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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ipoh, Malaysia: Tortoises, rojak and yong tau fu

Lion with incense sticks at Sam Poh Tong Chinese Buddhist Temple

You can take the boy out of Ipoh...

There's a palpable sense of excitement as we descend the winding roads of the Cameron Highlands and head towards the town of Ipoh. This is Billy's hometown and since the start of the trip, Billy has not stopped raving about the food of his childhood.

The increase in temperature is apparent as soon as we leave the mountains. Less than ninety minutes later, we reach Sam Poh Tong Chinese Temple, about five kilometres south of the quiet town of Ipoh. We pull open the doors of our air-conditioned van to be hit with a wall of humidity, the backs of our necks immediately prickling in the steaming heat.

Carvings at Sam Poh Tong Chinese Buddhist Temple
Carved deities

Sam Poh Tong was first discovered in 1912, a Chinese Buddhist temple set within a natural limestone hill. Since then, a collection of Buddha statues and religious deities have been placed in and around the caves. The caves are also known by their Malay name, Perak Tong.

A wizened old woman hovers at the entrance with large wilted bundles of kang kong water spinach. Billy immediately buys a bunch and I'm confused about its purpose until we walk through the caves and enter the rear gardens. There we find an enclosure holding a hundred or so tortoises, swimming lazily in the concrete pond or seeking refuge in the shade.

Tortoise at Sam Poh Tong Chinese Buddhist Temple
Tortoises like kang kong

We fling stalks of kang kong over the metal fence that separates us from the tortoises -- they immediately stir into action once they realise food is on offer. Their wrinkly necks crane this way and that as they shuffle in our direction, their leathery wrinkly limbs moving slowly but with resolute determination.

Tortoise at Sam Poh Tong Chinese Buddhist Temple

The tortoises eat the leaves first, chomping away hungrily until the stalk is stripped bare. As they come closer to where we're standing, it's fascinating to hear them eating, the sound of mechanical crunching that continues unabated.

Tortoise at Perak Tong Cave Temple
Tortoise party

The tortoises make short work of the green vegetables, and with only the debris of massacred stalks left behind, they shuffle back to the pond and slip into the water to cool off.

Tortoise at Sam Poh Tong Chinese Buddhist Temple
Tortoise says hi

Statue at Sam Poh Tong Chinese Buddhist Temple
Statue

An award-winning landscaped garden at the front of temple holds tranquil fish ponds, miniature bonsai scenes with tiny figures and and an ornate red pavilion.

Pebble path for barefoot therapy
Pebble path for barefoot reflexology therapy

Next door we find more gardens as well as an intriguing path made of pebbles set in concrete. Billy explains that locals use these paths as a form of reflexology, walking on them barefoot to stimulate pressure points in the feet.

Billy sets off barefoot - the trick, his father taught him, is to walk slowly and with even pressure. He's squawking with pain within seconds. Minh and I aren't game to go barefoot, but even with thongs on, we can feel the sharp unforgiving edges of the pebbles through the rubber soles.

We set off for Ipoh proper and soon find ourselves outside Billy's family's hardware shop. Hardware stores look the same the world over - a jumble of brooms and plastic hoses hanging from the ceiling, an army of paint tins along one wall, and an eclectic assortment of buckets, pipes and plastics jumbled out the front.

Billy's parents are gentle and quiet and full of smiles and it's a lovely moment when son is reunited with family on home soil.

But really, neither Billy nor his parents are ones for sentimental dilly-dallying. Once we are all introduced, Billy asks with insistence, "Where can we eat?"

Help-yourself fixings for noodle lunch
Help-yourself fixings for noodle soup

We're not particularly hungry in this heat, but Billy's parents suggest we try the fish cake shop a few doors down. It's always busy, they say, and apparently some people drive an hour just to eat there, they add with incredulity.

My eyes immediately light up as we come closer. The tables outside are scattered with shallow tins holding an assortment of fried items. Almost everything has fish paste, and everything has been deliciously baptised in hot oil.

Fried wontons
Fried wonton wrappers with fish paste inside

Customers make their own selection, using tongs to transfer items to a plastic bowl.

Stuffed vegetables
Snake beans and eggplant stuffed with fish paste

Chillies stuffed with fish paste
Fish paste in chillis

Fried beancurd
Fried bean curd skins with fish paste

Inside are all the raw items, fresh vegetables and tofu all stuffed, smothered or sandwiched with, yes, fish paste. The range is impressive - you can stick fish paste on anything. This style of dish is known as yong tao fu which translates as tofu stuffed with fish paste. These days, however, the term yong tao fu refers to any vegetable or derivative of bean curd stuffed with fish paste.

