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Friday, July 16, 2010

Ipoh bean sprouts, Concubine Lane and Funny Mountain Soy Milk

ipoh bean sprouts

Short, fat and stumpy. The bean sprouts in Ipoh are said to be the best in the world.

There is no such thing as a humble bean sprout in Ipoh. Forget about wilted, soggy and translucent imitators. The pride of Ipoh are another experience entirely. Squat in appearance, the sprouts are firm, pure white and decidedly crunchy.

They are addictive to eat on their own, and I'm not usually a big fan of bean sprouts to begin with. The purity of the water here is said to be the secret.

Thean Chun Coffee Shop

ipoh thean chun coffee shop
Chopping chicken and preparing sar hor fun at Thean Chun Coffee Shop

On our first morning in Ipoh, we head to Thean Chun Coffee Shop for breakfast, one of the oldest and most famous kopitiams, or coffee shops, in Ipoh Old Town. The decor includes throwbacks to the country's British colonial history, heavy wooden tables topped with slabs of marble, the walls around us lined with mirrors.

Locals know this spot as "The House of Mirrors". It's a small but bustling eatery, a cacophony of locals and tourists noisily slurping up bowls of noodles and chattering over heaped plates of satay sticks.

ipoh thean chun coffee shop satay alley
Delivering satay sticks to the grill outside

Satay (or sate) sticks are a popular specialty here. In the laneway outside is the satay grill, a compact contraption that uses a narrow stretch of charcoal to cook skewers of chicken fillet, liver and gizzards, imparting a distinctive smoky flavour.

ipoh thean chun coffee shop satay grill
The satay grill

ipoh satay sticks
Satay chicken fillet, liver and gizzards

A huge plate of satay sticks are delivered to our table. The servings are only bite sized, but it means each can be dipped generously into the waiting bowl of satay sauce, a thick concoction of peanut, chilli and oil that coats the meat with an appetising sheen.

ipoh satay
Chicken skewer dipped in satay sauce

The chicken liver and gizzards have a squeaky crunch to them, but it's the chicken fillets we all devour with glee. Smoky and deliciously caramelised on the edges, we eat with gusto. As our plate is continually replenished, we pause, confused, until Billy explains that we are only charged for each skewer we eat. The fresh-off-the-grill replenishments are an enticing marketing strategy as we find ourselves eating "just one more" over and over again.

ipoh rice noodles
Chee cheong fun

Rice noodles are another specialty of Ipoh. The use of lye water is said to create rice noodles that are superbly smooth and silky. Chee cheong fun are scrolls of steamed rice noodles served simply with soy, a dollop of chilli sauce and a handful of crunchy deep-fried shallot slices and toasted sesame seeds.

ipoh chee cheong fun
Bean curd scrolls

More food arrives. We feast on bowls of soup, filled with bobbing fish balls, tofu squares and scrolls of deep-fried bean curd sheets.

ipoh bean curd sheet scrolls
Sar kok liew - Deep-fried stuffed jicama

Deep-fried stuffed jicama, or yam bean, is Billy's favourite dish. The jicama is a crunchy vegetable that is usually eaten raw, tasting like a cross between a potato and a nashi pear. Dusted with potato starch and rolled into bean curds, the deep-fried slices have a satisfying chewiness to them.

ipoh kopi ais
Kopi ais iced coffee

Did you know Ipoh is famous for their coffee? An iced coffee is the perfect refreshment on a humid morning. Others order their kopi with milk, served in the distinctive white mugs with floral green pattern.

ipoh kopi

ipoh sar hor fun
Sar hor fun 沙河粉

It continues.

We each have a bowl of sar hor fun, another specialty of Ipoh. Soft rice noodles, shreds of juicy white-cooked chicken, prawns, bean sprouts and a sweet chicken and prawn broth combine the best of Ipoh in a bowl.

We slurp, chew, crunch and swallow. The satay skewers are still being replenished with alarming rapidity.

This is not just breakfast. This is power eating, Ipoh-style.

ipoh breakfast
Breakfast in Ipoh

After breakfast, we roll ourselves out the door and briefly explore the surrounding streets.

Jalan Bandar Timah

ipoh street food
Street food

Directly across the road from Thean Chun lies Panglima Lane.

