It's crazy to say this, but I have a lengthier relationship with my local neighbourhood pan mee stall than I do with many of the significant relationships I have in life! Even typing that out loud sounds bizarre, but it's true, for I've been eating at this particular husband and wife stall at Chun Heong coffee shop since I was five.
I remember how this longlasting association began, a five-year-old Tien who just moved into Bangsar with his family, a hungry mother wanting to feed her kids, and the allure of good affordable hawker food in Lucky Garden. Although we had just moved out of my grandfather's Petaling Jaya home, my mother is a true blue Bangsarian and was no stranger to the local food haunts. It was thanks to her, who would take me to Chun Heong on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, that having pan mee in Lucky Garden became ritualistic in nature. Even till this day when I go without a bowl of those pillowy noodles for too long will the neurons in my mind, hard-wired to only be appeased when I get my fix, alert me that it's time to have them once more.
A bowl of this pan mee feels incredibly nourishing to me, a simple mixture of handmade, doughy noodles, seasoned minced pork, sliced pork, anchovies, sweet potato leaf, and fried lard and shallots in a just-the-right-kind-of balanced broth that's neither too rich nor too weak. And when you mix in a saucer of their special chilli (one saucer is just right for me) into the soup, wowee, it supercharges the broth with a delicious spiciness that kicks the flavour up a noticeable notch. Every spoonful is a delicate dance of flavours and textures, carefully orchestrated and lovingly made the same way for decades by cooks who have mastered how to make their version of what I think is no doubt a dish they hold dear to their hearts.
My affinity for this particular pan mee stall is reflected by my ties with the couple operating it, who have seen me grow up in front of their eyes from a young boy to an adult. And even though I'm now in my thirties, they still call me "Ah Boy" when I pop in to make my usual order. Speaking of which, my typical order is a small bowl of hand-torn soup pan mee with extra fillings, a staple that hasn't been changed for as long as I remember. Whenever I rock up to the stall to make an order, the couple knows me so well that I could place an order with just a nod and a hand gesture signalling "one" if I wanted to. There's just something so comforting about this.
On the subject of dining in versus taking away, I'm firmly planted in the camp that acknowledges that taking away hawker foods diminishes its enjoyability and inherent tastiness. Every minute spent in a takeaway plastic bag decreases the noodles' potential to taste the way the cooks intended, which immediately becomes evident when you tuck into a bowl at home and notice the differences. And this is despite me only living five minutes away by car. Eating in a coffee shop is the full deal, the heat, sweat, and noise that comes with my bowl of pan mee is part of the experience that enriches the noodles laid out in front of me. Remove either of these three factors and the paradigm shifts. Regardless of Chun Heong's boisterous nature at the height of service in the late morning or the early afternoon, tucking into a bowl is so therapeutic to me that I can drown out all the noise and for a good seven minutes partake in the fundamental act of eating, nourishing, and satiating. With that being said, I do opt for takeaways from time to time.
Here's a funny anecdote – once on a full-day shoot for Lexus and chef Masashi Horiuchi of Entier, I took him to Chun Heong to have pan mee during our lunch break and was surprised to find out that he was a regular! When I went to Entier for lunch one day and ordered the escargot pasta, which used broad and flat pappardelle, Masashi jokingly referred to it as his version of pan mee when he served it to me.
Most of the mainstay stalls that are around in Chun Heong today, such as the pan mee, herbal duck soup noodles, mix rice, pork ball noodles, and porridge stalls, existed back then when I was a wee child. That's a true testament to their staying power and how well they've managed to hone their craft.
I often find myself lost in thought about how I dread to one day return to Chun Heong and discover that the couple has retired and the stall no longer there. To me, that is a real tragedy, one that I think will leave a lasting impact on me when the day arrives. You may think I'm overly dramatic, but the memories, tastes, and association I have with this bowl of noodles constitutes a part of my identity as a Malaysian, Bangsarian, and food enthusiast. Yes, I know that it would be selfish of me to wish that the husband and wife duo stay open as long as possible just to continue to indulge in a bowl of noodles for as long as I can. Still, I understand that such a scenario isn't entirely far off and I perhaps may have a few years left if all goes well. But until that day arrives, I'll gladly continue my ritual.