Bittermelon slices stuffed with fish paste
Bitter melon slices stuffed with fish paste

Mushrooms with fish paste
Oyster mushrooms with fish paste

Watercress stuffed with fish paste
Watercress bundles daubed with fish paste

Green vegetables stuffed with fish paste
Baby Chinese vegetables with fish paste

Billy takes charge and gathers an assortment for us to eat. There's a queue at the register and whilst our personalised orders of noodles are dispensed into bowls, and our raw vegetables plunged into soup, Billy and I head back out to the street for an entree snack.

Street vendor making rojak
Rojak stall

Our first encounter with rojak in Malaysia had been disappointing - a flavourless travesty, Billy had lamented. The rojak in Ipoh is much better, he had reassured us.

The streetside rojak stall is a simple cart decorated with a few hanging hands of bananas. The stallholder sets to work quickly, chopping fat chunks of jicama, cucumber and pineapple mid-air over a pot. He adds raw bean sprouts and thick discs of prawn cracker which he snaps into shards. Everything is smothered with the thickest darkest rojak sauce you could imagine, a sprinkle of crushed peanuts the final garnish.

Rojak
Large rojak RM5 (about AU$1.80)

Bliss. We return to the table with our takeaway plate and dig into this with gusto. There's the crunch of raw vegetables, the sweet and salty sauce with tamarind and shrimp paste, the juiciness of pineapple, a humming background of chilli and the delight of deep-fried prawn crackers.

Kopi ais iced coffee and "black and white" soy milk with grass jelly
Kopi ais iced coffee and
Black and White, soy milk with grass jelly strips

Cold drinks are sucked greedily through straws. Iced coffees in Malaysia are always super strong and accordingly sweet. Black and White is the colloquial name for soy milk served with strips of herbal grass jelly.

Barley drink with gingko nut
Barley drink with gingko nuts

My drink turns out to be a warm soup, barley water and cooked barley grains served with creamy gingko nuts.

Chicken feet
Chicken feet

Chicken feet cooked in soy are topped with fresh shallots and a heavy dusting of white pepper. The chicken feet are enormous, and we take our time to prise the puffed up skin and crunchy tendons from the knobbly network of bones.

Stuffed bittermelon and fishballs
Fish balls and stuffed vegetables

And lunch is served! A parade of plastic bowls is delivered to our table, one holds all our deep-fried goodies, the other has a clear soup with fish balls bobbing alongside vegetables engorged with fish paste.

Hor fun rice noodle soup
Rice noodles

Ipoh, Billy intones with seriousness, is famous for its hor fun rice noodles. It really is. The hardness of the water here is said to create rice noodles that are unparalleled in softness.

The slippery noodles are extraordinarily smooth, gliding effortlessly down the throat and into our appreciative bellies. The fish paste is also a pleasure, sweet and light in texture without any rubbery bounciness you associate with commercial products. We alternate between crunching on fried bits of wonton, slurping on noodles and drinking the clear chicken and prawn soup.

There's also plenty of distraction with the rojak. It's the best we will find in Malaysia.

By the meal's end, we survey the litter of empty bowls and plates, and the mounds of chicken bones formed into little piles on the table. If this is Ipoh food, we can't wait for more.

Egg and rice noodles
Mix of rice noodles, vermicelli and egg noodles

Noodles for lunch
Locals enjoying lunch
(and wondering about the five obvious tourists who are freakily photographing their meal)

Kedai Kopi Kwong Hong

And yes, photo size has increased for this post. Your eyes are not playing tricks on you!

> Read the next Malaysia 2010 post  (Ipoh night markets)

Sam Poh Tong Temple
Gunung Rapat, Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia

Kedai Kopi Kwong Hong
684 Main Road
Gunung Rapat 31350, Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
Tel: +60 (12) 506 3296
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 12noon-5pm (closed Mondays)


> Read the next Malaysia 2010 post  (Ipoh night markets)

32 comments - Add some comment love

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posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 6/30/2010 01:45:00 am


32 Comments:

  • At 6/30/2010 1:54 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    BAHAHA i love how you've bolded the sentence "deliciously baptised in hot oil" oh baby what a way to stop my heart! and that pic of the stones is crazily hypnotic

     
  • At 6/30/2010 6:25 am, Blogger Gourmet Chick said…

    Wow - looks like they stuffed everything they could find with fish paste! What an adventure. By the way - can you let me know how you increased your photo size or is it a new Blogger function?

     
  • At 6/30/2010 8:26 am, Blogger Stephcookie said…

    Nawww the tortoises are so cute! I always go to that place for ipoh hor fun too, it must be THE place to go for it :) Loving the bigger photos Helen!

     
  • At 6/30/2010 8:38 am, Blogger Anh said…

    Oh my god! This is real torture!! I love love yong tau fu, but have never had an authentic one yet.

