Everybody says go to Ipoh because the food is so good. We were there over the long May Day weekend, together with the hordes from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang who had all descended on the sedate capital of the Malaysian state of Perak.
And everyone came armed with lists of the best eating places because we kept running into each other at all the impossible-to-get-into coffeeshops everywhere.
Ipoh’s Old Town can only be described as a giant hawker centre where visitors lurch from coffeeshop to coffeeshop to sample the “Best of Ipoh”: There’s Ipoh Hor Fun here, popiah there, fried char kway teow and chee cheong fan somewhere else and the beef noodles in that other shop; and a few streets away, the best of everything else at yet another place. Further out, you must have yong tau foo under a tree in Pasir Pinji, boiled chicken and blanched beansprouts from a no-name restaurant in Buntong that only locals know about, and beancurd from a place called Funny Mountain.
The alleyways of Old Town are packed with pedestrians, and the streets are choked from mid morning with snaking lines of out-of-town cars looking for parking spots.
This is a funny time to discover that I don’t enjoy my food when there’s a heat wave, the coffeeshops are not air-conditioned, the waiting time can run between 20 minutes and an hour, the foodsellers look and act stressed, there are too many people eating too much and too many more are hovering too close, urging you wordlessly to hurry up and vacate your table because they are eager to sample the Best of Ipoh.
Luckily, our hipster hotel was located smack above two of the most popular coffeeshops and we could take away and eat comfortably in our air-conditioned room, which had a kitchenette with bowls, plates, forks and spoons.
And now I’ll commit heresy and say the food was good, but not the best discovery we made in Old Town. I didn’t find the one thing that made me go I Must Come Back For This, which is the effect the char kway teow at Penang’s Lorong Selamat has on me every single time, even after I’ve had two plates in quick succession.
Instead, my vote for the Best of Ipoh goes to a place called Han Chin Pet Soo, a lovely small museum in a corner of Old Town. It is in a beautiful 19th Century building at the top of Jalan Bijeh Timah, a stone’s throw from the Kinta River that separates Ipoh’s old and new towns.
My friend Paul Cheong shared his food guide with me and said the museum was worth a visit. He’s an Ipoh boy in Singapore and deserves to be made a Datuk for being such an enthusiastic food ambassador and tourism promoter for his hometown. When Paul talks about Ipoh, you want to go.
To visit Han Chin Pet Soo you have to book online for a guided tour, and I took the available spots for 9.30am on Sunday.
There’s a remarkable backstory that involves a Scotsman named Ian Anderson who spent most of his life in Southeast Asia and ended up in Ipoh, where he has become a devoted local historian and gatherer of artifacts. One thing led to another and IpohWorld was founded, and this is the heritage group that restored the decaying tin mine towkays’ club building and turned it into a museum offering a glimpse into the world of the 19th Century Chinese settlers who helped make Ipoh and the Kinta Valley the world’s largest producer of tin ore.
Museum host Leong Meng Fai was simply the best guide, who took our group through the three floors of the museum, telling stories about the Hakka towkays who formed an exclusive club in 1893 and never admitted a new member without 100 per cent support of all members. They came to their clubhouse to meet, eat, gamble and be entertained by the ladies allowed on the premises. It is no coincidence that there are three Concubine Lanes running parallel to one another just across the street. Some towkays had multiple wives and many more mistresses. They were also leaders of powerful Chinese secret societies.
The building has been beautifully restored, and some of the rooms are done up with life-sized models of reclining opium smokers, gamblers and female entertainers. Mr Leong taught us how to play fan tan, which must surely rank among the simplest ways to lose your pants gambling. The exhibits may not be exquisite but are altogether memorable for showcasing a bygone era, its characters and their way of life.
There’s a screening of an old black-and-white filmlet about tin mining in Perak, with fascinating footage of men and women doing back-breaking work to extract tin ore. They really lived such tough lives.
IpohWorld has done a fine job of preserving this slice of Ipoh’s history and presenting it so well. Hopefully, visitors who think this town is for food alone will stop eating for 90 minutes to visit this museum.
Entry is free, and although Mr Leong said donations for its upkeep are welcome, not everyone in our tour group gave. What a pity. This really is a visit worth paying for, because it was such a privilege to step off the street into a grand old building and the past.
Han Chin Pet Soo is at 3, Jalan Bijeh Timah, 30100 Ipoh, Perak. To book a tour and find out more about this heritage group’s devotion to keeping the past alive, go to www.ipohworld.org
And now. The story of Alan And The Dulang Washer
Visiting the Han Chin Pet Soo museum proved such a blast from my childhood, because there were so many reminders of the way things were. From the enamel tableware to the grinding stone in the kitchen, and the wire-mesh-and-wood meat safe in which cooked food was kept cool and away from flies, so many things were familiar to me because they were at home when I was growing up in Kuala Lumpur.
But nothing made my heart leap like the sight of the dulang washer model with her big straw hat, bicycle and basket. For a time when we lived in Jinjang North new village outside Kuala Lumpur, the bus ride to and from town took us past tin mining areas where KL’s Ipoh Road branched off to Batu Caves. Giant floating tin dredges were a sight I was familiar with long before I read about tin mining in geography lessons.
