[Penang, Malaysia] Khun On's Thai food stall at Jalan Pasar food court, Ayer Itam Market

This fantastic Thai food stall inside a little food court along Jalan Pasar, Ayer Itam Market, is run by a 70-year-old Thai lady, Chiang Mai-born and long-time Penang resident, Khun On (her full name is Thong Pleaw Ithamma).

Khun On has lived in Penang for over four decades, as her eldest son, who’s Penang-born, is already 42. Her husband’s Hakka, like the majority of Thai-Chinese in Chiangmai are (former Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who’s also from Chiang Mai, is of Hakka descent himself).

Khun On’s daily offerings are her tasty 𝗸𝗵𝗮𝗼 𝗸𝗵𝗹𝘂𝗸 𝗸𝗮𝗽𝗶 (Thai: ข้าวคลุกกะปิ), rice fried with ‘𝘬𝘢𝘱𝘪’ (fermented shrimp paste, akin to belacan) and a moist, flavoursome 𝗸𝗲𝗿𝗮𝗯𝘂 𝗯𝗲𝗲 𝗵𝗼𝗼𝗻 (rice noodle salad), one of the best I’d ever had. It came with a scattering of Sakura ebi, a less-salty version of “hae bee” (dried shrimps).

Khao khluk kapi - steamed rice fried in kapi/Thai fermented shrimp paste), garnished with crisp-fried anchovies, soy-braised minced pork, strips of egg omelette, finely-sliced purple onions, and julienned raw mango. It’s very tasty.

Kerabu bee hoon - this is a Penang-Nyonya dish which has strong Siamese influences: rice vermicelli, tossed in a blended chili-lemongrass-lime juice dressing, with beansprouts, finely-sliced shallots & kaffir lime leaves, topped with a scattering of crisp Sakura ebi. I was never a fan of this dish, as I often found it to be too dry, but this version was both moist and very flavoursome indeed.

Khun On’s cooking has assimilated Penang flavours and adjusted to suit the local palate.

On Fridays, Khun On offers 𝗸𝗵𝗮𝗼 𝗸𝗮 𝗺𝗼𝗼 (Thai: ข้าวขาหมู) – slow-braised pig’s trotters, served on rice. I was told to come early – she opens her stall at 4.30am each day, as she caters to the market vendors who come for breakfast before opening their market stalls.
“You come at this time, and it’ll be all sold out”, she said. I looked at my watch: it was only 8.30am! “You come early next Friday-na, I keep some for you”, she quipped her reminder.

On Saturdays, like today, Khun On’s daily special is her 𝗸𝗵𝗮𝗼 𝗺𝘂𝗻 𝗴𝗮𝗶 (Thai: ข้าวมันไก่สูตรง่าย), where she served carefully poached chicken atop moist, very flavoursome chicken rice. I asked for chicken livers - for me, a must-have where chicken rice is concerned. She then topped the dish with a handful of green scallions.
Her green chili dip on the side was marvelous - a blend of green chilis, minced garlic & ginger, and lime juice. It’s one of the best chicken rice you’d ever find anywhere.

On Sunday, Khun On offers 𝗼𝗿𝗵 𝗽𝘂𝗶 (steamed yam rice). I might drop by one of these Sundays to check it out.

I rarely find a simple, little stall which offers different dishes which are all so big on flavours. Pretty sure the Ayer Itam market vendors, which made up the bulk of her clientele, are all in on this secret.

Khun On’s 𝗧𝗵𝗮𝗶 𝗙𝗼𝗼𝗱 stall opens daily from 4.30am, and normally closes as soon as she finished all her food, usually around 10.30am.

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Sounds absolutely lovely.

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@Harters John, would you believe it - the khao kluk kapi costed only MYR3 (£0.53/US$0.71) and kerabu bee hoon (rice vermicelli salad) was MYR1.50 (£0.26/US$0.35)!

Her prices are incredible even by Penang standards! I guess since the bulk of her clientele are market vendors, and she probably got all her raw ingredients from them at near cost prices anyway, she simply reciprocated.

I mean, this is a stall that opens for business at 4 am in the morning! She feeds the market vendors before they open their own stalls. And she packs up and goes home by 10.30am on most days.

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Back in deepest history, when I was a young man, pubs and bars had quite severe restrictions on when they could open (basically 12 - 3 and 5 - 11). In my city, there used to be an informal challenge about how close to 24 hour drinking you could get, whilst still remaining legal. It started at 4am, with a pub next to the wholesale market which was allowed to open for the traders (but anyone could go in, of course). It ended at 3am the following day when the last restaurant in Chinatown closed. The tricky bit was the afternoon session between 3 and 5. You really needed access to a private members club or something similar. The press club had very lax rules, as you perhaps might expect with its clientele of journalists and you could usually rely on someone to sign you in as a guest in return for buying them a pint.

Not that I ever attempted the 24 hour challenge. Although I do recall one very serious session that started at midday and ended at 11pm. And, yes, I was very fragile for a couple of days afterwards.

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Things we did when we were young, John! :joy:

One of my “regrets” was that I never smoked pot when I was young - I was just too “proper” back then. And now, I think I am just too old to even consider doing that anymore. :joy:

Tried it twice, several years apart. It did nothing for me on either occasion.

FWIW, I stopped smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol on the same day, nearly 22 years ago. It is still, as they say, one day at a time.

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Oh wow, I never realized that you don’t drink either.

I never smoked a single stick of cigarette myself, despite working for the British American Tobacco for 7 years (during my time in Kuala Lumpur).

Back to Khun On’s Thai food stall for her kerabu bee hoon and khao khluk kapi (which she served with chicken cooked in Thai yellow curry) this morning. Both were still as tasty as I remembered from my last visit.

We were curious about the other food stalls in the same little food court, and gave these others a try:

  1. Wantan noodles - a Cantonese breakfast staple. This stall produces the Penang version of the dish admirably well - dark soy sauce dressing, deep-fried wantan dumplings, old-fashioned red-tinted “char siew” & all. The noodles was served al dente, unlike the KL rendition, which tend to be softer.
    Only MYR4 (US$0.95 or £0.70) for this order:

  1. Koay teow th’ng - the classic Teochew (Chaozhou) flat rice noodle in a light, tasty pork broth. Good rendition, with generous helping of minced pork, Teochew fish-balls and fish-cake slivers, topped with shallots, scallions and pork lardons.

  1. Nyonya curry mee - was a bit perplexed to see this stall offering this dish: strictly speaking, there isn’t such a dish called “Nyonya curry mee”.
    We decided to give it a try nonetheless. It turned out to be an interesting variant on Penang-style curry mee, with tofu puffs but sans the pig’s blood (which happened to be my favourite garnish for that dish), but with the addition of crabstick.
    I think the “Nyonya” bit was the chili paste, which had galangal and lemongrass added, plus the mint leaves garnished on top before serving.
    Pretty tasty dish, as priced at MYR4 (US$0.95/£0.70).

It was a good breakfast spread - every single dish we ordered were very tasty, with a fine balance of flavors. Prices were incredible - kept very low as the food court caters mainly to the market workers and morning market shoppers from the large, busy Ayer Itam Market right next to it.

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