Ipoh-licious

blackpeppercrab

Crab with black pepper, curry leaves and dried shrimp at Crab House

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.

 

giphy

 

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.

fishskinsalad

We were made to pose this way

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).

duck

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.

charkwayteow

Char kway teow

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.

cheecheongfun

Chee cheong fun

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.

kayatoast

Kaya toast at Dong@22 Hale Street

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.

ipohsrilanka

Sri Lankan chicken curry at Tamara’s

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.

durian

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Ipoh-licious

  1. Henrique De Abreu Braga

    Greetings from Brazil here. A couple of days ago I watched your show on Discovery Channel. Very interesting points on how cultural exchange and time also shape culinary aspects of a country. After a 20th century with globalization making cultures and traditions spread so much, it is hard to define what “traditional food” really is. Also the evolution of food habits in Brazil is perhaps even more overwhelming since we were colonized five centuries ago and resources were scarce back then. Next April, my fianceé and I will be spending our honeymoon in Thailand. Since we are crazy about Thai food and we are so eager to eat at the street food markets! is there specific market that you recommend us to visit? Also, have you been to Upstairs at Mikkeller Bangkok? I’m a true beer geek, so I’m looking forward to pay them a visit. Your blog and the pictures are amazing. It is quite torturing to see the pictures right before lunch time 🙂 Wish you all the best and that you can beat depression quickly!

    • Thanks! I have been to Upstairs at Mikkeller, and had a nice set menu there. I really like the beer bar area and they have a lot of interesting beers you can take home. As for street food markets, maybe contact my friend Dwight at courageouskitchen.com — they do market tours and cooking classes. Have a great time in Thailand!

  2. SS

    How do you define one is better than the other, If they uses different ingredients and are of very different styles?

    • This is a good question. And even if it’s the exact same thing, who is to say whose opinion is best? For example, durian. Malaysians are always telling me how Thai durian is tasteless, while Thais like to say Malaysians like their durians messy and bitter. It’s a question of what is valued most, and that changes from country to country. That’s why it’s so easy to have an opinion.
      In my case, I’m simply basing it on the variety that I see in Thai street food, which I really haven’t found in equally tasty street food places like Taipei and KL. The number of different dishes, and the fact that vendors are still entrepreneurial enough to invent new dishes all the time (because they are not yet in food courts that force them to cook the same thing day after day) makes me think Thai street food is superior. So there’s your long-winded answer.

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