Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Ipoh 2013 - Favourites Old and New

Entering the second week of my trip back to my hometown, I have had the chance to meet some new friends, as well as to re-acquaint myself with those who have long held a place dear in my heart.  

But this is a gastronomic blog, not a tell-all diary, so I am obviously referring to food (apologies for the anthropomorphism, I must be getting soft in middle age...)

Xiao Long Bao at Chooi Yue Dim Sum
1.  Dim Sum - Chooi Yue Dim Sum, 2 Tingkat Taman Ipoh 12, Ipoh Garden South.  Tel: +6016-534 5965

This is a relatively new opening, and appears to have won many followers from the iconic Foh San Restaurant in recent years.  Why?  Well, we have to look to the very colourful local political scene for that answer.  In the 2008 General Election, the opposition People's Alliance wrested Perak State from the governing National Front, winning 31 seats to 28.  Four of the People's Alliance State Assemblymen soon declared themselves independent and cast their lot with the National Front, thereby returning it to power.  There were rumours that the Four were offered significant financial incentives to defect.  One of them, Ms Hee Yit Foong, became such a target for ridicule and hatred that people began burning offerings to her (in Chinese tradition, this is only done for dead people), even the stallholders at the local market refused to serve her parents.  To go with her sought-after Datukship, a local honour equivalent to a knighthood, netizens also bestowed upon her the title of "The Most Hated Woman in Malaysia".

Rumour built upon rumour when she allegedly purchased a stake in Foh San using the alleged proceeds of her duplicity.  Such was/is her abject unpopularity that people started boycotting Foh San.  This affected Foh San's business, so much so that Foh San was forced to take out advertising in the national press denying that Hee was a shareholder.  But you cannot un-ring a bell, and I mention this story only to illustrate the rumour-mongering power of the Interwebs.

Anyway, the boycott meant that many locals had to seek their dim sum fix elsewhere, and Chooi Yue was a beneficiary of this.  The food here is excellent, particularly its prawn spring roll (below left), crispy yet not greasy, succulent with chunks of sweet prawn within.  Its siew mai (below right) is also delicious, and its char siew bao filling is redolent with rice wine, chewy and juicy from the use of fatty pork.

 

Just a word of warning though.  The bulk of seating is open-air, so eating here can be a rather steamy experience.  The service is also barely deserving of the name; at times, the staff seem so stretched that you need to re-fill your own teapot with hot water, unheard of in a dim sum restaurant.  Maybe some of them are starting to wish that a few patrons would return to Foh San...

2.  Tau Foo Fah - Funny Mountain Soya Bean and Beancurd, Jalan Theatre at the Junction with Jalan Dato' Tahwil Azar


Remember my earlier disclaimer about my recommendations just being personal favourites, not being the best, etc.?  Well, forget that for now.  When it comes to tau foo fah (a dessert of smooth white beancurd with syrup), the 61-year old Funny Mountain is the be-all and end-all, the Alpha and the Omega.  It isn't just the Lineal Champion, the Greatest of All Time.  It is a Gift from God.

There are many opportunists in nearby blocks claiming to be the famous tau foo fah, Ipoh's No. 1, etc.  But all you need to do is look out for the very distinctive logo of a grey bunny rabbit dressed in red, hunched over a wheelbarrow of soybeans, and you know you are only a 15-minute wait away from a bowlful of heaven.

Funny Mountain operates a primitive form of drive-thru, except no one actually "drives through".  Rather, one pulls up behind the eternal 10-car-strong queue, and scoffs one's order in the air-conditioned comfort of one's car.  This being Ipoh, the cars may be parked three rows deep, meaning some cars are trapped while others are still eating.  But in the perverse etiquette system of Ipoh's food universe, the wronged driver must grin and bear it, and forsake any thought of revenge.  


Here we have it, a bowl of the smoothest, most sensuously textured beancurd you will ever eat, doused in a sugar syrup gently scented with pandan.  Served cold, it is a refreshing way to beat the Malaysian heat.  Have it warm and the gentle perfume and texture will knock your socks off.  Not a bad way to spend 80 sen (26 US cents).

