Malaysians are beginning to discover that Ipoh has much to offer gourmands. Just thinking about it is enough to help CASEY NG work up an appetite.
THE road is choked with traffic from dawn to dusk. The clanging of cups and bowls as well as orders for food and drinks hollered from across the street often reach deafening decibles.
Yet, Ipoh folk can’t think of a better place to have a cuppa than at one of the coffeeshops along Jalan Bandar Timah.
Apart from its limestone outcrops and pretty girls, Ipoh is famous for its food novelties like white coffee, ngah choy kai (beansprouts and chicken) and hor fun that give visitors enough reasons to make the city one of their favourite destinations for food in the country.
In a city where food forms its historic core, one can expect the sediments of its past to show in quaint restaurants, street stalls and the multi-racial behind-the-scene cooks.
To tantalise your tastebuds, this is an account of an insider’s experiences along Ipoh’s gourmet trail that will make you postpone your diet.
A Little Bit Of History
Before we start, it’s important to know a little about Ipoh’s history. Tin was the very reason the city began and the Kinta River was a crucial transport artery that linked tin-rich areas like Ulu Kinta, Batu Gajah, Malim Nawar and Papan. Ipoh was the stopover for tin smelting and other commercial dealings.
Although Batu Gajah was the preferred hub during British governance, Ipoh’s popularity among rich landowners, planters and tin miners soared when social clubs, restaurants, cabarets, gambling dens and drinking bars started dotting its environs.
Population growth gained momentum and by 1937, Ipoh had become the capital of Perak.
When tin prices fell after World War II, the riverfront town never regained its former lustre. Today it forms an enclave fondly known as “Ipoh Old Town”.
While the city boundary continued to expand after Merdeka, the Old Town saw very little change owing to the Rent Control Act 1966 that classified shophouses as “pre-war buildings” and made it illegal for landlords to impose high rentals.
In turn, the low rental meant landlords could not do much to change the buildings.
That, in a way, helped the old settlement preserve its character, way of life and, of course, its food businesses.
Dos & Don’ts
Don’t just step out and follow your nose.
Here are some pointers to help you blend into Ipoh’s culinary scene.
1. Some hawkers, especially busy ones, are often impatient when it comes to taking orders. They expect you to know what you want and won’t bother to explain the menu. Don’t worry, just look at what others are eating before you order.
2. From September this year, the coupon system for parking was implemented. So stop feeding the parking meter (many are still around) and buy yourself some coupons.
3. “Can you wait 30 minutes?” That’s the question that will often greet you during peak breakfast and lunch hours. Cooks take their time to do every dish correctly, so be patient. Sit back, relax and wait.
4. It’s best to scour the streets in the day because Old Town starts to wind down after 5pm. However, there are still some outlets colouring the night scene.
5. Besides food, keep a look out for shops that sell antiques, rattan items, traditional kitchenware and other customary knickknacks.
There’s enough to keep you walking to build up a good appetite.
Where To Eat
Now, let’s go eat. Old Town is strung together by countless eateries and making a choice can be hard. So, here we give you only timetested food joints and most importantly, a good mix that best depicts Ipoh’s food scene.
FMS BAR AND RESTAURANT:
No trail is complete without first mentioning the oldest surviving food joint in Ipoh and possibly the country. Yes, FMS is celebrating its 100 years bash this year. Founded in 1906 by a Hainanese settler, FMS stands for “Federated Malay States” and it was frequented by European miners and planters in the old days.
The first floor restaurant is where lunch and dinner (mainly Chinese food) is served while the ground floor pub is a favourite hangout for lawyers and high society looking for a pint and to unwind.
Centred in Ipoh’s banking hub, Miner’s Arm has been dishing out reasonably priced western food for over 30 years. Its cosy interiors resemble an English pub and its walls are decorated with tin mining mementos. Old-timers also throng the eatery in attempts to relive their youthful days – and first dates.
KEDAI KOPI KONG HENG:
One of the oldest kopitiams in Ipoh, this is where ex-Ipoh folk come to grab a quick bite whenever they’re back for the holidays. The place still serves food on white marble-topped tables.
The must-eats are popiah, cuttlefish and kangkung, kai see hor fun and lobak.
KEDAI KOPI NAM CHAU:
Although relatively new to the food scene, this is fast making a name for its outstanding dry curry mee. Its buns and coffee are worth ordering too. Service is fast and friendly.
EDAI MAKANAN SENG FATT:
People come here for the best lam mee, kai see hor fun, wat kai (literally meaning “smooth” chicken) and ngah choy. Formerly operating in a small shop in Market Street, it relocated to a new corner shop to accommodate the growing clientele.
RESTORAN WONG KOH KEE:
If you mentioned “Lorong Panglima” in the mid- 1900s, locals would give you the sly look because back then, this was a red light area with the epithet yee lai hong, meaning “mistress lane”.
Flanked by tattered shophouses, today, the lane’s joie de vivre is long gone and Wong Koh Kee is the only reason why people still come here. Open for lunch only, its Chinese menu includes dishes that grandma used to serve.
KEDAI KOPI SIN YUAN LOONG:
As far as Ipoh white coffee is concerned, this kopitiam leads the pack in Jalan Bandar Timah. The operators’ mastery in coffee brewing is attested by the crowd that never ceases from dawn to 6pm.
Must-eats include roti bakar that goes superbly well with the coffee. Ipoh white coffee may look lighter but it is surely not short of oomph.
HAJI DAUD MAT JASAK:
At the junction of Jalan Sultan Iskandar and Jalan Datuk Jaafar Onn is Ipoh’s most celebrated Malay-run Chinese food stall.
That’s right. For the past 20 years, Mat Jasak’s family has been dishing out char kuay teow, yong tau foo, mee kicap and kari mee from dawn to dusk with a brief rest between 2pm and 5pm.
OMAR NASI KANDAR AYAM MERAH:
Here is where locals go for nasi kandar specialities — and of course ayam merah. Located at the quiet end of Jalan Bijeh Timah overlooking Kinta Heights flats, Omar Bahirathan’s family has been keeping customers happy with a distinctive ayam merah for many decades.
The proprietor claims to sell 40 chickens daily and 60 on weekends.
Its location near a pedestrian bridge over the Kinta River makes it easy for Old Town residents to stop by for some home-cooked Indian Muslim food.
NASI KANDAR HUSSEIN:
You’d need the help of a true blue Ipoh resident to find Nasi Kandar Hussein. Hidden in Sagor Food Court near the State Mosque, this nasi kandar stall has been attracting food aficionados for the past 40 years.
Nowadays, those running the stall are decades older than most of the customers; you may need to edge closer and speak louder to make your orders heard. Definitely the place for some spicy buzz.
Don’t fight over which is the best restaurant in Little India. After all, it’s the fierce competition among the restaurants dotting Jalan Lahat-Jalan Sultan Yusoff that helps keep standards high. Most are equally good in dishing out Indian staples like thosai, appalam, idlli, puri, and of course, banana-leaf rice.
Of late, restaurants specialising in Chettinad food have mushroomed. Apart from food, keep your eyes peeled for colourful flower garland peddlers and striking saree shops.
Ipoh is located midway between Penang and Kuala Lumpur. It takes two hours to reach Ipoh from KL via the PLUS highway. Once you exit the highway, make your way to the Old Town with the lofty Kinta Heights flats as your landmark.
The flats are visible from miles away. You’d know you have arrived when the roads start to narrow and whitewashed shophouses dot the townscape.