Second Concubine Lane

ipoh concubine lane
Panglima Lane also known as Yi Lai Hong or Second Concubine Lane

Run down and tattered, Panglima Lane is known colloquially as Yi Lai Hong or Second Concubine Lane. From 1900 to 1940, this area is said to have been filled with brothels, gambling houses and opium dens. There were three lanes in particular, known as First, Second and Third Concubine Lane. Debate still exists as to whether mistresses actually lived here, or whether men said they were "visiting their concubine" rather than admit they were heading to an opium den.

Today the laneway is a crumbling shadow of its former self, strung with clothes lines, dumped furniture and empty bird cages. Peeling paint and crumbling walls whisper stories of its past.

ipoh belacan cakes drying in sun
Cakes of belacan shrimp paste

And yet there are small pockets of life in this alley. An empty lot, overgrown with weeds and littered with rusty furniture, has a baby high chair which holds a tray of what look like tiles. On closer inspection we realise they're cakes of belacan shrimp paste, quietly drying in the sun as disinterested and apathetic locals walk on by.

And that's when Minh and I decide this would be the perfect backdrop for a jump kick shot.

Jump kicking in style - don't mess with us in dark alley!
[with thanks to Billy for the well-timed photo!]

Funny Mountain Soya Bean

ipoh funny mountain

Forget about drive through hamburgers. Imagine if you could have drive through soy milk and tofu fah.

Imagine no more.

ipoh fresh soy milk for takeaway
Ladling fresh soy milk into plastic bags for takeaway

Funny Mountain is famous not just for amazing fresh soy milk, but its drive-through service too. In fact, when we turn up, we find that the road out front is so congested with thirsty customers waiting in cars, that we end up parking and walking to the shop front for our fix of soy.

The columns outside Funny Mountain are plastered with copies of newspaper articles, each lauding the joys of the fresh soy milk made onsite.

ipoh fresh soy milk
Pouring grass jelly drink into soy milk

We line up for glasses of Black and White, a popular Malaysian drink of grass jelly mixed with soy milk. Another nickname for this drink is Michael Jackson!

ipoh black and white grass jelly and soy milk drink
Black and White - grass jelly and soy milk drink

The herbal flavour of the grass jelly is always a great match with sweet soy milk. Unlike commercial soy milk, fresh soy has a richer nuttier flavour with a lingering finish. The strips of grass jelly are cold and slippery, cooling on the tongue and in the stomach.

ipoh tofu fah
Fresh tofu fah

A huge wooden vat of fresh tofu fah takes pride of place at the front. Standing one metre deep, a metal spoon is used to gently scoop out servings of this delicate tofu dessert.

ipoh fresh tofu fah
Fresh tofu fah RM0.80 (about AU$0.30)

Oh. My.

Silky in texture and served with a sweet syrup, this is tofu fah on another scale of divine bliss. The tofu is as soft as a baby's cheek, collapsing with a sigh on your tongue, and slipping and sliding its way to your memory vault of "perfect food moments in life".

Kacang Soya Lai Kee

ipoh lai kee soya bean
Kacang Soya Lai Kee

Can you spell gluttony? It starts with g-r-a-b...

Despite the distinct sound of sloshing in our stomachs, we accidentally find ourselves standing outside Kacang Soya Lai Kee only minutes after Funny Mountain.

For research purposes, of course.

ipoh fresh ginger soy milk
Soy milk with gula melaka

The flavoured soy milks here are what gain our attention. We order ours takeaway, the drinks ladled into plastic bags with draw strings that double as handles.

ipoh takeaway soy milk
Soy milk with gula melaka and soy milk with ginger syrup

Gula melaka is the palm sugar syrup that has a toffee-like flavour. It adds quite a rich sweetness, perhaps overpowering the natural nuttiness of the soy milk a little. Gula halia is palm sugar syrup with ginger juice, and as a ginger enthusiast, I quite enjoy its warming qualities.

So much food and liquid, and it's not even midday. I'm beginning to like Ipoh. A lot.

> Read the next Malaysia post (Ipoh street food and suckling pig)

FREE LUNCH? Don't forget to enter the competition to win a free $150 lunch for two at Aki's, Woolloomooloo. Entries close this Sunday!