     
  • At 6/30/2010 9:15 am, Blogger Fouad @ The Food Blog said…

    Yay! Helen uses Flickr! AWESOME photos. Talk about armchair travel! I probably got as overloaded with fish paste as you did! Helen, great job. It's such a fantastic post. I love how Billy was like, hi dad, where can we eat? hehehe

     
  • At 6/30/2010 10:02 am, Anonymous billy@atablefortwo said…

    Gorgeous photos, Helen. Now I can see every single details of the food with larger photos :)

    I miss my chewy jicama yong tau foo.... and yes, Ipoh's rojak is the best!!!

     
  • At 6/30/2010 10:50 am, Anonymous Jen said…

    The larger photos look fantastic! I love the fish paste stuffed bitter melon...

     
  • At 6/30/2010 10:52 am, Blogger Iron Chef Shellie said…

    lol. even in asia they look at you funny for taking photos of your food? :P

    I don't think I'd be able to handle that reflexology path without builder's boots on :P

    and how cute are the tortoises?!

     
  • At 6/30/2010 11:01 am, Anonymous yewenyi said…

    Those tortoises were a bit mean to each other, prefering to take the food that another had rather than going for the pieces kang kong that were on thier own.

    The yong dau foo was definetly the best.

    I think I was in overload on this day. Too much to take in. I did later learn that my father had lived only one block from where billy's family lived when they moved to Ipoh itself.

    I think that the chicken feet in Ipoh are definetly the best anywhere I have been.

     
  • At 6/30/2010 11:15 am, Blogger K said…

    Love love love your photos! That's all i wanted to say!

     
  • At 6/30/2010 11:48 am, Blogger Hannah said…

    Tortoise party! I wish I'd thought of that as a theme for one of my kiddlywink birthday parties :P

    What a lovely reunion, too! I've never been welcomed back from my travels with fish paste. Fail, Mum and Dad.

    P.S. Your talk of baptising food in hot oil made me imagine a Donut Baby dusted in cinnamon sugar. This is a bad thing, Helen. I feel guilty.

     
  • At 6/30/2010 12:24 pm, Blogger OohLookBel said…

    All the food looks amazing and gorgeous (love the vibrant colours), but for me, it's all about the statue of the little man with the broom - I want him!

     
  • At 6/30/2010 2:06 pm, Blogger Karen @ Citrus and Candy said…

    Yay for bigger photos!! And omg I love those tortoises, especially the little baby one amongst the crowd of giants. Awww........

    Btw the word verification for today is "retchrom". *immature giggling*

     
  • At 6/30/2010 7:05 pm, Blogger Peter G @ Souvlaki For The Soul said…

    Wow! So much fish paste and so many fried items...and you even have tortoises in your post! Certainly an eclectic mix Helen-and an absolute delight to read about your recent adventure. Yay for the bigger photos too!

     
  • At 6/30/2010 9:45 pm, Blogger Angie Lives to Eat (and Cook)! said…

    Oh wow look at all the tortoises!

     
  • At 6/30/2010 9:45 pm, Blogger Angie Lives to Eat (and Cook)! said…

    Oh and the food too! =D

     
  • At 6/30/2010 9:45 pm, Anonymous Su-Lin said…

    Wow, you weren't kidding when you said EVERYTHING was stuffed with fish paste! I was half expecting the spoons to come with a bonus fish paste stuffing too. This place looks absolutely amazing and I really miss the food in SE Asia!

     
  • At 6/30/2010 10:40 pm, Anonymous Jenny @ Musings & Morsels said…

    Well I'm just staring at the screen mouth agape atm (and wiping dribble). Now I eat a fair bit of fish (or even pork) paste filled vegies but there are some right there that I never thought of as an ideal partnership. What amazing stuff! And how inspiring; those would go wonderfully in Chinese hot pot or various noodle soups.

     
  • At 6/30/2010 11:58 pm, Anonymous penny aka jeroxie said…

    As I love reading the adventure, it makes me miss Asia even more. ONe day, come visit SG with me!

     
  • At 7/01/2010 4:54 am, Blogger the fashionate traveller said…

    It all looks soooo yummy!! I have yet to try rojak, but am off to Malaysia again in October, so next time...

     
  • At 7/01/2010 5:12 am, Anonymous Simon @ the heart of food said…

    It's like going from SD to HD format.

    Ipoh had some of the best food of the trip. Missing it already.

     
  • At 7/01/2010 9:16 am, Anonymous john@heneedsfood said…

    I think I would have been squealing as well in that stoney path! Those snake beans look delicious and I'm loving your larger photo's!

     
  • At 7/01/2010 12:52 pm, Blogger Shanks said…

    Got any fishpaste lol!! Love the photos.

     
  • At 7/01/2010 5:07 pm, Anonymous Forager @ The Gourmet Forager said…

    Yum! Everything looks so delicious - even stuffed bitter melon looks so tempting! Those tortoises are very cute too!

