Here are some controversial hot takes for you. One, Shawn Mendes is just not that good-looking. (Is he considered good-looking because he washes his hair, unlike Justin Bieber? This appears to be the sole criterion.) Two, the New England Patriots are cheaters. (It’s well-documented.) Three, open-air shophouses where all the cooking is done in front are still considered street food, both in terms of food and culinary tradition, according to me, a street food eater. And four, Malaysia has better street food than Singapore.
This could also be considered well-documented. A recent New York Times story on Malaysia and Singapore had enough burns to make me, an innocent bystander who considers both to be inferior to Thailand, want to write about it. Singapore is planning on petitioning UNESCO to recognize its street food as one of the cultural treasures of the world. But Malaysians are feeling salty about it. Take the opinion of Chee Kean, presumably of Malaysia, who tweets “I think they mean they want to protect their air-conditioned food court.” [fire emoji yikes]
In return, Singaporeans point to international arbiters of taste like Michelin to rub Malaysians’ nose in their relative lack of marketing savvy. “Perhaps this discussion can be carried out properly after a hawker stall in Malaysia achieves a Michelin star” says Coconuts Singapore, which, ok Coconuts lol.
I stopped reading after that because then it dawned on me Thailand was trying to be like Singapore and it was just too rich when Singapore said a successful petition would help “safeguard” their street food culture since everything is already in a mall and words mean nothing anymore. But I did not start out wanting to write about the death rattles of Thai street food. What I want to write about is Ipoh, where street food is still thriving.
Ipoh is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Kuala Lumpur and home to a sizable Chinese community, hence its reputation for great food. The hills, water and soil of the area are said to produce the biggest, crunchiest and juiciest bean sprouts in the world. But it’s not all dim sum and beansprouts — busloads of foodies from KL and Penang hit the town every weekend to sample all the local dishes that they prefer to the renditions back home.
For example, you can get “black pepper crab” in KL and even, yes, in Singapore. But is it like this: unbearably fresh, shells caked in a breathtaking sludge of pounded black pepper and dried prawn, lit with a tinge of curry leaf, hiding sweet soft flesh within? I hate to say it, but the version at the Crab House (32, Laluan Perajurit 1, Taman Ipoh Timur, 012-565-7723) is my favorite crab anywhere, even better than the freshly steamed swimmer crabs I can get beachside in Hua Hin, toes in the sand and a cold beer at my elbow. Sorry, Thailand.
The Crab House also does a “fish skin salad” — egg yolk-coated deep-fried skins piled high in a deep-fried nest of taro beside a pile of lightly dressed veggies — that is inexplicably popular amongst Malaysians. If you are feeling adventurous or just want to try something that has yet to translate to anywhere else, the Crab House is a good place to start.
That’s not all I have to rave about. There was the aggressively smoky duck, honey-glazed to a delicate crisp and smelling of lychee wood, at Yuk Sou Hin at the Weil Hotel (the owner’s name spelled backwards).
There was also the fresh seafood at the well-named Lucky (266, Jalan Pasir Puteh, Taman Hoover, 05-255-7330). Fish head curry (with cockles, treated the way Thais treat fresh bird’s eye chilies), homemade fish balls, and the inevitable char kway teow (broad rice noodles wok-fried in soy sauce and garlic) finished off the meal.
The next day was devoted almost exclusively to street food: open-air shophouses jam-packed with tables and plastic stools, around which were grouped various vendors offering a whole range of dishes: curry mee (spicier in Ipoh than its cousins in KL or Penang), chee cheong fun (flat rice noodle squares in chili paste), hakka mee (curly noodles with minced braised pork), deliciously fluffy kaya-stuffed pau (steamed dumplings) and of course, laksa. Unlike Penang, Ipoh does not have its own laksa, but the Penang version (touched with tamarind and garnished with a raft of fresh herbs and veggies) is extremely popular.
Feeling as stuffed as a foie gras goose, I still managed to wolf down a few helpings of kaya toast (bread smeared with coconut jam and butter) because that stuff is manna from the gods.
We finished off our trip at a banana leaf spot, which ended up being a lotus leaf place called Tamara’s (36, Persiaran Greenhill, 012-642-8821), offering both Sri Lankan and South Indian specialties.
Our hosts refused to partake in the especially Ipoh-ian dishes known as salted chicken (which I get, it’s like being forced to eat pad Thai in Bangkok), but we did get to sample it, along with the ubiquitous hor hee (fish soup noodles with fish won tons, meatballs and of course an avalanche of bean sprouts) at the home of local food celebrity SeeFoon Chan, who regularly writes her own food column on Ipoh cuisine for the Ipoh Echo.
The 73-year-old SeeFoon is a former model and beauty queen whose work as a journalist and in the hotel industry has taken her all over the world. Yet she has chosen to settle down in Ipoh, despite not even being an Ipoh native. She is, in fact, Singaporean. What she looks for most, she says, is authenticity, a quality that the food in Ipoh seems to have in spades. Fingers crossed it doesn’t change anytime soon.