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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Apam balik, Kek Look Tong temple caves and suckling pig

sugar cane juice, Ipoh, Malyaysia

Hot and steamy.

Perfect adjectives for a Saturday night, but not so appealing when it's mid-afternoon in downtown Ipoh, Malaysia.

A takeaway bag of freshly squeezed kalamansi juice, packed with ice and a little salty from a ball of salted plum, does wonders.

We had just come from Kek Look Tong, a temple cave that offered cool refuge from the unrelenting heat, and one of Ipoh's main tourist attractions.

Kek Look Tong


Kek Look Tong is a cave temple that was used as a place of worship from as early as 1920. The temple sits in a enormous limestone cave that features spectacular stalactites, stalagmites, giant Buddha statues, sculptures and paintings.

The sprawling 4.5 hectares site, located in Gunung Rapat -- about 5km south of Ipoh City -- was heavily mined for iron ore before being handed to a non-profit charity organisation in 1982. Originally known as Tien Hou Gong, the site was renamed Kek Look Tong, meaning Cave of Great Happiness.

Kek Look Tong, Ipoh, Malaysia

The caves are opulent and impressive, the floors covered with cool marble tiles, and the walls blackened over the years from offerings of incense. A cool breeze is bliss on the cheeks, and we wander through in respectful silence.

Kek Look Tong, Ipoh, Malaysia

Dotted along both the front and rear paths are miniature landscapes featuring figurines and sculptures. We're not quite sure who made them or what they mean, but they're an entertaining distraction as we meander through the site.

Kek Look Tong, Ipoh, Malaysia
Clamshell lion dance

Kek Look Tong, Ipoh, Malaysia
Pit-stop on a hill


I forgot the myrrh!


The back of the site holds an impressive landscaped garden. We keep an eye out for monkeys who are cheekily scaling palm trees and running along the path.

Billy's favourite cendol cart

The best thing about Malaysia is the abundance of food. Just as Japan is rife with vending machines, Malaysia is never short on food. Best of all, you will find them in the most unexpected of places. Billy has promised to take us to the best cendol cart in all of Ipoh, a stall he remembers with vivid sentimentality.

We wend our way through the streets from Kek Look Tong, as Billy tries to remember the exact location of the cendol stall. Eventually we find it on the side of a main road. Two street carts perch side-by-side, but there is nothing else around here, only trees and houses and not a shop to be seen.

cendol street food hawker stall, ipoh, malaysia
Ladling the cendol on top of bowls of ice with red beans

Two plastic vats hold cendol in syrup and cendol in santan coconut milk. The cendol are worm-like noodles made from mung bean flour and flavoured with pandan. The cendol is dispensed in bright orange plastic bowls for eat-in, or crinkly plastic bags for takeaway. The relative isolation of these carts means there is plenty of room for parking.

Cendol with red beans and pulut glutinous rice

We gather the few plastic stools we can find, and huddle in a circle, relishing the icy cold refreshment of the cendol, ice and starchy red beans. An unusual addition here is pulut glutinous rice - it is not hard and frozen as I'd expected, but warm, soft and and delightfully chewy. The dollop of gula melaka palm sugar syrup adds a caramel-flavoured sweetness.

apam balik hawker stall street food, ipoh, malaysia
Apam balik stall

We pile back into the car and continue back to the centre of Ipoh. Despite the cendol still sloshing around in our stomachs, it's a rhetorical question when Billy turns around and asks "do you want to stop for apam balik?"

Apam Balik hawker stall street food, Ipoh, Malaysia
Apam balik RM1 (about AU$0.35)

Apam balik are crispy peanut pancakes, and one of the things on my mental "must eat list" to tick off in Malaysia.

apam balik hawker stall street food, ipoh, malaysia
Sugar, crushed peanuts and butter

There's a non-stop roar of passing traffic behind us as we watch the stall owner prepare our order.

Apam balik cooking in specially shaped pans

A thin crepe batter is poured into specially shaped pans on a gas-heated grill. Silver lids, which look more like cymbals, are placed on top to speed the cooking process. As the pancakes cook, the lids are lifted, often in speedy succession which makes the street vendor look more like a musician than a cook.

As the bottom of the pancakes bubble and the edges crisp to a honey brown, the crepes are filled with a mixture of sugar and peanuts, or sugar and creamed sweet corn. A spatula is used to carefully prise them free from the pan, when they are then folded in half for easy eating.

We scoff them greedily. The sweetcorn is good, but my favourite is still the crushed peanut version, the gravelly crunch of sugar crystals and toasted peanuts contrasting against the pancake shell. The crispy edges are the best, shards of crumbly sweetness that make an inevitable but delicious mess.

coconuts, ipoh, malaysia
Fresh coconuts

Next door at stalls selling fresh coconut juice and fresh sugar cane juice. Large lengths of sugarcane are forced through two whirring rollers, extracting juice with a cacophony of grinding squeals. Nearby, a sharp cleaver is splitting open fresh coconuts, a resounding crack revealing a pool of sweet juice and the pearly white glimmer of young coconut flesh.

coconuts, cleaver, ipoh, malaysia
Cleaving fresh coconuts

We are travelling through Malaysia during the monsoon season which means that every afternoon a thunderstorm hits from about 3pm-5pm. It's regularity is striking, but at least it means that we can plan ahead for its arrival.

