Oh… you’ll be in hot soup if you already have set expectations of this local eatery. Clear your mind of any conventional street food experience. Here is Penang’s famous Laksa, even those who prefer their own recipes will have to admit that Air Itam (also spelled “Air Hitam” ) is THE place for the best introduction. No one food stall can mimic another. In Penang, each stall will fiercely protect their recipe. Ignore your surroundings, as you step over the sewer (yes sewer which separates the road from the sidewalk) . Plastic tables line the wall and you’re left on your own to seek out seating space with elbow room.
Laksa is simply, noodles in a spicy soup, there are so many versions of it, chicken, crab, prawn, curry laksa, then on top of that major states will claims to have their own best version, there’s Johor Laksa, Sarawak Laksa, Penang Laksa, and then theres a whole breed of Singapore and Indonesian Laksa to discover.
Air Itam’s Laksa is made with fish meat, poached then flaked mackerel (ikan kembung in Malay) , asam or tamarind for the sourness, other important ingredients that give Penang laksa its identity : lemongrass, galangal (lengkuas) and chilli. The final result is a beautiful mess of dynamic pinks and greens and reds in a brown scrubby stew. (awesome glossary on Malay-English Herbs and Spice here )
Ambiance is not prioritised when you’re talking to a Penangite for suggestions on what to eat and where. Folks on this island will make a beeline for the food, not the polite service, nor is it the way they fold your napkin. You’re probably siting on steel or tin stools , made with recycled steel. The tables are just being cleared while you hover, or if you’re lucky you get plastic chairs, which are more comfortable for the bums.
Food here is prepared daily and fresh, aparently nothing is kept or stored. Hundreds of bowls are sold everyday. Once you get over the fascinating surroundings, order up your bowl of Laksa , its easy, just point to the photo on the wall and tell the Aunty or Uncle how many bowls you want. I do like the Laksa here, definitely fishy (in a good way) from the mackerel, and the explosive tastes form the herbs and spice. I prefer fat noodle versions of the vermicelli in my Laksa, they use these here. Soon you’ll find yourself slurping the rest of the brew down. Incredible how all these ingredients go together!
While you’re there, ask the Uncle for sugar cane juice, it will help cool you down after the spicy soup. Bag a few juice for the journey, its really refreshing to sip through out the day.
Enjoy the day and keep hydrated!
Air Itam Laksa Website or Facebook
Jalan Pasar , Penang 11500
Type: Street Food
Price range: Low
If I could describe it in 3 words: “Eat and Go! ”
Good for: Families with older children (12+) , friends you love