Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Ipoh 2013 - A Trip Down Memory Lane

I'm back in Ipoh, Malaysia, spending Chinese New Year with the extended family.  A trip to Ipoh, a former tin mining town some 2 hours drive north of Kuala Lumpur, is always memorable, if for no other reason than the food.

Rojak (Pasembur) at Cathay Mee Stall
Many Singaporeans, when I tell them I'm from Ipoh, say "Ah, Ipoh hor fun!"  (hor fun is a silky, flat rice noodle, typically served in a prawn and chicken stock, for which Ipoh has become justifiably famous).  But Ipoh food is so much more than that.  Reflecting the ethnic-dialect mix that makes up its people, Ipoh food has a very strong Cantonese-Hokkien-Hakka influence, as well as a dash of fire and spice from Malay and Indian cuisine.

Just to be clear, Ipoh is not where you find the finest restaurants; "Western" food (the various European cuisines are not represented in enough depth locally for Ipoh to boast categories of "Italian" or "French" restaurants) here is typically abominable, even its Cantonese restaurants can be suspect.  Street or hawker food is where Ipoh finds its voice.

And what a voice it is!  Whereas hawker food in Singapore can be an awfully hit-and-miss affair with a few exciting highlights (i.e. those with the half-hour-plus queues), Ipoh generally maintains a very high standard across the board.  Anything less is usually followed up with closure; the Ipoh crowd, many of whom fancy themselves as arbiters of good taste, are rough and unforgiving, even when it comes to dishes costing as little as RM3 (US$0.97) per serve.

Of course, there are exceptions, and eateries often change (or fail to change) with the times.  Lou Wong, that renowned purveyor of white-poached chicken and beansprouts and arguably Ipoh's most famous eating institution, has been beset with inconsistencies in the last few years.  On a recent visit, the normally moist chicken was overcooked, on another, the hor fun was cooked almost to mush.  These speedbumps, the cynical would note, are probably related to its longer opening hours (an extra eight hours per day to include both breakfast and lunch service, to be exact) and the expected loosening of quality control.

Below is a personal list of favourites which I have been frequenting over the years, and which I have had the chance to revisit this trip thus far (I will post more as my trip goes on).  I do not claim they are the best, and in a town where personal styles and tastes are so different, to argue over who is the best is probably not very productive.  But what I can promise is that a visit to any of these will not disappoint.  

Feel free to share your favourites in the comments section - I'm always on the lookout for hidden gems or the next big thing!

1.  Indian-Style Fried Noodles and Rojak (Pasembur) - Cathay Mee Stall, 97 Jalan Yang Kalsom (Ipoh New Town).  Midday to 7.30pm daily.

Originally set up by the uncle of current owner Ali Sahir, my folks and I have patronised this shop for the best part of 30 years.  I remembered Ali as being a rather unwilling participant in the early years, grudgingly dicing yam beans and cucumbers for rojak (a local salad dressed with a spicy peanut sauce) while his uncle did the relatively sexier job of frying up plates of spicy, sour, awesomely toothsome noodles.  Well, Ali is now the frymaster and he's doing a magnificent job carrying on the family legacy, despite his seemingly hesitant body language at the stoves.

His Indian fried noodles are the best I've tasted in the Peninsula and Singapore.  The only thing that sets his rendition apart is a ladleful of rich, spicy sauce thrown in at the end of the frying process, adding a beautifully complex peanut flavour and caramelisation.  A squeeze of lime juice and voila!

The same secret sauce is the dressing for his rojak (RM4.00, around US$1.29), a gorgeously textured salad composed of chopped beancurd, spicy fritters, beansprouts (Ipoh's other contribution to the culinary hall of fame), cucumbers, yam bean and hard-boiled egg.  The effect of the raw sauce is different, with more shrill notes of chilli heat and acid, but it is still craveworthy and the crunch, the crisp, and the caress are present in every mouthful.  If only all salads were like this.

