I never knew how much I loved my Penang curry mee until my favourite hawker died.
Yes, she died.
Not while cooking curry mee, of course.
You see, Nic and I have a ritual on Sundays. We potter into town and have a totally “ah pek” breakfast. I call it “ah pek” breakfast because it involves an old corner coffeeshop with loud patrons speaking Cantonese, hawker fare which are deemed typical of Penang and yes, it also involves some old-style kopi and tea.
We sit about this coffeeshop, enjoying its ambience – the sights and sounds of a regular coffeeshop can be quite comforting.
Then there’s the flavourful curry mee – the best of the best I know sold by this tiny cheerful woman who is as short as she is plump. She resembles everyone’s favourite aunt. For all I know, she IS everyone’s favourite aunt.
And she was most likely in her late 40s or early 50s.
Healthy as your aunt.
And that’s what most of us are – we go about happily in life, assuming that most things will be around day after day. Not realizing that sometimes, people do die.
That’s the thing with us humans. We think we’re always immortal.
I assumed my Curry Mee Hawker Lady would be around each weekend. Her noodles were bathed in a just-right gravy. Her prawns, taupok, sotong, cockles and pig blood cubes were just enough to satisfy greedy desires. Her sambal was fierce enough but not too fierce. All in all, a perfect bowl of the yummiest curry noodles this side of town. I consider this an excellent breakfast – not too healthy of course but heck, all the damn delicious things in life are often not too healthy but everything in moderation please.
We pop into this coffeeshop once every 2 weeks (I did say moderation, right?).
Until one Sunday when we arrived, anticipating our brunch of Penang curry mee and feeling disappointed because the stall was not open.
But maybe she needed a break. After all it is back-breaking work. Still, we were too hungry to go elsewhere so we decided to plonk ourselves down and order some other hawker fare (take your pick from chee cheong fun, economy rice, wan tan noodles, western breakfast, soft boiled eggs and kaya margarine toast, mee goreng mamak, char kueh teow, Hokkien mee – yeah, have I made you hungry just yet?)
The guy who takes our drink order is the guy who helps out at the curry mee stall. He’s a bit of a conumdrum too – he has this wavy hair which makes him look like a woman from behind. I can’t decide if it’s the hair that’s feminine. Anyway, he recognized us and the first thing we ask is why the curry mee stall was not open.
“They died already lor!”
Cantonese folks love drama. (I am Cantonese so this is no exaggeration and yes, you can quote me! Cantonese people are loud and flamboyant and we think we have the best cuisine in China.)
This guy was not stingy in the drama department. He whipped out a worn newspaper clipping from his shorts pocket and unfolded it before us, pointing to the article and accompanying picture of the curry mee lady! He must’ve have regaled every customer with this evidence because he seemed awfully cheery!
Unfortunately Nic and I can’t read Chinese so we didn’t know what the article said. Cantonese drama guy filled us in with the details.
The curry mee lady had slipped one day. The fall was serious enough to warrant a stay at the hospital. However, she didn’t recover and passed away after a week. Her spouse died mysteriously not too long after.
I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard this story. This seemed stranger than any fiction I’ve read.
Two perfectly healthy people dying within weeks of each other.
And all because of a fall.
Spooky, right? More spooky is that they died during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
Cantonese people are also highly superstitious. So there. I said it.
Spookiness aside, I was internally bemoaning the loss of my favourite curry mee! So there goes my Sunday. (And later I lamented on Facebook too! Emotionally, we all have ties to our food.)
We did feel sad for our hawker. In fact, I learnt of her delicious curry mee through CK Lam’s food blog sometime ago and was hooked from the very beginning. It was one of the more balanced curry mee. (After that sad episode of learning of the death of my curry mee hawker, we tried the famous Lorong Seratus Tahun curry mee and found it a far cry from our usual fare. I wonder now if all our taste buds are subjective as my uncle swears by this famous curry mee!).
Anyway, that’s not the most tragic part of the story. The couple died, yes, but they also left two sons, both teenagers. Suddenly the tall, lanky boy and the short, plumpish boy were both orphans!
But us humans are resilient. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves and continue onwards. Or maybe the Cantonese are bloody pragmatic.
We all gotta survive.
The boys’ aunt who runs the coffeeshop decides to re-create the curry mee. She didn’t have the recipe but she did learn somewhat when her sister was taught this particular recipe by a curry mee sifu.
Nic and I almost did cartwheels when we heard she was picking up the pieces. The boys were still schooling so she figured she could sell the curry mee on week days but on weekends, her two nephews would take over.
It hasn’t been very long – this curry mee experiment of the aunt’s but at least she is trying. On some weekends, she gets the formula all wrong.
Like last Sunday. The curry gravy wasn’t salted enough. As concerned customers, we give honest feedback.
She’s still tweaking the curry mee recipe though and for that I salute her.
It just goes to show how excellent food is as much about the cook as much as it is about the dish. The original cook made such elegant curry mee that we all overlooked its elegance until it was lost to us. I often say it’s about contrast. If you don’t have something to compare, you won’t know how good it is.
Now we know what we all had.
Somehow we all want her sister to reproduce the original curry mee taste for many reasons. To keep her sister’s delectable legacy alive. To provide an income for her nephews. To bring back the patrons to her coffeeshop. To not disappoint the ardent, hungry supporters (it’s not just me and Nic – the earring wholesaler guy across the road is also rooting for her).
We want her to reproduce the taste – I know it won’t be exactly the same but close enough is good enough. Above all, it’s a story of how the customers want these boys and their aunt to succeed in their perseverance.
I am heartened that the curry mee tragedy does have a silver lining.
* The above said curry mee stall is in the Peace & Joy Coffeeshop on China Street, directly opposite the famed Goddess of Mercy Temple. You won’t get the original taste of the kickass curry mee if you go now so don’t blame me if you find it mediocre. However, I am keeping my fingers crossed that the aunt of these boys will hopefully get the recipe tweaked just right and bring the original recipe back to life! See… I am optimistic!