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Malaysia: Ipoh, the Quiet Achiever

Usually thought of as a quick stop between Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Ipoh is quietly coming up the ranks as a tourist destination in its own right.  Little laneways with historic shophouses, classic Malay dishes with serious reputations to uphold and tiny vintage cafes popping up, Ipoh is steadily establishing a firm foothold in charisma and confidence.  Of course Malaysians and Chinese tourists have long known about the regional specialities of Malaysia’s 19th century tin mining town, but it will be hard to keep this a local secret for long.

By the time we rode into Ipoh it was early evening, with little time to research before the hangry pangs took over.  No need to worry though because the intersection of Yau Tet Shin and Datuk Tahwil Azar is all you need to know.  Make your way to these crossroads at around 6pm, and radiate your way outwards to anything that catches your eye.  The Ipoh dinner crowd will be your guide, spilling out from the many plastic tables along the restaurants and sidewalks.

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Walls are plastered with huge posters advertising the best sellers.

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Restaurant rivals battle it out for the most loyal customer base, like Lou Wang and Ong Kee, who are competitively located across the road from each other, each one serving up their take on one of Ipoh’s legendary dishes: bean sprout chicken.

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Ong Kee won out for us, not because of loyalty or reviews, actually just for the young servers sporting mohawks and tattoos.  It didn’t disappoint, this was one of the best meals we had in Malaysia.  Dry hor fun or flat rice noodles are tossed simply in a savoury dark soy sauce, with a dash of sesame and shallot oil.  Succulent poached chicken, with your choice of breast, thigh or other, and a plate full of fresh crunchy stubby bean sprouts.  On the table is a huge box of fresh chopped green chilies, instantly clearing out your nose as you open it.  Add spoonfuls of everything into your bowl and dig in.  

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By the next morning we were already focused on breakfast and went kopitam (coffee shop) hopping.  That’s just something we made up because we couldn’t decide on one dish only.

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Kopitams are a small bunch of stalls and tables sharing an area.  The decor looks like it hasn’t changed since the 70’s, plain and basic.  But the quality lies in the food.

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The dishes are plated on a riot of coloured plastic.

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The drinks stall is usually run by the owner, who also serves breakfast items like kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs.  Spaces are leased to other stalls specialising in a particular dish; from anything to noodles to roast meats, or satays etc.  We had a few plates of chee cheong fun, silky scrolls of steamed rice noodles served simply with soy, chilli sauce, crunchy deep-fried shallots and toasted sesame seeds.

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Trays of custard tarts, flaky pastries with lotus paste or red bean, and curry puffs are lined up outside, ready to be quickly tallied up by an Auntie.

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Roast meat stalls, with slabs of crackling pork and perfectly browned chickens, ready to be unhooked and chopped over beds of rice, garnished with slices of cucumber.

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Wanting to end on a sweet note?  Don’t mind if we do.  Again, ignore the decor and look for the lineups.  For example this unassuming soya bean curd shop had a tiny counter and only two tables.  But don’t be fooled.

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This is Lai Kee Soya specializing in taufufar, soft bean curd with three choices of syrup, dark palm sugar, plain ‘pandan’ or ginger syrup.  If you’re a ginger fan, get the ginger syrup.  Trust me.  Fresh ginger and sugar has been boiled down into a spicy, comforting syrup, along with super soft ladles of fresh soya bean curd.  One bowl at RM 1.30/$0.45 AUS.

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Even the tiniest of street stalls with only one stack of steamers, reveals something delicious.  Steamed buns filled with custard, black sesame or peanut paste.

When we realized breakfast had seamlessly rolled into lunch it was already too late.  We had become unsuspecting participants of the food marathon that is Ipoh.  This town never seems to stop eating.  Thankfully the surrounding streets are filled with nostalgic architectural gems, relics from the tin mining boom from the 1870’s onwards, and are beautiful to walk among.

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Ipoh definitely has a hipster vibe coming up fast with little vintage coffee shops sprouting up here and there.

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Plan B‘s glass, steel and urban decor stands out from the historic shopfronts, and is very popular with the coffee crowd.

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And just round the corner is Milk Cow, serving up soft serves with ingredients sourced from organic farms, with a pyramid of fresh honey comb.

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And thus ending our Ipoh gluttony.  But we’ll be back.  Oh yes, we’ll be back.

Ong Kee Restaurant
48/51/53 Jalan Yau Tet Shin, 30300 Ipoh, 12pm-2am

Sin Yoon Loong White Coffee
15A Jalan Bandar Timah, Ipoh 30000, 6am-4pm

Thean Chun Coffee Shop
73 Jalan Bandar Timah, 30000 Ipoh, breakfast and early lunch

Ipoh Kong Heng Restaurant
75 Jalan Bandar Timah,30000 Ipoh, breakfast-late lunch

Nasi Kandar Yong Suan
2 Jalan Yang Kalsom, 30250 Ipoh, M-F 10am – 5pm, weekends 10am-3pm

Lai Kee Soya
38 Jalan Theatre, Taman Jubilee, 30300 Ipoh, 10am-7pm

Plan B.
75 Jalan Panglima, 30000 Ipoh, 10am-12am

Milk Cow
1 Jalan Panglima, 30000 Ipoh, 11am-9pm

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