“Every time I come to Malaysia, there’s one thing that I gotta have – laksa. It’s everything I love in one bowl.”
This was one of the late Anthony Bourdain’s memorable lines from his No Reservations episode on Penang, a foodie paradise located off the northwestern coast of peninsular Malaysia. The famous author/badass chef/travel show host was then at this roadside food stall in Air Itam. It has been serving Penang-style laksa since 1955.
It is important to point out that Penang’s laksa, which landed 7th in CNN’s Word’s 50 best foods, tastes different compared to those from Sarawak or Singapore. I actually thought it has the same coconut milk base as the latter. The Penang version has a spicy-sour flavor profile instead and is made from intensely layered fish stock.
Even if I’m now based here in Penang, it took me awhile to visit this part of the island. I wouldn’t be able to try this famous food stall at all if not for my good friend Ivan who paid me a quick visit a few months ago.
I remember we only had two destinations that afternoon – the Keh Lok Si Temple which is said to be the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia and the Penang Hill where we soaked in the views of George Town over overpriced lattes. It was sweltering hot too (which is an understatement mind you) and a breather between these tourist spots seemed a good idea at that time.
Thankfully, there were no queues anymore at this hour that is why we were able to score the table nearest to where the action is. From this vantage point, we could see Ang Kok Peoh, the proprietor of this family-run business manning the bubbling cauldrons. He prepared one order after the other like clockwork. The thick rice noodles are drowned a few times in the asam (tamarind) broth and then topped with mackerel flakes, chilies, assorted greens, mint and shrimp paste.
I struggled with my bowl but I’m glad that my friend was able to wipe clean his. Needless to say that it’s not exactly my favorite Penang dish or to borrow Bourdain’s very own words – it’s not the one thing that ‘I gotta have’ when I am in these parts.
I still won’t mind ordering one though, especially if I play the tour guide card every now and then.
Pasar Air Itam Laksa
1, Jalan Pasar
Pekan Ayer Itam
Business hours: 10:30 AM – 7:00 PM