When in Ipoh, eat, eat, eat!

I have lived by that motto for nineteen years, and I still do whenever I go back to Ipoh, that's my hometown where I was born and grew up in Malaysia. Ipoh (ee-poh) is approximately 200km north of Kuala Lumpur, not much of a tourist destination I must admit, but it is not uncommon for the out-of-towners to make an effort and drive across the state borders, all the way into Ipoh town for one thing - FOOD. Ipoh is well known as a glutton's paradise. I simply can't leave my hometown out of our food tour and happy to show the food bloggers what this city has to offer.

Lou Wong Restaurant

Ipoh is famous for its rice noodle, the thin flat white noodle is silky soft and slippery smooth. As many locals believe that the spring water in Ipoh, sourced from limestone hills nearby, is rich in mineral which yields better quality noodles. You simply can't come to Ipoh without trying the rice noodle and the best way to enjoy it is definitely with the humble poached white chicken and bean sprouts, a local signature dish. And one of the best places to try this dish is definitely at Lou Wong Restaurant in newtown Ipoh.

This restaurant is extremely busy particularly at night time, and we actually have to stand aside and wait for an empty table. Don't expect fine dining treatment, but simply grab a table, pull a few stools together and sit down, a waiter will soon come over to take the order.

Lou Wong Restaurant has been a popular institution among the locals and tourists for as long as I can remember. Everyone comes here only for one thing, the poached white chicken with bean sprouts, served with a bowl of Ipoh rice noodle soup.

The chicken is ninja-chopped to bite sizes, tender and juicy from the poaching cooking method, happily soaking up the light soy sauce and sesame oil, garnished with coriander, shallots, chillies and a generous pinch of white pepper.

Did I mention the 'magic' water in Ipoh has healing power? *~Just joking* But it actually does enhance the growth of Ipoh's bean sprouts. They are stout and extra crunchy, without the grass-like aftertaste. Yes, we do take our bean sprouts very seriously in Ipoh.

"Do you want fish balls?" the waitstaff asks us. The fish balls are made with lye water that gives that extra bounciness when you bite into it. It's embarrassing to admit that my chopstick skills are actually quite hopeless (being left handed is my excuse) and always find myself chasing after a bouncy fish ball rolling down the table.

Thean Chun Coffee Shop

'Eating' in Ipoh is an extreme sport I tell you! We are definitely going for gold with our breakfast at Thean Chun coffee shop, one of the oldest and most famous kopitiam located in Ipoh Old Town. This is one of the few places left in Malaysia that still uses antique wooden chairs and marble top dining tables. Imagine the kopitiam like a mini food court, all set up inside a terrace house with food stalls lined up outside the verandah offering a variety of breakfast options whilst inside is crowded with hungry customers.

I always feel intimidated and overwhelmed by the service every time I walk into this restaurant. Before we even get the chance to sit down, we are swamped by a horde of hawkers competing with each other to get our attention to make sure we order food from their stall. We can't help but feel obligated to order food from each stall, not necessarily is a bad thing I suppose.

I have to agree with Minh, I will never get tired of noodle soup, it is truly the breakfast for champions. Here we are again having a bowl of Kai Si Hor Fun each, hot rice noodle soup warms the heart, with shreds of juicy chicken meat, tender cooked prawns and garlic chives are just so comforting.

Of course, don't forget the bean sprouts!

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To fully enjoy a hearty breakfast, we have to have the Yong Tou Foo to compliment our noodle soup. Yong Tou Foo actually means stuffed bean curd with fish paste, but these days it applies to any food that has been prepared in this manner, including vegetables and fried fritters with stuffed fillings.

The options are endless, so long the fish paste can adhere to, stuffed green chilli, okra, bitter gould, bok choy, fried bean curd sheets, shiitake mushroom, but my all time favourite has to be the deep fried stuffed jicama (pic left). The chopped Jicama is mixed with potato starch then deep fried to a golden crunch on the outside with a chewy sensation on the inside.

Coffee is another specialty in Ipoh. Well, white coffee to be exact. Coffee snobs will probably disagree with this type of coffee, it is roasted with palm oil margarine for that extra caramel aroma and a lot sweeter than normal blends. Usually the white coffee is served either hot or cold with condensed milk, they are strong, intense and overly sweet, I love it! I am sure Minh will concur. ;)

I do have a soft spot for Chee Cheong Fun as breakfast. It is a simple dish of silky smooth Ipoh rice noodles in shiitake mushroom sauce and a light drizzle of sweet hoisin sauce, sprinkled with crispy fried shallots and sesame seeds for the extra crunch. If you want to go fancy, you can always ask for the curry version that comes with deep fried pork rinds with snake beans or the chicken feet version that doesn't really cost that much extra.

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We don't just stop at noodles of course, a huge plate of satay sticks are delivered to our table along with a bowl of spicy hot peanut satay sauce for dipping. These bite-sized satay sticks are grilled on hot charcoals for that extra smoky flavour. There are chicken liver and gizzards for the offal fans, but it is the chicken fillets that are devoured within seconds.