View Larger Map

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

Funny Mountain Soya Bean & Taufu Fa Traditional
49 Jalan Theatre
Corner of Jalan Dato Tahwil Azar and Jalan Theatre
30300 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
Tel: +60 (05) 546 9968
Open 7 days 10.30am-7pm
(tofu fah usually sells out by 2pm)

Kacang Soya Lai Kee
Jalan Dato Tahwil Azar
30300 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
Tel: +60 (0)16 531 118

> Read the next Malaysia post (Ipoh street food and suckling pig)
26 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 7/16/2010 04:52:00 am


  • At 7/16/2010 5:21 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    lol best line - "it continues" haha malaysia is awesome with its never ending eats! the house of mirrors is the parentals fav place to eat too

  • At 7/16/2010 6:17 am, Blogger Unknown said…

    I love these Malaysia posts - fascinating

  • At 7/16/2010 9:34 am, Blogger K said…

    Oh drats... i need to go find myself some noodles now! Soo hungry after reading this post. And especially love the image of Concubine Lane.

  • At 7/16/2010 9:42 am, Anonymous SK said…

    Ipoh hawker food is the best. Man that looks like a feast.

  • At 7/16/2010 11:21 am, Anonymous The Dainty Baker said…

    I LOVE!!!!!! Soybean milk!! Man, been to Malaysia various times and have never been feasting around like you have must revisit with my newly found inspirations! Thanks

  • At 7/16/2010 11:21 am, Blogger Iron Chef Shellie said…

    Oh Helen, your Malaysia posts are KILLING me! I really really really need to go back!!

  • At 7/16/2010 12:59 pm, Blogger Hannah said…

    Oh my diddly gosh, how have I not ever considered Malaysia as a destination before this year? That fresh tofu dessert... I might even swap a couple of my fancy chocolate bars for a go at that. Thanks for showing me what's out there, Helen :)

  • At 7/16/2010 1:07 pm, Anonymous yewenyi said…

    well the bean shoots leave all others for dead. and soy with ginger is very good. and satay, well what more can one ask. Even if they do keep on taking it away. I know what they say, but I suspect it is a ploy to make you eat faster...

  • At 7/16/2010 1:48 pm, Anonymous Sandra / The French Wench said…

    Very impressive post and great pictures! I love the one of the second concubine lane (I love peeling paint in general!). Those chicken skewers look very attractive too :-)

  • At 7/16/2010 1:56 pm, Blogger OohLookBel said…

    Haha, I like how you call it 'power eating', through Xtreme Eating would also be apt. And that jumping shot is great, very Crouching Tigerrr.

  • At 7/16/2010 9:22 pm, Anonymous Mrs Pig Flyin' said…

    Read this post in bed this morning, got so hungry that I went straight to sleep again cos I know when in Sydney, I can only get such a breakfast in my dream!

    Love the endless satay and tofu fah is my must-order when I go to yum cha

  • At 7/16/2010 11:53 pm, Blogger Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) said…

    Such a beautiful vat of tofu fah! Skimmed properly in layers from the surface with a shallow 'spoon' - gosh I hate it when people use a ladle and just dig in, breaking all the soft silken bits.

  • At 7/17/2010 3:31 am, Anonymous sloefoodfastfood.blogg.no said…

    Love your reeports. Any sign of the Roti Canai? Fresh made indianstyle roti with strong curry.

  • At 7/17/2010 12:48 pm, Blogger Sara @ Belly Rumbles said…

    Loving your Malaysia posts. Well done to Billy for capturing you guys doing a kung fu kick, awesome pic.

  • At 7/17/2010 11:11 pm, Anonymous Min said…

    Oh My God!!! Those are pics from my own hometown! You couldn't have picked a better spot for breakfast in Ipoh if you tried. Just reading this post is making me want to book a flight home tomorrow!

  • At 7/18/2010 6:31 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    There is a saying in Malaysia, "Everything tastes better in Ipoh because of the water!" The noodle, the beansprouts.... you got to believe it.