Expert Tip: Instead of braving the inevitable 30-minute queue, give Ali a call on his mobile and pre-order: 016-5443 237.  You will still have to wait 30 minutes, but I'm sure you would rather not spend that time in the daytime Ipoh heat swatting away legions of mosquitoes.

2.  Hakka Noodles - Restaurant Tet Shin, corner of Jalan Yau Tet Shin and Jalan Raja Musa Aziz (Ipoh New Town)

I'm not sure if the Hakkas of China would claim it as their own, but this dish of springy noodles tossed lightly in fragrant oil, spiced mince and fat beansprouts has entered the local lexicon in a blaze of sheer deliciousness.  Again, this particular stall has been a family favourite for almost three decades; the current owner's father, then a mere stripling, used to run his stall down the road from my father's clinic, before they moved to this coffee shop over a decade ago.  I was heartened to see her daughter helping to serve the noodles today as well. 

The accompaniments (fried yam bean rolls (left), fishballs, meatballs, delightfully chewy beef tendon balls, tofu stuffed with fish paste (right)) are pretty decent as well, but make no mistake - the noodles are the star of the show here.

The beauty of this coffee shop is that the other hawker tenants also cook up a variety of excellent dishes.  The fried kway teow is also good, but my standard "other order" here is the Hong Kong-style chee cheong fun, rice flour rolls stuffed with prawns and barbecued pork, doused in sweet soy sauce and topped with fried shallots.  Unlike the Ipoh-style chee cheong fun, which is pre-made rolls doused in a gloopy mushroom sauce, each roll here is made by pouring the thinnest layer of rice flour batter into a tray lined with muslin cloth, steaming it, and scraping the now-set noodle off the cloth to form a roll.  Crazily labour-intensive and worth every iota of effort.

3.  Warm Chocolate Cake aka Molten Chocolate Cake aka Chocolate Fondant - Citrus Wine and Dine, 38-46, Laluan Ipoh Perdana (out near Tambun and Bercham, just east of Ipoh proper)

Citrus has been a mainstay of Ipoh's "Western food" scene for just under a decade.  For me, its menu is too long and service can often get stretched for it to achieve true brilliance, but its signature molten chocolate fondant is consistently very good.

While the dish owes its origins to Michel Bras' chocolate coulant, the version most familiar to diners is Jean-Georges Vongerichten's "undercooked" pudding, i.e. pour cake batter into ramekin and undercook it so the centre remains liquid.  The top face of Citrus' cake is like a slightly stretchy and elastic membrane (tap it with your knife and watch it wobble!), which suggests that a percentage of tapioca or sweet potato flour was incorporated into the batter.  The interior is always delightfully liquid, and provides that Exxon Valdez effect every time you cut into it.  Sprinkle a little salt over to set it off like a firecracker on New Year's Eve.  Delicious.

4.  Ipoh White Coffee - (hides head in shame) Old Town White Coffee (OTWC), various branches

OTWC would not normally be my choice, except during this busy Chinese New Year period, the old school coffee shops, typically family-run affairs, are all shut for the traditional holiday and family reunions.  Only the chain stores, which rely heavily on foreign labour, can stay open and ironically make a killing.  OTWC, the modern chain offspring of the venerable Nam Heong Coffee Shop in Old Town, does a pretty good job holding the fort in the meantime.

For the non-natives, local coffee beans are traditionally roasted in palm oil margarine and sugar.  Ipoh white coffee leaves out the sugar, so the resultant brew is lighter in colour.  Old Town serves a rich brew called "Ipoh White Coffee - Gao" (gao is simply Hokkien dialect for "thick"); this is the kind of coffee that clings to the underside of your spoon, and thinks about it for a few seconds before it reluctantly decides to drop off.  Great fuel to keep you going in between the various visits to family and friends.

The clothes are getting stretched, the scales are groaning and my doctor is undoubtedly getting worried.  But I'm glad to be back and I hope readers will consider paying Ipoh a visit soon.  OK, there isn't much to do here apart from eat, but when the food is so good and cheap, why would you even consider doing anything else?

Related Posts:

Ipoh 2013 - Favourites Old and New

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