The plate is replenished just as fast, immediately topped up with more freshly grilled satay sticks by the vendor. I can sense Helen and Minh panicking with the extra replenishment as we didn't order more, and quickly explain to them that we are only charged by the number of sticks we eat. But it does make one wonder how long have those uneaten satay sticks been recycled from one table to another? This particular vendor was also used to be notorious many years ago for recycling the peanut satay sauce, any unfinished sauce will be tipped back into the big cooking pot for the next run. Hmm... dee.ree.cious... I believe they faced a hefty fine from the Food Safety Authority since that incident and never make the same mistake again. Well, fingers crossed.

Mun Choong Seafood Restaurant

A reunion dinner feast usually is on the itinerary, every time I go back to Malaysia to visit my family. Since I am the assigned tour leader to show the food bloggers around my hometown on this trip, it is also my privilege to introduce them to my family and invite them to join in for the feast at Mun Choong Seafood Restaurant. As soon as we step inside the restaurant, I think they are a little shell-shocked to see how big my family is...

And little did they know that I actually have more siblings who live abroad with their families and can't make it to the reunion dinner this evening. I am sure two tables of Billy's clones are overwhelming enough to keep them amused. Friends or family, food unites us all tonight over a 9 course Chinese dinner banquet.

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It doesn't take long for the first course to arrive. It is an enormous hot appetiser platter filled with seafood that has been prepared in many different ways. We synchronised-attack with our chopsticks, fight our way through a bundle of refreshing prawn and apple salad, comforting stir fried chicken and jicama, crunchy deep fried crab claws wrapped in crispy noodles, and the most unusual of the lot, a bowl of stewed tofu and fish maw. The fish maw is the swim bladder that contributes to fish's bouyancy, it is also a delicacy in Chinese cuisine (what's not really?) that many believes it helps blood circulation and beneficial to the general health.

Next dish is what I've been waiting for. In fact, it is the only dish I care about! A whole roasted suckling pig looks like a terracotta warrior, dressed in an armor made of golden tiles, each piece of crackling is impressively precise in shape, size and colour. The skin is exceptionally crispy and brittle like thin glass, ironically the pig is surrounded by a wall of white fluffy steamed buns which act almost like a shock absorber protection to prevent it from shattering into pieces by any slightest bump whilst being delivered to our table.

Hmm.... a golden blanket of crackling....

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I haven't been back to this restaurant for many years but sadly the seafood tonight is disappointing and not really up to their normal standards. The stir fried king prawns used to be a favourite of mine, it is salty, peppery and highly addictive MSG, but sadly the prawns seems have lost theirs freshness as we struggle to peel them with flesh sticking to the shell.

The steamed soy and ginger barramundi is also another let down. The freshwater fish is overcooked and a little on the dry side, the flesh has lost its silky smoothness and with a muddy aftertaste.

Our banquet continues with crispy skin chicken. The whole chicken is roasted then basked in hot oil for that extra crispy skin, but sadly the meat is also a little dry and flossy. The kids are more interested in the prawn crackers that come with it.

The only vegetarian dish in the banquet is the Luo Hon Zhai, also known as the Buddha's Delight. (MasterChef fans, does this dish look familiar to you?) ;) That's right, it is the dish I served the Dalai Lama. There are some much needed greens after all the meaty dishes.

The Buddha's Delight is beautifully presented as a parcel made of fried bean curd skin, served on a big platter covered in mushroom sauce, and inside is a jumble of stir fried vegetables including mixed mushrooms, baby corn, bok choy, cauliflower, carrot and wombok.

If that's still not enough food, the last savory dish is usually a carbohydrate filler, with the options of either rice or noodle. Despite the special fried rice is packed with lup cheong and prawns, no one can really find more space in their stomachs to fit it in. It usually ends up in the doggy bag for the dogs.

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Our epic banquet concludes with something sweet, Wo Bing, which is a fried pancake filled with pandan lotus paste. The pancake is shallow fried with a nice golden pastry shell that is flaky although a tad oily, filled with piping hot sweet lotus paste filling on the inside.

A bowl of iced longan syrup goes perfectly well with the hot pancake. Nothing fancy but simply tinned longan fruit served in icy cold sugar syrup. One last sip of the refreshing cold drink to cool our bodies down before stepping out of the restaurant into the balmy night.

I sadly bid my family farewell until god knows how long I will see them again. We head back to the hotel and call it an early night as we will be leaving Ipoh the next day to continue our food trip further north. Next stop, Penang.

Ipoh food, you'll be missed. Do you know that food programme on TV called something something No Reservation something, by that guy with the name something Anthony something Bourdain who eats around the world, I seriously think he should pay Ipoh a visit and try the food there. Don't you agree? ;)

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Lou Wong Tauge Ayam Kuetiau
49, Jalan Yau Tet Shin,
30000 Ipoh

Thean Chun Coffee Shop 73, Jalan Bandar Timah
Ipoh Old Town,
30000 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia

Mun Choong Seafood Restaurant (Pusing Public Seafood Restaurant) 57-65 Jalan Verasamy,
Ipoh, Perak, Perak, Malaysia
Ph: 605 241 9348