Malaysia Gourmet Traveller

Hidden Wealth

Once the country's tin-mining capital, Ipoh is Malaysia's 'city of millionaires'. Although it's not visible on the surface, the city is a vault of culinary tradition and treasure trove of history, says Michael Raffael.

Travel Information

Malaysia’s national currency is the ringgit, and the time is eight hours ahead of GMT. The average high temperature in Ipoh in November is 32C and the average low, 24C. The area is situated in Perak, about a two-hour drive north from Kuala Lumpur. Flights from the UK to the capital take about 12.5 hours.

GETTING THERE
Malaysia Airlines operates a daily direct service from London Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur from £480 return. malaysiaairlines.com British Airways also offers daily flights from £500 return. http://ba.com

RESOURCES
Tourism Malaysia has news, events and advice, as well as regional guides for exploring the whole of the country. For ideas, itineraries and tips about Ipoh and beyond, visit http://malaysia.travel/en/uk

CARBON COUNTING
To offset your emissions, visit climatecare.org where donations go towards supporting environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London produce 2.94 tonnes CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £22.07.

Malaysia’s North-South Expressway threads its way through the centre of the peninsula. Three hours out of Kuala Lumpur, the landscape shifts. Karst crags echoing southern China’s Guilin jut skywards from the jungle. Seen through the eyes of a romantic, they’re a warren of caves glittering with quartz and shiny with marble. The source of hot springs and Taoist temples are buried away inside, but seen through the eyes of hard-nosed industrialists – and there are a few of them in Ipoh – they’re a potential mountain of valuable concrete.

Throughout the country, people still refer to Ipoh as ‘the city of millionaires’ but it doesn’t look remotely wealthy. It has none of the visible signs of tiger economies; no Petronas Twin Towers like Kuala Lumpur. The Kinta River splits the centre in two – the old town and the new town – however, it’s hard to separate them. Both halves overlap the turn of the 20th century. Then, the great tin rush was at its height. Fortunes were there for the making.

Besides a once-gleaming railway station, built as a symbol of imperial prosperity, and a clutch of public buildings, it’s dusty and functional. In the centre of the old town you’ll find Concubine Lane, or Yi Lai Hong. Legend has it that rich Chinese miners and British officers kept their mistresses here during the city’s boom times. However, that was a cover for the clandestine opium and gambling dens that had been set up behind shuttered windows.

Calling Ipoh a Chinese city in a multicultural country could be considered contentious. The main thoroughfares of Jalan Sultan Idris Shah and Jalan Raja Musa Aziz are Malay, while Cantonese, Hakka and Teochew names dominate buildings. It’s the state capital of Perak, although the palace of the current Sultan, Dr Nazrin Shah, is in Kuala Kangsar, some 30 minutes away.

Preserving its architectural heritage does not figure high on Ipoh’s list of priorities but civic pride for the reputation of its food does. Hawkers may no longer ply their trade on tricycles - those were banned a generation ago – but the skills they honed have survived in the countless eating houses and market stalls.

Sar hor fun (chicken noodle soup) is on the breakfast menu at M Boutique Hotel. The flat rice noodles, perfect for slurping, glide down the gullet velvet-smooth. The hotel does a mean Ipoh white coffee, too. A kind of proto-cappuccino, its top is frothy rather than foamy and the texture is richer. The ‘white’ doesn’t just refer to the milk. In the Malay Peninsula, coffee blenders add ghee (clarified butter) or margarine and caramelised sugar to the beans while toasting them to a dark chocolate colour. When drunk black it’s known as kopi o but back in the Thirties, Ipoh’s mining community was partial to a lighter bean that was roasted without sugar and they also preferred it blended with condensed milk.

Nam Heong is one of several kedai (shops) which claims to have launched the fashionable drink. It’s the flagship store of the 200-strong Old Town White Coffee franchise. Outside the original shop in Jalan Bandar Timah, stallholders rent pitches where they sell their char kway teow (a stir-fried noodle dish), delicious custard tarts and crispy deep-fried shredded turnips.