  • At 7/18/2010 10:15 pm, Anonymous thang @ noodlies.com said…

    Wonderful post Helen, haven't been to Malaysia yet, but the post makes me feel like I know abit more about the food there... the chicken sticks look divine! Thanks!

  • At 7/19/2010 10:33 am, Anonymous john@heneedsfood said…

    LOVE your shop of the laneway with its delapidated buildings! The satay sticks look so beautiful and I really want some now

  • At 7/19/2010 1:04 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi chocolatesuze - Ha, the food always continues whenever food bloggers are around. lol. I didn't realise the House of Mirrors was such a hotspot - the benefits of travelling with locals!

    Hi Gourmet Chick - Glad you're enjoying them. Always fun sharing travel photos!

    Hi K - I have a new-found appreciation for noodles, although I think I will also be forever disappointed now that the standard has been raised so high. Concubine Lane was gorgeous - so much history with every step.

    Hi SK - Ipoh was fantastic. It was our favourite spot during the entire trip.

    Hi The Dainty Baker - I think that's the great/dangerous thing about travelling with other food bloggers - sometime will always be hungry/tempted!

    Hi Iron Chef Shellie - lol. I think that's a good thing, right? Hope you get there soon!

    Hi Hannah - I had never realised what a fascinating destination Malaysia was either. So glad you're enjoying the posts :)

    Hi yewenyi - I think any food in front of me is likely to disappear :)

    Hi Sandra - Thanks so much. Concubine Lane was so atmospheric - it would be great for moody photos in the early morning or later afternoon.

    Hi OohLookBel - I like the sound of Xtreme Eating. lol. And ha, I think we had a little too much fun with jumping shots - our peals of laughter after each one was probably the most amount of exercise we did!

  • At 7/19/2010 1:18 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Mrs Pig Flyin' - I am sure you have quite a few delicious breakfasts in your household, but hah, I love that you browse food blogs in bed :)

    Hi mademoiselle delicieuse - The tofu fah was stunning, and I loved the floral pattern of scoops from the shallow spoon too. The texture was incredible.

    Hi sloefood - No roti canai on this day, but we had plenty throughout the trip. Always flaky and delicious.

    Hi Sara - Malaysia was so much fun, especially with like-minded fooding company. We started a whole series of kung fu kicks. lol. Far too entertaining!

    Hi Min - You're from Ipoh too? Lucky you! And yes, breakfast was amazing. It was very rewarding travelling with Billy, our Ipoh expert!

    Hi Ellie - Ha, we kept hearing about the magic water in Ipoh. Billy said the women from Ipoh are also reportedly more beautiful too.

    Hi Thang - The sate were fantastic and yes, nothing like exploring a country than through a banquet of food photos :)

    Hi John - Thank you. I'm glad I managed to capture some of the quiet beauty of this historic alley. The satay sticks were delicious. I can understand now why Malaysians always get so homesick!

  • At 7/19/2010 1:28 pm, Anonymous Veruca Salt said…

    Soy heaven! I love, love, love soy milk and tofu fah that is so fresh it's still warm.

  • At 7/22/2010 11:25 am, Anonymous Obesebaby said…

    Awsome ! I wish Sydney have more malaysian restaurants.

  • At 7/24/2010 8:06 am, Blogger foodwink said…

    Just fabulous, Helen. Glad that you've made it to my hometown! I grew up eating at Thean Chun, and Kwong Heng which is just next door. Love the ever-replenished satays.

  • At 7/25/2010 5:46 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Veruca Salt - I didn't realise you were such a soy milk fun. We must make our tofu fah soon - unless you have already?

    Hi Obesebaby - I think we're quite lucky in Sydney to have Malaysian restaurants, but I agree, a few more would be welcomed!

    Hi foodwink - It's amazing how many Malaysian Sydneysiders hail from Ipoh. The food was great - would definitely return if I visit Malaysia again!

  • At 7/25/2010 11:30 pm, Blogger Lingy said…

    I loved the Funny Mountain too! Just a short walk/ short drive down from the Hainanese Chicken and Rice place. How amazing was the soy and tau fu fah!!!

  • At 8/03/2010 3:21 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Lingy - Funny Mountain was great. I'm still dreaming about the tau fu fah. Easily the best I've had - ever!


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