Will the real Air Itam asam laksa king please stand up?

Will the real Air Itam asam laksa king please stand up?
PHOTO: Raymond Ooi

Would you drive 400km just to enjoy a bowl of asam laksa? If you're craving for the #airitam-asamlaksa (it has its own hashtag on social media sites) sold at the market on Jalan Pasar in Air Itam, Penang, you would, I reckon.

I've heard of folks who would drive for hours up North from Kuala Lumpur on such excursions, and many a times I have wondered if it is even worth the trip.

They rave about the asam laksa's fine balance of sweet, sour, spicy and fragrant broth, its springy noodles, and the 67 years of history behind the stall.

To them, it is the real deal.

Last week, I had the opportunity to put the asam laksa to the test. The best part? I didn't even have to pack a suitcase.

Ang Kok Peoh, the man behind the famous Air Itam asam laksa has moved to Klang, Selangor to help his daughter at her restaurant here. A family dispute led Kok Peoh to leave his beloved stall in Air Itam, but hey, their loss is Klang's gain.

His eldest daughter Kar Bee opened Angcle Peoh (geddit?) in 2014 and has not looked back since. The restaurant's name is a play on her father's name as well as a tribute to the man whom she believes originally built the legacy.

Angcle Peoh serves a long list of mouth-watering Penang hawker fares but of course, it is the asam laksa that draws the crowd.

"My daughter's asam laksa tastes the same as my mother's did back in the day," says Kok Peoh proudly.

How can it not be?

Kar Bee has helped out at the stall in Air Itam since she was seven, and is one of the few people who knows the original recipe to the broth.

Kar Bee has passed the precious recipe to her own 18-year-old daughter who is set to take over the restaurant one day. But for now, Kar Bee runs the restaurant with her husband Tham Kum Fook and her father.

"I made no changes to the recipe. We still grind the chilli paste using the stone grinder like we did before. There's still the torch ginger, mint leaves, onion, lettuce, cucumber, cili padi and prawn paste in the broth," says Kar Bee.

The prawn paste (hae koh), as well as the asam jawa and belacan used in the broth, are imported from Penang, but the fish and noodles are sourced locally.

"We only use fresh sardines. The fish are steamed and we use the oil from the sardines in the broth," says Kok Peoh.

The broth is freshly prepared by his wife at the central kitchen located opposite the restaurant.

According to Kar Bee, it is difficult to pinpoint the difference between Angcle Peoh's asam laksa and the one still served at the Air Itam stall.

"Maybe just the noodles. We don't use the same noodles, and the one we use here is softer and easily absorbs the taste of the broth. Other than that, I think they are the same," she says.

It is lunch hour and every seat at the restaurant is taken. There is at least one bowl of asam laksa at each table and folks also order it to go. A bowl of asam laksa is priced at RM6.90, and the restaurant sells over 250 bowls on normal days and over 400 bowls on weekends. With thick fragrant broth, the asam laksa is flavourful and is obviously the favoured dish at Angcle Peoh.

However, my vote goes to their Char Kway Teow with duck egg (RM8.90 / S$2.90). The kway teow is fried in pork lard and comes with a handful of crunchy taugeh and fat, juicy prawns and cockles.

I scrape my plate clean and immediately regret my decision as now I only have limited space in my stomach for the Prawn Mee (or Hokkien Mee in Penang), Curry Mee and Pork Noodle to come.

But then, I may also be full from the delicious Penang Rojak (RM6) that I helped myself to while waiting for the interview to start.

How can one resist the prawn mee which looks so appetising with its layer of prawns, pork, halved hard-boiled egg and kangkung on a bed of bihun and yellow noodles? Or even the sweet smelling broth?

Kok Peoh makes up my mind for me as he scoops some prawn mee into a small bowl and pushes it in front of me.

A whiff of the broth is all it takes to convince me to finish my share.

Then comes the aromatic Curry Mee, topped with sambal squid, cockles, fishballs, tau pok and fried fu chuk. The curry is slightly watery, but is nevertheless still tasty.

"The original recipe calls for chicken meat in the curry, but our customers didn't enjoy it. So we removed the chicken and now there are no more complaints from them," says Kar Bee.

Another dish that gets two thumbs up from me is the Pork Noodle (RM6.90). The thin flat noodles served in clear broth is simply delicious and the slices of smooth pork liver and aromatic garlic oil adds to the temptation for a second bowl.

But what makes the dish memorable is the homemade pork balls that are juicy to the last bite. Even with full stomachs, we manage to finish this bowl of pork noodles clean.

Angcle Peoh also serves Fried Hokkien Noodle, Waktan Hor and Fried Tomyum Mee. They also serve delicious bowls of Cendol and Ais Kacang.

The restaurant focuses on noodle dishes and will probably only start featuring rice dishes on the menu after the second Angcle Peoh branch opens in Kota Kemuning at the end of this month.

"Right now, we cannot do more than what we already do. Adding more items to the menu will only compromise the quality of the food that we serve," says Kar Bee.

"We don't want to disappoint our customers. We just want to focus on what we do best."

And best really describes what they already serve and I am for one more than happy that it doesn't take longer than 30 minutes for me to get that.

Angcle Peoh
42 Lorong Batu Nilam 21B
Bandar Bukit Tinggi 2
41200 Klang
Selangor
Tel: 017-936 2223
Open daily from 10am to 9pm

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