Have a bit of history with every sip of delicious coffee and mouthful of noodles at these stalls.
I LOVE the old roadside eateries that have just sprung up over time, and had always wanted to stop by this little alley just off Magazine Road (aka T’au Tiao Lor – the first road), next to the 1960s-style Kimnovak School Uniform shop in George town. Time and circumstances had not permitted me to do so until recently, and I’m really glad I did.
Eating here is a bit like taking a bite of history every time you tuck into a bowl of noodles – the few stalls that line one side of the narrow lane must surely count as part of Penang’s food heritage. In particular, I’m talking about the curry mee stall run by the friendly Ah Wei, 62.
“My husband’s father used to run this stall,” she recounts, “and then it was taken over by my mother-in-law. When my husband, Gan, was 14, he started helping his mother.” As Gan is now in his late 70s, it would appear that this little business has been running there for at least six decades.
“And that does not include the time his father put in,” Ah Wei added, “which ran from the time of the British administration through to Japanese hands and beyond.” This might well bring the total figure to 70 or 80 years, although no one can verify this.
As age gradually caught up with Gan himself, Ah Wei took over the stall, and she in turn is now aided by their son Ah Yuen, 21. This would make him the third generation of the family to serve at the stall, at this very spot.
They open for business from about noon to 5pm or 6pm, from Mondays through to Saturdays. During that time, a steady stream of regulars drop by to order a bowl of bee hoon/mee, or even chee cheong fun with the curry sauce (something Ah Wei claims her mother-in-law started and which has since been copied by many other stalls).
It’s a typical Penang-style curry mee, served with tauhu pok (fried tofu) and adorned with blanched cockles and coagulated pig’s blood. The white coconut and ikan bilis stock turns a beautiful bright orange with a generous spoonful of Ah Wei’s home-made rempah, made from the same basic recipe inherited from her parents-in-law.
“I use over 10 ingredients, including chillies, onions, lemongrass and lengkuas (galangal),” she explains, “which are fried till it’s a deep, dark red and has separated from the oil.” In fact, they’ve even put aside a separate container for those who prefer it extra oily.
Many of their customers, regulars who have been coming for decades, are happy to sit at the stall slurping their noodles under the shade of the awning, like people have been doing for generations now.
When they started, a bowl cost a mere ½ (square) Straits cent, Ah Wei tells me. Of course, as with everything else, the price of the noodles has risen over the years, going from five cents to 70 sen. It now costs RM2.80 a bowl.
Ah Hin – also affectionately known as “Ah Go Go Hokkien Mee” possibly because he dances as he prepares the noodles! – has been running his Hokkien mee stall there for over 40 years, and still sells at the same place two to three times a week, from about 3pm to early evening. It’s a case of “catch me if you can” and I am devastated that I wasn’t able to, as I had been salivating at the thought of a good hot bowl of my all-time favourite noodles. Fortunately, though, I manage to speak to him over the phone.
“Preparing Hokkien Mee is hard work,” he says, “and now it’s a dying skill because not many people are prepared to do it. It’s not pensionable, either!” His daughters are not interested in taking over the business.
A couple of feet down the lane stands Yong’s coffee stall. A relative newcomer, he has been there the past 15 years or so.
“I invented my own kopi shake,” he tells me proudly. When asked to demonstrate, he brings out his “special” container, which is actually just a glass jar with a lid, and adds a liberal dollop of sweetened condensed milk and some hot water. He shakes this hard in the jar with the lid on, creating a bubbly mixture which is then poured over plenty of crushed ice, after which he adds a strong brew of local coffee. It’s cold and flavoursome, and at a mere RM1.30 a glass, will give expensive designer coffee outlets a run for their money.
If you fancy dessert after that, pop over to Ah Cheng’s, where she will serve up a hot bowl of peanuts in syrup or whatever cooked local dessert she has on offer that day.