Ipohans are picky eaters. When they order a bowl of curry mee, they know exactly what they want: a hot soup spiked with sambal made from chilli and shrimp paste, egg noodles and a slice of lime. Beyond that, each stall or restaurant will add its own twist: tofu or pork, some greens and perhaps mint. And if the waiter gets the wink, he may even bring out an extra bowl of sambal.

What melons are to Cavaillon or new potatoes are to Jersey, tauge bean sprouts are to Ipoh. The cognoscenti appreciate them for their extra crunch, attributed to the hard water from the limestone hills. Grown in Buntong, an outer suburb, they need watering every four-and-a-half hours during the six days it takes for them to sprout and plump up. Experts pick from the middle of the barrels in which they grow.

At Onn Kee, a cook in Wellingtons is given the sole job of blanching them for precisely 15 seconds. The restaurant is the stand-out purveyor of ayam tauge (chicken and bean sprouts), but this isn’t just any old chicken. Customers have a choice of farm, Ameraucana or kampong (reared on smallholdings in villages) birds. They are simmered in broth, cooled and then poached once more so that the herbs and spices penetrate the flesh.

The sign above the door at Gerai Rahamath, a mamak (Indian- Malay-Muslim) eating house, advertises nasi kandar. Around town it’s known as ‘opium rice’. In the middle of the day, queues for it can stretch out into the street. There’s nothing special about the white rice and the mutton on top may be on the tough side – for £1 per portion it won’t have been flown in from New Zealand – but its active ingredient is gravy, a blend of all the spiced sauces the cooks can ladle on to it. The food may look ugly but it’s pungent and addictive.

For the same price as a serving of nasi kandar you can buy one limau Tambun pomelo. Farmed in Tambun on the outskirts of the city, the oversized grapefruits are the size of cannonballs and weigh more than 1kg each. They have a symbolic and gustative value. Taoists often hang them beside family shrines as an offering during the Mid-Autumn Festival and they are meant to bring prosperity. More prosaic clients buy them for their taste. As with durians, those spiky outsized conkers, a whole lot of flim-flam surrounds their selection. Someone in the know may squeeze the stalk and nipple end to test for ripeness. They will balance it knowingly to check that it feels heavy for its size. What matters more is whether it’s sweet or sour. Customers have to specify which they want and – caveat emptor – it is sold as bought.

Menglembu, a dormitory suburb, is on the back road to Kuala Kangsar, where the Sultan has his official residence. Its wet market sells pomeloes where nobody inflates the price for passing tourists. Here, Malay, Indian and Chinese food cultures overlap. Aside from the fresh produce, the food stalls are as good as in the old town. Roast pork chops are golden with crisp fat; steamed won tons are handmade; so are the chee cheong fun (rice noodle rolls). Luk-luk, skewered titbits, are animal, vegetable and possibly mineral. If you look hard enough, you might even find a wood-fired burger.

Sweet snacks tickle the palate wherever you walk. Wearing an LA Lakers cap, standing behind his scooter, the putu mayam seller prepares his little parcels of angels’ hair flavoured with pandan (a green tropical plant), jaggery (cane sugar) and grated coconut. Rice cakes are liberally doused in black sugar and fried shallots.

The Sultan of Perak’s palace, Istana Iskandariah, give or take the gilded onion domes, looks similar to Ipoh station. The museum dedicated to his late father, Azlan Shah (Malaysia’s elected king for 15 years), displays everything from his extensive collection of swords to Swiss watches, Louis Vuitton luggage and Rolls Royces. His family’s penchant for Western goodies goes back to the 19th century. At an 1878 banquet for the visiting maharajah, the dessert included plum pudding and custard.