The bus passengers often included dulang washers, Chinese women in their distinct shirt and pants outfits and scarved headgear, holding their dulang, a wide and smooth, curved wooden dish. They were the humblest of tin miners, using the dulang to do the tedious job of swirling sand and water to sieve out tin ore to sell.
The story of Alan And The Dulang Washer was told numerous times by my older sister whenever I was caught making googly eyes and salivating at the sight of someone eating something delicious. It goes like this, and I’m not sure if I recall it because I remember it or because it got repeated so many times:
I must have been no older than six years old and on a packed bus heading for Jinjang when the bus stopped. A man was leaving the bus when one of his packages burst, several oranges tumbled out and he could not wait to retrieve them.
As the oranges rolled up and down the aisle, a dulang washer seated near me picked one up, peeled it and started eating. She was soon aware that I was eyeing her every move, watching enviously as she popped each juicy segment into her mouth and chewed. She didn’t stop munching as she looked at me, wrinkled her face and consoled me saying: “Tak manis lah.” (“Not sweet, lah.”)
I don’t know why I didn’t pick up an orange myself, but there you are, the reason why the dulang washer has always been a part of my life, and seeing one in the Han Chin Pet Soo museum made me happy.
Oh all right, the food, the food.
I’m just going to tell you where I went and list what I liked best.
And here are AJ’s Top 8 from Ipoh (Thank you Paul Cheong, for more recommendations than we had time or space in our bellies for.)
Number 1: Taugeh, Ipoh style. Short, crunchy and simply like no beansprouts anywhere else. I liked this best. This is from the Buntong shop with no name, but it was just as good from the Ipoh Kong Heng restaurant where we were served quickly.
Number 2: Chee Cheong Fan from Sin Lean Lee. The rice noodles are fine, soft, and so simply dressed with sweet and chilli sauces, sesame seeds, fried shallots and finely-cut pickled green chilli. I ate this twice in two days. The stallholders were so friendly despite the crush of customers and I liked the way the chef took such great care as he unrolled the noodle sheets to cut them.
Number 3: The Ipoh chicken everyone raves about. This is from the Buntong shop with no name, but we had to wait an hour. The best part is the delicate Ipoh rice noodles in a flavoursome broth. I also liked the Chicken Kuey Teow at Ipoh Kong Heng, where you get boneless chicken and a sliced prawn in a bowl of deliciousness and you don’t have to wait an hour. So this is a tie.
Number 4: Surprise, surprise! Penang prawn noodles, from Sin Lean Lee. The stallholder is this sweet older woman who takes her time and assembles this with pure love. It’s so plain to see, and it tastes so good. Not as chilli hot and shiok as in Penang, but pretty darn good.
Number 5: Funny Mountain beancurd. They call it tau foo fah like I know it from Kuala Lumpur too, and this is seriously worth waiting for. It’s not in the Old Town, and we had to take a cab to Jalan Theatre, which has a whole cluster of food shops too.
Number 6: Yong Tau Foo from under a tree in Pasir Pinji. I love beancurd and vegetables stuffed with fish paste anywhere I find it, and in Singapore it is so hard to find yong tau foo that is not mass produced. At Dai Shu Geok (Big Tree Foot) in Jalan King, the yong tau foo comes generously stuffed with fresh fish in a clean tasting broth. I didn’t care for the open-air venue under several big trees and when the houseflies turned up, this crashed to No.6.
Number 7: Ipoh fried noodles from Sin Lean Lee. The first stall in the shop is clearly the star attraction and I spent several minutes watching the chef frying and tossing his kway teow, and expertly adding the egg last and scooping it up to present it this way. It’s very different from char kway teow in Penang or Singapore, but tasty. Don’t be discouraged when the stallholder warns you it’ll take 45 minutes, it arrived in 15.
Number 8: Popiah from Ipoh Kong Heng. I’m a sucker for spring rolls of every sort, and especially popiah. We had popiah under the trees and again at Ipoh Kong Heng and this was superior in every pleasing way.
I’ll be back with Numbers 9 to 25 and perhaps shake up this list after I go to Ipoh again but for now, this is what I liked best. I’m not giving prices because too many horrible Singaporeans go around Ipoh stuffing their faces and trilling “So cheap, so cheap”. Stop it already. Just savour the good food, pay and be happy.
But I can’t end without this picture from Ipoh Kong Heng, and these good folks get my vote for the nicest stressed foodsellers I’ve seen anywhere.
I just wanted two bowls of Chicken Kuey Teow, and at this stall, they serve rice noodles in a delicious prawn-and-pork broth, topped with boneless chicken and one sliced prawn. It looked so good, I wanted it, but the stall helper said: “Cannot, cannot. Too many orders! One hour must wait, like that.” But I stayed and asked and asked and asked. Then the woman in the white scarf turned from dishing hot soup into bowls of noodles and said: “How many?” I said: “Two” She said: “Five minutes.” And in five minutes exactly, she handed me my order, and smiled! I was a happy man. Her partner on the left, who was chopping chicken non-stop, took in the stress of unending orders from the weekend hordes by singing over and over again: “Santa Claus is coming to town.” Always look on the bright side, folks.