Seven decades of serving curry mee

Still going strong: Kooi Heang (right) watching Kooi Lye preparing curry mee for takeaway at their stall near the Air Itam market. The sisters still use a charcoal stove to cook.
PHOTO: The Star/Asia News Network

GEORGE TOWN - Despite being in their 80s, the famous Lim sisters who sell curry mee in Air Itam are not showing any signs of slowing down, let alone retiring.

In their little shed, tucked away from the main street of the Air Itam market, the two octogenarians are still working tirelessly, as they have been since 1946!

A visit on Wednesday found Kooi Lye, 83, seated on a plastic stool busily churning out bowls of curry mee, with the ingredients all within arm's length, while her elder sister Kooi Heang, 85, sat on a rattan chair as she took orders.

Asked about retiring, the elder sister smiled and shook her head, saying without hesitation that "as long as we can do it, we will continue".

The sisters, who never married, have made a name for themselves as "living heritage" who still serve curry mee cooked over a charcoal stove.

Diners still use the low wooden stools and eat facing them, with their hands cradling their ceramic bowls.

The sisters said they started out by helping their mum with the business when they were young.

"We only went to school for a few years. Then the Japanese arrived, and our schooling was stopped, so we helped our mum.

"We were very young then, and our curry mee was just 20 sen a bowl, and customers sat on our stools just like today," she said with a twinkle in her eye as she reminisced about an era gone by.

Their stall opens at 7.30am, and their curry mee usually sells out by 1pm.

She said they would wake up at 4.30am to prepare the ingredients, and sleep late at night as they have to do cleaning up, as well as prepare the chilli paste and curried cuttlefish for next day's sales.

This has been their routine for almost all their lives, with Tuesday being their only day of rest.

Despite weathering hardship for decades, the humble sisters are still a cheery pair, warmly greeting every customer as they serve them.

Their grandniece Ong May May, 27, said she has been gradually picking up the skills to prepare the curry mee to ensure the culinary tradition survives.