Western influence, however, hasn’t seeped into the populace’s diet. Zaliah Ibrahim and Saidi Othman’s Teratak Warisan Kampung is pure Peraki. Foraged herbs bring the jungle into their restaurant. You’ll find the likes of staghorn fern, wild mint, beluntas (sweet scent) and sambung nyawa (leaves of the gods). Their ulam raja – ‘the king’s salad’ – combines both culinary and medicinal virtues. ‘Zaliah’s cooking is the same as her mother and grandmother’s, except for the banana leaf on which they served it,’ says husband Saidi. ‘It’s our heritage, village food that everybody once ate.’ That may be so of the bowl of gulai lemak siput, snails simmered in coconut milk. Eating them is atavistic and noisy, à la Hannibal Lecter. And pecel, a roasted and pounded peanut and vegetable salad, has a depth of flavour that is rare to find outside homes. On the other hand, though, udang galah (a freshwater prawn the size of a lobster) floating in a delicious lemongrass and galangal (ginger) soup would be fit to serve up to a maharajah.

Ikan pekasam (preserved fish) is still part of an everyday Malay diet. Supermarkets stock it in vacuum pouches. Zaliah’s version is more tangy than those. Lake or river fish are filleted and brined with dry-roasted rice until they have fermented. Then they are coated in more browned rice and fried until the surface becomes crunchy. Seasoned with a squeeze of lime and scatttering of chilli, they transform plain steamed rice. Saidi suggests accompanying this with a glass of limau asam boi, a lime and dried sour plum cordial. It might also go down a treat with the ‘snow beer’ from Kafe Sun Yoon Wah in the old town. To avoid what Wikipedia calls disambiguation, this isn’t China’s bestselling branded lager. It’s named after the instant spume that is created when the waiter empties ice-cold Tiger or Carlsberg into frozen glasses.

Han Chin Villa, the Hakka tin miners’ club, survives today as a local history museum. Curious tableaux hint at a past when members smoked opium pipes, fondled dancing girls and gambled away all their earnings. For thrills and spills, their descendants now spend a wholesome day out at the Lost World of Tambun, a nearby theme park and spa where they can bask in hot springs, zorb like hamsters, visit the petting zoo or pan for tin.

Ironically, the old town itself is the real ‘lost world’, still intact generations after the mines closed. Kedai Kopi Kong Heng’s sar hor fun combining chicken and prawns is legendary. Above it is a guesthouse designed by the architect Ng Sek San. His avant-garde conversion, two signature glass box rooms and a rooftop pool are invisible from the street. Nobody sipping a cup of Ipoh white coffee on the street below could even suspect its existence. It may be a while before Concubine Lane receives any such facelift. But if it does happens, it won’t be at any price. Ipohans would never sacrifice a bowl of noodles for a polished facade.

Where to Stay

The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat A luxury wellness spa resort in Tambun, with elegant chalets, a steamy lake, equally steamy cave, meditation cave and a Swiss management team. Villas from £250 per night. No.1 Persiaran Lagun Sunway 3, Sunway City, Ipoh 31150, 00 605 210 7777, http://thebanjaran.com

Ipoh French Hotel A budget hotel but ideal for foot soldiers who want to explore. Rooms are modern, comfortable and smoke-free. Stock the fridge with your own refreshments rather than pay minibar prices. From £23 per night. 60 Jalan Dato Onn Jaafar, Ipoh 30300, 00 605 241 3030, http://frenchhotel.com.my

M Boutique Hotel Sensible base to spend a couple of nights in Ipoh. The front of house is littered with bygones. Rooms are small but quiet. Breakfasts are the Malaysian kind. From £26 per night. 2 Hala Datuk 5, Ipoh 31650, 00 605 255 5566, http://mboutiquehotels.com

Majestic Hotel Assuming you fly in and out of Kuala Lumpur when exploring Malaysia, treat yourself to a night here. Its afternoon tea is as sought after as the Ritz’s. Suites in the Colonial Wing from £110 per night and the Tower Wing from £80 per night. 5 Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, Kuala Lumpur 50000, 00 603 2785 8000, http://majestickl.com

Sekeping Kong Heng One of a small group of personalised, designer B&Bs;. It’s the closest Ipoh gets to modernism. In contrast, there’s a famous old-fashioned coffee shop that has some of the best food in town on the ground floor. Rooms from £35 per night. 74 Jalan Bandar Timah, Ipoh 30000, 00 601 2227 2745, http://sekeping.com/kongheng

