“Anthony Bourdain : No Reservations : Penang” episode was tremendously compelling that watching its replay on cable TV made me decide to revisit Air Itam, an almost 30-minute bus ride from the island’s capital, George Town to finally experience the version of Penang Assam Laksa that most Penangites, if not all, and other local and foreign tourists have been raving about.
If you must know, my taste buds aren’t virgin to its flavor anymore as I got to try a bowl of it from one of Malaysia’s local restaurants several months ago, however found it of course, commercialized (blog post HERE!).
Blame my faith on Bourdain’s culinary and travel expertise, I didn’t need to drag my feet from our current place in Butterworth, rode the Rapid Penang Bus for 5 minutes to Jetty in Penang Sentral, took the ferry for 12 minutes sans waiting, and hopped on Rapid Penang Bus 203 to Pasar Air Itam (Air Itam Market) all for only RM1.20 (ferry roundtrip fare as I prepurchased unlimited Rapid Penang Bus card good for a month). With almost an hour and a half of travel time, coupled with flashbacks of what my family and I watched on TV, my craving heightened. I even thought it’s a shame for someone like me who have been given a chance to work and live in Malaysia’s food capital for almost 3 years now, not to taste Pasar Air Itam’s Assam Laksa. Good thing the weather and the flow of traffic conspired.
Apparently, the secret of this version of Penang Assam Laksa is in the richly flavored and thick fish broth with fish flakes that appeared to have been boiling for days already. For few minutes, I observed the main man wearing toque, preparing each bowl of laksa upon order. His assistant puts thick rice noodles and ingredients - mint leaves, shallots, chillies, cucumber and perhaps a few more on each bowl of thick rice noodles and hands in to him. Then the man in toque would scoop a piping hot fish broth onto the bowl and pour it back to the boiling broth and repeats the process simply to make sure the noodles and everything on the bowl become warm and flavored. After which, the assist will top the bowl with thick assam sauce (tamarind sauce).
If my perceptions are correct, the secrets to this famous laksa are on its fish broth and tamarind sauce. It’s hard to duplicate it at home when you don’t have the same cookwares that seemed boiling for days and of course, the formula and herbs that the owners keep to themselves.
I wanted to ask them about their laksa but I held back after I saw them very busy tending to all orders, dine-in and takeaways that seemed endless.
Here’s my bowl of Penang Assam Laksa from Pasar Air Itam…
My verdict : With its 4 ringgit per bowl price, everything’s worth it! The sour tamarind sauce, the salty and thick fish stock blended so well with chillies and the herbs and noodles and everything on it! Thankfully, I had the chance to understand the logic of CNN in naming Penang Assam Laksa as 7th out of 50 Most Delicious Foods in the World! It was indeed, delicious!
WHY WAS MY PENANG ASSAM LAKSA EXPERIENCE AT PASAR AIR ITAM UNFORGETTABLE?
Because a fraction of left-over soup of Laksa was accidentally spilled by the “uncle”-waiter on my black T-shirt, making the back of my left upper shoulder down to my left flank smelled like Assam Laksa! Unbelievable! But I even smiled at the old man despite he didn’t apologize, as mentioned, it was an accident. He had the effort of wiping it with his rag (yikes!) but few seconds after, he left me with some fish flakes and mint leaves still on my shirt. He moved to the other tables cleaning and preparing them for the next groups of diners.
PENANGITES ARE HELPFUL
Luckily, the heaven sent angels to ease my Assam Laksa experience. Because I was alone (as Tina and Gabby chose to rest at home over the weekend), I shared my table to other diners. A Chinese-Malaysian couple came to my table with their two very young sons (I’m guessing ages 3-4 years old) and their nanny. The husband, Mr. Chong immediately offered me sheets of tissue to wipe the back of my shirt. Then his pretty wife brought out wet ones that they suggested for me to use instead of tissue. The scene became more awkward but I’m grateful for their generosity, when Mr. Chong volunteered to wipe my shirt for me since I cannot extend my hands to clean everything out. It didn’t stop there, these kind-heartened Penangites ordered a refreshing bowl of lychee for me! How’s that? Even though it’s only 3 ringgit per bowl, I was very pleased and grateful for the moment!
After finishing my Assam Laksa and that bowl of lychee that I got for free, I walked few steps and saw a public and surprisingly cleaned toilet where I continued to wipe and clean my shirt. I rode the bus back to Komtar and Prangin Mall in George Town and bought a new cheap shirt that I wore back home. Imagine the shirt that stinks because it has herbed fish stock and tamarind minty sauce on it! Aromatic!!! lol
I wish my family and I could find chance to revisit Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple which is located a meters away from this stall in Air Itam Market that sells Assam Laksa. I would like to know if Tina and Gabby will like it too. I didn’t buy them takeaways because Tina asked me to shop for some groceries after; would not be easy for me to bring it inside the store.
Oh yes, my route from Butterworth to George Town to Air Itam looks like this except that I commuted via buses and ferry bypassing Penang Bridge. The things you do to satisfy a craving! :)
I wouldn’t mind going back to Air Itam from our current place in Butterworth for that heaping bowl of one of the most delicious foods in the world!