     
  • At 7/01/2010 5:59 pm, Blogger Ellie (Almost Bourdain) said…

    Yay for larger pictures! It's frustrating that I still can't find any good yong tau foo in Sydney. Wrong time to look at these pictures. Pecfect winter weather to have them.

     
  • At 7/01/2010 10:49 pm, Blogger FFichiban said…

    Yayy tortoise party!! Mmm craving some rojak and of course something deep deep fried!

     
  • At 7/02/2010 1:32 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi chocolatesuze - Haha, I thought you'd like that :) And the stones may look hypnotic but walking on them is not conducive to calmness. lol.

    Hi Gourmet Chick - To increase the photo size, I uploaded my photos to Flickr and then copied the image source code into my blogger post. It's a little cumbersome but worth the effort methinks.

    Hi Stephcookie - Wow, I didn't know you go there too. That's quite an endorsement! And glad you like the bigger pics :)

    Hi Anh - I think this was probably my first authentic yong tau fu too. The standard has been set pretty high!

    Hi Fouad - Haha, yep, I finally bit the bullet. It's more effort but ooh so pretty. lol. And ha, don't you know Chinese always greet each other with "have you eaten?". lol

    Hi Billy - Aww thanks. Yeah it seems a shame that the pics were automatically sized so small before. I think I missed out the jicama :( And I agree, Ipoh rojak rules!

    Hi Jen - Thank you. The bitter melon with fish paste was great - I love how the melon is still a little bit crunchy.

    Hi Iron Chef Shellie - lol. I think it was the fact that 5 people were huddled around a tiny table using chunky SLRs to photograph their food! Plus Ipoh is quite a small place :)

    The tortoises were mesmerising.

    Hi Yewenyi - Ha, I think I can identify with food competitiveness! The whole trip was a bit of information overload, but mainly food. lol.

    Hi K - Thanks so much :) I was blessed with good light and amazing food (and cute tortoises!).

    Hi Hannah - A tortoise party sounds like a great kids theme! And donut babies? lol. I think you're making me hungry... :)

    Hi OohLookBel - The colours are amazing aren't they? It's mainly what prompted me to finally start posting bigger pics. I wasn't quite sure how to describe the status but I think I like yours!

    Hi Karen - Ha, I confess I even checked out your source code to find out how you hosted bigger photos. lol.

    The baby tortoises were very cute but I also admired the larger older ones too.

    The verification codes can give you a giggle every now and then :)

    Hi Peter G - Who knew that fish paste could be applied to so many different ingredients? Glad you're enjoying the bigger pics too.

    Hi Angie - They're so cute aren't they? Although I can assure you they definitely sound like they have very sharp teeth!

     
  • At 7/02/2010 1:48 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Su-Lin - I never kid about food. lol. I like the sound of fish paste on a spoon too!

    Hi Jenny - I agree, these would go great in a Chinese hot pot or noodle soup. I love the idea of putting fish paste on the mushrooms and the vegetables - such a clever idea.

    Hi Penny - I'd love to visit SG with you. When should we go? lol

    Hi the fashionate traveller - Oh lucky you. I have quite a thing for rojak so I hope you find some good ones. It's such a great dish to eat when it's hot and humid.

    Hi Simon - Ha, see I would've said low-fat to full. lol. Ipoh was the fooding highlight but I wonder if it's because we had the best local guide ever!

    Hi John - The stone path was crazy painful. I could hardly believe how beautifully they'd stuffed the snake beans, and glad you're enjoying the bigger pics. More goodness to go around!

    Hi Shanks - Haha, fish paste ahoy! And thanks :)

    Hi Forager - I've developed quite a taste for bitter melon - definitely a sign you're getting old! The tortoises were very cute. I could've watched them for hours.

    Hi Ellie - Yes I remember you asking once about yong tau fu. Must keep an eye out for some in Sydney. And glad you like the bigger pics!

    Hi FFichiban - Oh yes, rojak would be good right about now, and lol, aren't you always craving something deep deep-fried?

     
  • At 7/02/2010 10:08 pm, Anonymous Fiona said…

    I want a turtle

     
  • At 7/02/2010 11:10 pm, Anonymous Faith said…

    Omg lucky! I've always wanted to go to Ipoh bec I was told is was a food haven. =)

     
  • At 7/06/2010 5:07 pm, Blogger Debbie Ann said…

    I love Ipoh and can not wait to go back there. It is definitely food heaven.I liked the hor fun and the ipoh bean sprouts were amazing.Now I need to go back for the fish shop

     
  • At 7/12/2010 8:44 pm, Blogger Helen (grabyourfork) said…

    Hi Fiona - lol. He'll outlive you too!

    Hi Faith - Ipoh was fantastic. Thoroughly recommended.

    Hi Debbie Ann - The bean sprouts were incredible, and I don't even like bean sprouts that much! The fish shop was lots of fun.

     

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