3.  Tong Shui (Sweet Soups) - Mixed black glutinous rice and bubur gandum at I.Love.Cafe, 75 Jalan Medan Ipoh 1A, Medan Ipoh Bistari (north of Kinta City)

Ipoh has a famous tong shui kai (sweet soup street), so named for the wares peddled by the various stalls that populate it.  But my favourite new discovery is the mixed black glutinous rice and gandum (a traditional Malaysian dessert soup of wheat, pandan and coconut milk) at I.Love.Cafe, a little shop devoted to the delights of Penang's snack culture.

I visit I.Love.Cafe on occasion for its excellent old school Penang coffee, but was tipped off on the existence of this unusual combination.  And when you reflect on it, the combination makes sense: both the black glutinous rice soup and the gandum have thick, starchy textures, the caramelly sweetness of palm sugar, the fragrance of pandan and a delightful savoury hint that balances out the sweetness.  It's not much to look at, but the result is far more than the sum of its parts.  Another real bargain for RM3.90 (US$1.26).

4.  Yong Tau Foo (Stuffed Beancurd and Vegetables with Noodles) - Big Tree Foot (Dai Shi Kiok), Pasir Pinji, 652 Jalan King, Pasir Pinji

Pasir Pinji, a little satellite village of Ipoh, may have the highest ratio of famous eating places per capita than anywhere else in the country.  One of the most renowned is a ramshackle outdoor eatery of tables scattered amongst a grove of random trees, hence the very random name.

Part of the seating at Big Tree Foot - note the giant tree root
at the bottom of the picture
The yong tau foo shop here attracts truckloads of patrons at lunchtime - simply fill your bowl and give them to the lady at the end of the counter so that she can work out your bill.  The noodles here are a mere carb source; the real treat is the fried stuff, including that Ipoh classic, sar kok liew (yam bean fritter).

Fried wantons, sar kok liew, fishcakes, with shadows cast from the trees overhead.
Travel further down the road for peanut soup dessert at the 50-year old Hong Kee (550A Jalan Queen), or the nameless and ridiculously sublime chee cheong fun (white rice flour rolls) stall sold from the front yard of a house at Jalan Pasir Pinji 5.  We parked down the street, perhaps inappropriately if not illegally, in front of a house where an old lady was fanning herself to keep the heat at bay.  We turned to ask her whether we could stop for a few minutes, but she merely laughed; she knew what we were here for.

Noodles and Long Beans "stuffed" with Fish Paste
4.  Egg Tarts - Hong Kee Confectionery, 14 Jalan Cockman, Tel: 017-5928303

If you want good egg tarts in Ipoh, you go not to the dim sum restaurants but to specialist pastry shops such as Hong Kee.  Hong Kee has always been my favourite egg tart, but I thought I should reassess my preferences, and pit it in a blind taste test against another Ipoh favourite, Choy Kee's at Kampung Simee Market.

Hong Kee's (left), Choy Kee's (right)
I thought that Hong Kee's was far and away a better tart than Choy Kee's.  Whereas Choy Kee's custard filling had a simpler, more sugary sweetness, Hong Kee's had a deeper, more profound flavour, so you knew you were eating a genuine egg custard as opposed to just a pleasantly sweet, quivering mess.  It's thicker, flakier lard puff pastry is a great conveyance system for the intense custard, whereas Choy Kee's struck me as being lighter, more feminine.  For want of a better analogy, Hong Kee is Gevrey-Chambertin to Choy Kee's Chambolle-Musigny.

Conclusion

In a country renowned for the quality of its street food, Ipoh is undeniably amongst its top two food cities (Penang being the other).  Its hawkers cook with passion, technique and an incredible respect for traditions that often stretch across decades and generations.  Even as they are aware that there are far easier ways to make a better living, most of them wouldn't give up their aprons and stoves.  It is this conviction, this love for what they do, that makes Ipoh food taste just that little bit better.

I am glad to call Ipoh my home.  I am always glad to return, to rediscover with fresh eyes the various delights that may have grown familiar over the years.  I am always pleasantly surprised by what I find, and I hope that on your visit to Ipoh, you will be too.

Related Posts:

Ipoh 2013 - A Trip Down Memory Lane

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