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Sunday June 24, 2007

Tranquil Taiping


Soak in the serenity of Taiping which still retains much of its old-world charm. 

THERE’S something about this heritage town – at once bustling and yet laid-back, that really appeals to me. 

Maybe it’s because, as one of the oldest towns in Malaysia, it still retains much of its old-world charms. Maybe it’s to do with the fact that both my parents were born here, and I associate many happy childhood memories with it. 

Whatever it is, I love the place. Not only does it have different activities to keep the whole family occupied – from golf (the world-class Taiping Golf Resort is located just off the motorway) to heritage buildings, night safari and more– it also has some of the best food around. 

Of course everyone knows it was called “T’ai Ping”, Very Peaceful Town, by the British Administration in the aftermath of the bloody Larut Wars fought between the various Chinese mining factions. It is no wonder that the first purpose-built prison was built here in 1879.  

Taiping can lay claim to many Malaysian “firsts”. The Municipal Council proudly lists an amazing 33 events or places which date back to as early as 1844, including the museum, zoo, and the hill station, Maxwell Hills (now Bukit Larut), built in 1870.  

Relaxing setting: The Taiping Lake is a great place for a family picnic.
The first English school and English girls’ school (Treacher) were also built here in 1878 and 1889 respectively, and the first Malay school, in 1894. Three newspapers were first published here – Malay, English and Tamil. 

To transport tin to Port Weld (Kuala Sepetang) to Penang, the first railway also ran from here. 

Of course no article about Taiping would be complete without mention of its famous Lake Gardens (Taman Tasik), another first, converted from old disused tin mines in 1880. There is nothing more reminiscent of childhood for me than to drive under the graceful boughs of the ancient angsanas (raintrees) which line the peaceful road circling it. 

As Taiping lies in the lee of the Larut Hills, it is the wettest region in Peninsular Malaysia, getting almost twice the average rainfall as other places.  

Storm clouds gather around the hills practically every afternoon to pelt out some quite heavy rains which can last up to an hour or more, cooling down the humid afternoon and evening. 

Despite modernisation, rapid expansion and many new buildings – there is a hypermarket coming up soon – the old town centre, thankfully, remains the same. It was rebuilt in 1880 following the great fire which destroyed practically everything in town, and which gave the administration a chance to design better roads and buildings.  

As for food, where does one start? It takes a lot for me to say that anything outside Penang is acceptable, but here I willingly concede that this town has reason to be proud of some great dishes.  

Everyone’s heard about Taiping’s popiah and roast pork, but there are other delicious offerings as well.  

One breakfast noodle that has become synonymous with Taiping is chee cheong fun. It’s different from Penang’s, and also different from KL’s version which is firmer.  

My favourite, which used to be sold from a roadside stall at Cross Street, has now moved to the Taiping Hawker Centre at Tupai Road. Tong Fook Chooi’s great-grandfather started the business by selling his own chee cheong fun door to door almost 60 years ago. He now runs the stall with help from his family. The noodles are made fresh every day, steamed at home and brought by motorbike to the stall at regular intervals so it is hot off the press, so to speak. 

Its soft, smooth almost cottony texture, roughly chopped and served with a good dollop of special sauce, chilli sauce, a bit of onion oil and the must-have sprinkling of homemade eu chang (fried onions) over it, all goes down as a real treat. Tong’s chee cheong fun is so popular that they are sold out by 11am every day!  

Another popular breakfast noodle is Taiping’s homegrown kai see meen or chicken noodle soup, started by Ah Lan Cheh with her mother in the early 1960s. Coincidentally, their stall is right next to Tong grandfather’s stall at Cross Street.  

Ah Lan Cheh’s business became so successful that they opened up their own coffee shop “Kakak” (sister) at Market Road, and have been operating from there ever since.  

It’s a simple but very successful recipe – a tasty, clear chicken stock ladled over yellow mee, kuey teow or lou si fun (bee tai bak), topped with eu chang and a good sprinkling of chopped spring onions, served with homemade sambal belacan.  

As the soup is not spicy, it’s popular with everyone, and you can see why the place is packed out, with the crowd – comprising different generations of the same family from toddlers, to parents and grandparents – spilling out onto the road. 

“Many customers grew up eating our kai see meen, and even though they have left Taiping, they come back with their children for it,” said Teng Aun Seng, who helps his sister run the shop. 

Teng also developed the “Kakak Special” – Nescafe made with hot barley, which was actually the result of a mistake but turned out to be a delicious, aromatic drink, unique to them. It has become very popular with their clients. 

But if you fancy a bit of everything, then go to the Casual Market, a heaving, bustling hawker centre which starts early in the morning and goes on all day till late at night. It’s teeming with people on the prowl for good food, and stalls there sell everything, including one of the best ban chang kueh I’ve ever had – thin, crispy and nutty.  

You will find a few stalls here which serve yet another Taiping speciality which I am told is not available anywhere else in Malaysia – the “hoo uwan kuey teow”, the smooth, flat rice noodles, slightly more robust than the soup type, are cooked in dark gravy flavoured with fishballs. It’s really quite unique, and tastes fantastic with chopped chilli padi. 

The folks of this town really love their food. At practically every corner, you will find a coffee shop famous for one thing or another, from the aromatic Hainanese Chicken Rice with its special chilli and ginger sauce at Ayer Kacang or Swiss Hotel, to Prima Coffee Shop with its many stalls. 

Many Taiping folks may have left their hometown to make their fortune and their mark on the world, but they will always have a place in their heart for this lovely town of everlasting peace. 

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