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.
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.
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.
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.
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 says hi
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 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 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 wonton wrappers with fish paste inside
Customers make their own selection, using tongs to transfer items to a plastic bowl.
Snake beans and eggplant stuffed with fish paste
Fish paste in chillis
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.
Bitter melon slices stuffed with fish paste
Oyster mushrooms with fish paste
Watercress bundles daubed 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.
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.
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 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 nuts
My drink turns out to be a warm soup, barley water and cooked barley grains served with creamy gingko nuts.
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.
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.
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.
Mix of rice noodles, vermicelli and egg noodles
Locals enjoying lunch
(and wondering about the five obvious tourists who are freakily photographing their meal)
And yes, photo size has increased for this post. Your eyes are not playing tricks on you!
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)