisters themselves each day.

One might irked at the sight of the food on the ground but everything is neatly placed in bowls and containers and arranged surrounding the sisters. Although the surrounding speaks otherwise, I had no problem after consuming the noodles. There is an old peddler’s basket that is used in olden days where hawkers would balance two baskets on a long stick to carry their wares around containing the basic ingredients for the noodles. A big cauldron filled with white milky gravy is bubbling ferociously on traditional charcoal stove, expelling a wonderful aroma of coconut and spices lingering in the air.

I sat down and order a bowl of simple fried rice noodles and noodles and a bowl of curry mee. The younger sister made such an effort to keep asking me if I wanted each ingredient in my noodles. Both sisters worked super efficiently, extremely focus and only looking up when asking questions.  They ladle bowls after bowls pretty fast so there was hardly much wait.

Ordering the works, my bowl of noodles and beansprout is topped with sambal dried brown squid pieces, coagulated pig blood and soft pieces of bean curd puffs. Ladling the curry gravy over the noodles, she pours the first gravy back to the pot and refills the gravy again to heat up the noodles and the ingredients.  My other bowl of fried noodles was simply served as it is but the sister was kind enough to tell me that I can come back to get some curry gravy for this if I decided too. Both noodles cost a mere RM6 total. Price is definitely decent compared to other curry mee stalls these days but the experience is priceless!

As I slurp up their noodles, I sat there and said to myself that this may not be the best bowl of curry mee I had but it’s definitely the most memorable one I will ever savor in a curry mee. Penang curry mee gravy is usually sweet with a lighter broth of coconut milk doused with a little spice. To kick up the gravy, one needs to add the pungent sambal to punch up the flavors. The sister’s curry gravy is not sweet but rather savory and the sambal is gorgeously pungent and spicy. I also adored the spicy chewy squid pieces and soft bean curd puffs. It’s not the usual familiar sweet and spicy thin gravy I get but the noodles and gravy are delicious in its own way. The other bowl of fried noodles was ordinary so I decided to go back and add in the curry gravy and sambal.

Beside the curry mee, my family and I also savored Chee Cheong Fun and Economy Chap Fun with a sweet Peanut Tong Shui from nearby stalls.

Someone commented to the sister that her noodles is so cheap and she replied happily that she is not out to get rich! So you see, this is what evoked my emotions when there are people like the sisters making enough just for a living. To them, no other thoughts cloud their mind but the simplicity of life to enjoy serving their family recipe and to past the days happily together.

Their faces show it all, the proudness, the effort, the hardship and wrinkles! Its people like these that brings back those golden era where life is much more simple and content. Axian, the food tv host, did interview the sisters in his series and when he asked the sisters when they intend to stop selling the noodles, the younger one replied as long as they are able to sell, they will continue to churn out bowls after bowls of their family recipe of curry mee to anyone who will eat it.

I admired both sisters very much. It takes great courage and effort to do what these ladies does. As the day ends each day, both sisters would take stack their wares on a bicycle and walk home together to prepare the ingredients for the next day. Both sisters’ posture has been shaped over the years from huddling over their stall but the determination to continue their legacy is stronger.

This is what I call Love!

Sometimes it not about the food alone, it’s the memories and legacies in the food that truly makes me feel so passionate about it. Another moral of this tale is one is never too old to do what one wants and life is a path of how determine one wants to be. Though few of such are left, I will continue to search and hope to leave a footprint of them in my world as priceless memories.

For what it’s worth, I have at least tasted the Lim sisters’ bowl of legacy and hope that every foodie out there can do so at least once before this legacy is gone…

Lim Sisters Curry Mee
Right after the Ayer Itam Bridge (side road leading up to Chinese Methodist Church)
GPS Coordinates: N5 24.020 E100 16.695

Business Hours: 8am to 1pm (open every day except few days during Chinese festive holidays)

*More pictures available at my facebook: Chasing Food Dreams  
** Catch a sequel to the Air Itam market rendezvous for another legacy soon.


  1. Salute my respect to these two ladies! Must have my own try soon, I believe that must be "Taste of mum" instead~~ ^^

  2. Yahh...I too salute these 2 sisters.

  3. I tried this too in my recent Penang trip :-)

  4. Salute to them, for the dedication ~~

  5. Labour of love... Any place to sit & eat?

  6. i always go Air Itam for the laksa, not curry mee.. next time must visit lim sister! ;DDDD Oh, i love the picture that u took ! it triggers my saliva production!!! especially the chee cheung fun and peanut tong sui!!! CANNOT FIND THE PEANUT TONG SUI IN KL..;(

  7. nice shot! Too bad I didnt get to visit them when I went to Penang aww :(

  8. some ppl said its dirty to prepare food on the floor! but i say that's why it is nice! =p

  9. What great shots of the ladies. You seem to have captured their spirits in your lense. Imagine the history these sisters carry.

  10. wow.. i love your write up about the sisters...and the curry mee... feel like want a old school experience too..... and have a bowl of curry mee with kickshiok sambal with sotong bits..

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