Too often we find ourselves heading to a shopping centre, escaping the thunder and fat pelting drops of rain. Air-conditioning is a welcome inducement too.

We synchronise watches at Kinta City shopping centre and head off in separate directions. After an hour, Billy, Minh and I find ourselves already bored, but find renewed energy at the sight of a kopitiam where we can rest our legs.

Chatter Kopitiam

Chatter Kopitiam is in the middle of the shopping centre concourse, an oasis of booth seating, marble tables and dark brown timber furniture.

Cham ice RM2.60 (about AU$0.95)

We have dinner in only a few hours and exercise caution. Drinks of cham are ordered, a combination of tea and coffee which I nickname the "crazy drink". I give it another go anyway but I remain unconvinced - it tastes like a strong milky tea or a mild coffee.

Kaya butter toast RM2.00 (about AU$0.70)

We share an order of kaya butter toast. The toast is a little soft and the butter is spread, not sliced. I'm left craving more of the kaya coconut jam, but we have little to complain about, for a bigger feast lies ahead.

Cham hot RM2.40 (about AU$0.85)

We had resolutely saved our stomachs for dinner, skipping lunch but munching on snacks instead. Tonight was dinner with Billy's family. I felt so honoured to be included as part of their family reunion, a gathering of aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and of course the matriarch and patriarchs, Billy's mum and dad.

Restoran Pusing Public

"Are you coming? Everybody is already here."

We had left late from the hotel and Billy's mobile is ringing with a concerned sister on the other end of the line. We are the last to arrive and are escorted quickly into the partitioned private dining room. Although officially named Restoran Pusing Public, Ipoh locals prefer to call it Mun Choong, which means "public" or "community" in Chinese. Pusing in a town in Ipoh. [thanks Billy for the explanation!]

Inside Mun Choong Seafood Restaurant

Horse sculpture on our entree platter

Food and family are the best pairing one could ask for. It's a pleasure to meet Billy's family and to see the banter that comes naturally between relatives, regardless of time or distance apart. Everyone is warm and welcoming, and the importance of family and the solidarity that comes with it, resonates quietly with me.

Within minutes of our arrival, the doors slide apart and waiters hurry in with two enormous platters, one for each table of ten.

Fish stomach with tofu, chicken with jicama and crab claws

It's a feast fit for a king, garnished with fanned slices of carrot and cucumber and protected by a prancing horse painted in jade green. We pick our way through crunchy fried crab claws, a refreshing stir fry of chicken with jicama, and a bowl of fish stomach and tofu swaddled in a thickened sweet sauce.

Suckling pig

There's a palpable ripple of excitement when the suckling pig is carried in, the whole beast served on a large metal plate, complete with head splayed open.

Crackling on the suckling pig

Everyone zeroes in on the crackling, thin flat tiles of earth-shattering perfection. Steamed white mantou buns are incredibly soft and fluffy, and we demolish the pork like a swarm of locusts, relishing the crunch of crackling, dipping the flesh into chilli soy sauce, and licking and scraping every bone clean.

Stir-fried prawns

No Chinese feast is complete without seafood. We dig into stir-fried prawns and steamed whole fish. The prawns are flavoursome but the shells are hard to separate from the flesh, and the fish isn't as delicate as that of a freshly caught fish. There are shakes of the head and whispers between Billy's parents and his siblings. Later they will voice their disappointment to the staff - food that is less than the best is a travesty for these regulars.

Steamed fish

Crispy skin chicken

Our epic banquet continues with crispy skin chicken -- sadly a little dry in parts -- and then onto a strange-looking parcel of bean curd covered in sauce. Billy takes charge, and using his chopsticks, tears open the bean curd skin to reveal a tumble of stir fried vegetables hiding inside.

Vegetables hiding in bean curd skin

Vegetables revealed inside the bean curd skin

Fried rice

Fried rice is the final carbohydrate filler for anyone who can find room in their stomach.

Pandan lotus paste pancake

A fried pancake holds a filling of sweet pandan-flavoured lotus paste. The pancake is a little oily but we soldier on regardless, appreciating the golden pastry shell and the hot sweet lotus paste.

Serving dessert

Iced lychees in syrup

Iced lychees in syrup is our final dessert. I love the clink of ice cubes in our bowls, and the cold fruit is a soothing conclusion to our meal.

We're ushered into a group photo, a huddle of laughing faces and giggling cheeky nieces. We jostle ourselves against the back wall, a sea of people for the nervous camera-wielding waiter.

"One, two, three" says the waiter, and we smile with genuine happiness and grateful smiles.