Where to Eat

Medan Selera Stadium One of several food courts, it has a mix of stalls selling both sweet and savoury dishes from the Chinese, Malay and Mamak communities. It’s busy from sunset until the early hours. Ipoh-born actress Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame comes here. From £4 for two people. Just off Jalan Ghazali Jawi

Ming Court The atmosphere at this breakfast dim sum restaurant is hyperactive. Waitresses bustle round the packed room with trays of food that are immediately snapped up. It’s provincial yum-yum rather than refined dining Hong Kong style. From £2-£8 for two people. 32-36 Jalan Leong Sin Nam, 00 605 255 7134

Nam Heong Possible home of Ipoh white coffee but also an eating house surrounded by a clutch of hawker stalls. It’s always busy. When you order the coffee be sure to grab a house egg tart too. It’s made with flaky pastry and a sunburst yellow filling. From 75p for coffee and tart. 2 Jalan Bindar, 00 601 2588 8766

Onn Kee An unforgettable name to describe the top ayam tauge restaurant in town (there are other contenders). It opens at 10am and goes on serving until 2am. Packed at nights, it’s much easier to find a seat in the middle of the day. From £4 for two people. Jalan Yau Tet Shin, 00 019 564 6161, onnkee.com

Teratak Warisan Kampung Family restaurant in Kuala Kangsar that serves up Peraki food. Every dish is prepared from the freshest ingredients and has subtle, satisfying flavours. Try and go at the start of the midday service when the pots have just finished simmering. Don’t miss out on the giant freshwater prawns. £10 for two if you order almost everything on the menu. 2 Jalan Seri Maju, 00 601 6558 4955

Don't miss

Ayam Garam It’s just a takeaway food shop selling Hakka whole salted chicken but it would be unforgiveable to visit Ipoh and not buy one. 75 Laluan Tasek Perdana Galeri Sultan Azlan Shah The old palace honouring the late sultan Azlan Shah. The beautiful Ubudiah Mosque is next door. Bukit Chandan, Kuala Kangsar 33000, 00 605 777 5362, gsas.perak.gov.my Menglembu Market A market in an outer suburb, it has masses of food stalls among the fruit, meat and vegetables on offer. Laluan Timur 10, Menglembu, 31450. Tempurung Between Gopeng and Ipoh, this is the largest cave complex in Malaysia. The restaurant there does an interesting laksa served in a coconut shell. Tempurung, Gopeng 31600, 00 601 7527 1926.

Food Glossary

  • Ayam garam: Chicken wrapped in layers of paper and then baked in salt
  • Ayam tauge: Bean sprout chicken
  • Chee cheong fun: Ipoh’s take on Cantonese flat rice noodles, served with curry or mushroom sauce
  • Curry mee: Sold in ‘wet’ and ‘dried’ version; egg noodles flavoured with a curry paste and added ingredients
  • Gulai lemak siput: Snails simmered in coconut milk
  • Ikan pekasam : Fermented fish fried in a rice crust
  • Kacang putih : Indian Bombay mix-style snack food
  • Kuih : Malaysian glutinous cakes, usually made with rice
  • Limau asam boi: Lime and sour plum drink
  • Limau Tambun pomelo : A large native citrus fruit
  • Luk-luk: Nibbles on sticks sold in markets
  • Nasi kandar: Steamed rice with curry
  • Nasi lemak: Traditional breakfast dish of fragrant rice, salted fish and peanuts
  • Pandan: The leaves of this tropical plant are used in both sweet and savoury dishes in South-East Asian cooking
  • Putumayam : Sweet hawker snack with pandan-flavoured angel’s hair and finely grated coconut
  • Rendang udang galah : Simmered freshwater prawn
  • Sar hor fun: Ipoh’s signature rice noodle soup. The noodles have a unique silky texture

Michael Raffael and Mark Parren Taylor travelled to Ipoh courtesy of Tourism Malaysia http://malaysia.travel/en/uk and Malaysia Airlines

This article was published on 21st October 2016 so certain details may not be up to date.

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