Have your first meal of the day from seasoned vendors.
TEMPUS fugit, as they say – time flies. It’s been over a year, but I’ve finally managed to complete the third and final part of my “Air Itam” series, ending with the beginning, so to speak: Breakfast.
It is really where the buzz is, as far as markets are concerned, and if you’re in the mood to traipse out there early one morning, what awaits you is a veritable wonderland of stalls, vendors and hawkers lining the main road just outside the wet market and hawker centre, purveying practically everything under the sun.
There are clothes stalls displaying all manner of colourful attire, and smooth-talking salesmen trying to tempt you with kitchen tools which perform practically any function you care to mention. There’s fresh produce like special fragrant Air Itam ginger, famed for its heat-giving properties, to carton upon carton of just-laid eggs and freshly-slaughtered meat of every description, including, should you so desire, turtles and frogs.
It’s all there for you to select and choose, and people go about their business here like they have been doing probably for the past century or more.
As for food, there’s a lot more on offer here than just assam laksa, although of course there’s that too. At the Beng Chin Garden Kopitiam, just opposite the small car park at the bottom of the Kek Lok Si Temple, Bee Huah has been helping her mother-in-law sell her version of this spicy, fishy noodles for over a decade.
“We used to sell in Kek Lok Si itself,” she said, “but when the place was taken over by the temple, we moved out here.”
Other veteran stallholders there include Ah Choo, who does a mean char kuey teow, and a couple of stalls down, Ah Im, aided by his wife Ah Chin, has been selling Hakka noodles for over 30 years. The third generation of the family to do so, they also have home-made yong tau foo, and even the noodles are hand-made.
In the town itself, Ah Lai is up to his elbows in flour, busy kneading and shaping the pliable white dough into eu char kueh and ham chim peng like he’s been doing every morning at the same spot for the past 50 years. Across his makeshift work surface, his wife is frying them up in batches. They used to cost 20 sen for five pieces, but with soaring prices, a constant lament that I hear from many old-timers, each piece now sells for 80 sen.
However, no article about Air Itam breakfasts would be complete without mentioning the famous Curry Mee Sisters – Kooi Heang, 80, and Kooi Lai, 78. Every morning, they dispense their noodles from a little shed, nothing more than a bit of concreted floor with a ramshackle roof, tucked in a lane off the main road.
Hunched on small bangkus (low stools) on either side of baskets, pots, pans and two boiling cauldrons, one full of hot curried soup with bits of taufu floating on top, and the other hot water in which the noodles are blanched, the sisters prepare the noodles like they have been doing for the past 60 years.
They still use charcoal braziers, and everything else – bowls and chopsticks, bee hoon and yellow mee, jars of hot chilli paste and curried squid which spice up the soup and give it that characteristic orange-red layer of oil – is within reach.
There’s even a large pan of Economy Fried Noodles (either mee or bee hoon) which Kooi Lai prepares every morning. It’s apparently great with the curry sauce, and popular with their regulars.
Once you have ordered, paid for, and been handed your bowl, you can sit down at one of the two rickety tables situated just next to them, or do what the locals do – those who are flexible enough anyway: Get down to their level and sit across from them on a spare bangku and tuck in, just like the old days.
The sisters have been at this for so long, that they are practically bent over in the same position. When I asked them how they get there every morning, Kooi Heang said, “We have to pay someone to help bring all our stuff here now. We used to be able to carry it all ourselves, but it is beyond our ability now.” Rather an understatement, I should imagine. Another helper clears and washes up for them.
How long more did they anticipate carrying on for? “Whilst we still can,” came the cheerful but pragmatic reply. What a great example of industry, and one we should all learn from: One is never too old!