> Read the next Malaysia 2010 post (Penang assam laksa, durian and cendol)

Kek Look Tong
Gunung Rapat, Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
Tel: +60 (05) 312 81129
Opening hours: Daily, 7am – 6pm, including public holidays
Entry is free

Chatter Kopitiam
Kinta City Jaya Jusco Shopping Centre
2, Jalan Teh Lean Swee,
Off Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah Utara,
31400 Ipoh, Perak Darul Ridzuan, Malaysia

Mun Choong Seafood Restaurant
(Pusing Public Seafood Restaurant)
57-65 Jalan Verasamy
Ipoh, Perak, Perak, Malaysia
Tel: +60 (05) 241 9348

> Read the next Malaysia 2010 post (Penang assam laksa, durian and cendol)
22 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 7/25/2010 02:26:00 am


  • At 7/25/2010 8:17 am, Anonymous yewe said…

    sugar cane juice, yum, I'll have to head to cabramatta now to get some.

  • At 7/25/2010 8:39 am, Anonymous Fiona said…

    Lychee :) Great way to end the meal

  • At 7/25/2010 8:46 am, Anonymous john@heneedsfood said…

    I forgot the myrrh! So funny! The apam balik looks divine and I hope I come across them in KL. The horse sculpture on the entree plate is a little puzzling, did you swipe it for your mantelpiece?

  • At 7/25/2010 9:56 am, Anonymous Mark @ Cafe Campana said…

    I like the parcel of vegetables wrapped in bean curd skin. After your Malaysian posts I so want to go there just to eat. Is that wrong?

  • At 7/25/2010 11:55 am, Anonymous Dolly said…

    the fish looks so yummii

    im envious i want to go to malay. =)

  • At 7/25/2010 2:53 pm, Blogger Hannah said…

    Oh dear god. Apam balik. I remember reading about that years ago, back when I didn't feel the INSANE LOVE for peanuts that I do now. I don't think I can bear not having that in my life... And so I am currently hopping up from the computer to mix together peanut butter and maple syrup, because that's the closest I can get right now.

    Sigh. But so good.

  • At 7/25/2010 5:19 pm, Anonymous thang @ noodlies said…

    the temple caves look wonderful, Helen, Walter and I always try to find gorgeous temples where ever we go, and this will go on the list! Although, Walter's publisher is pushing for his second book to be on Cambodia.. so might be a while before we get to Malaysia!

  • At 7/25/2010 5:52 pm, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    here piggy piggy piggy zomg crackle makes me happy

  • At 7/25/2010 11:07 pm, Anonymous penny aka jeroxie said…

    After reading all these adventures, I think I should plan a trip with fellow food bloggers from melb too!

  • At 7/25/2010 11:36 pm, Blogger trashtastika.com said…

    I'd never heard of apam balik, but it sounds delicious!! Another one for the list when I return in November.

    Great pics, as usual!

  • At 7/26/2010 8:58 am, Blogger Unknown said…

    God I want to go to Malaysia so bad, my brother went last year and said the food was beyond amazing. I want 'vegetables hiding in bean curd skin' in my belly right now.

  • At 7/26/2010 9:53 am, Blogger Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul said…

    Every time you post about Malaysia Helen you give me the urge to pack my bags and get on a plane! Love that pandan lotus paste pancake...mmm!

  • At 7/26/2010 11:38 am, Blogger Unknown said…

    This. Was truly an epic post. Dude. All that food - it's not possible to cram that much amazing into one country! Mmm.. sugar cane juice. I think you food bloggers are well overdue for a trip to Cabra :D

    PS. Loving your prose as usual m'lady! ♥

  • At 7/26/2010 1:10 pm, Anonymous Miss Chicken said…

    Mr Shawn and I went to a wedding celebration in Kuala Lumpur where the feast was similar but the prawns were stir fried in marmite! The locals on our table had never had anything like it and were as surprised as us. It finished with a wonderful white fungus in a sweet syrup and lots of toasts from 'uncles', so memorable.

  • At 7/26/2010 1:11 pm, Anonymous Rhonda (thedaintybaker) said…

    Wow that feast just looks epic!

  • At 7/26/2010 2:40 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ipoh is the food heaven. Your post has again justified its status :)

  • At 7/26/2010 3:16 pm, Anonymous JT @areyouhungary said…

    Apam balik. You're right, such a 'must eat' in Malaysia!

  • At 7/26/2010 5:47 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'll give that piggy a good home.. and that chicken while I'm at it mmm. Would be surprised at anyone who wouldn't give a big smile after that feast

  • At 7/26/2010 9:36 pm, Anonymous Anita said…

    What an adventure! It all looks so good. I'd love to try the Apam balik - and that pig of course!

  • At 7/27/2010 7:23 pm, Blogger sugarpuffi said…

    juice in a bag! how very interesting. i just came back from china and didn't dare to eat much street food...too dirty and suspicious LOL. looks like malaysia eats are even cheaper than china!

  • At 7/28/2010 2:05 am, Anonymous John said…

    I wish I was travelling with you, the food looks amazing. The photos do your travels justice. I have to say, the drink in a bag was in interesting touch... I'll have to add Malaysia to my list of must-see places. Not so sure about having a splayed pigs head on my plate though... But the rest looked superb. Keep the posts coming!


  • At 7/28/2010 1:31 pm, Blogger Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) said…

    Oh...suckling pig crackling! That really is something I miss and always have when visiting family in Asia *sigh*


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