Saturday, 26 April 2014

Tasty secrets of Ipoh Old Town

Old town: A painting by the Malaysia Watercolour Society paying homage to Ipoh’s famous white coffee.

Old town: A painting by the Malaysia Watercolour Society paying homage to Ipoh’s famous white coffee.

A Malaysian town famous for local coffee lures an adventure seeker.

Rummaging through old boxes that have been sitting in the corner collecting dust could unleash a gush of nostalgia. As snippets of the past are unearthed, a certain poignant fondness tends to fill the heart. Exploring old towns, too, can ignite similar emotions.

As I hoofed it around the City That Tin Built, the rustic buildings laden with history (and good food) that lined the streets of Ipoh Old Town promised a fruitful heritage and culinary discovery to a keen traveller.

While the past is rarely flawless, it is often romanticised. The famed side of the Kinta River, which grew thanks to the tin rush in the early 1880s, had to be rebuilt after a major fire destroyed half the town. It rode on the second wave of tin rush and earned the title “City of Millionaires”.

When I entered the “Old Concubine” Lane or Jalan Panglima as it is known now, I was reminded of affluent Chinese miners who stashed their lovers here for passionate trysts. Of course, the lane no more hosts such ladies. Instead, rows and rows of shops that served local delights welcomed all who wanted a taste of old-fashioned gastronomic adventure.

Putting up at a classic, old building that was turned into a hotel certainly kick started the trail. Sekeping Kong Heng is not for the faint-hearted. The unique concept of preserving an old building and giving it a new purpose did lead to an exciting stay. The B&B still has the feel of a torn-down shop-house, perfecting the step-back in time for me.

Sekeping Kong Heng.
Sekeping Kong Heng barbershop.
Sekeping Kong Heng convenience shop.

The friendly caretaker, Mardi, welcomed guests with a smile as he guided them through the unconventional “hotel”; you need to lock the gates after getting in and going up the stairs and take off your shoes to enter the wooden-plank corridor that leads to your room.

I hurried to dump my bag in the room and go hunting for food as the early morning drive to the town had awakened pangs of hunger. Besides, what better way to start the day than a hearty breakfast?

I decided to get my caffeine fix the traditional way. The Old Town is renowned as the birthplace of the white coffee, one of Malaysia’s favourite beverages. It would be a great opportunity missed to forgo the pleasure of sipping a cuppa in the town where the true white coffee originated.

The OLDTOWN White Coffee brand takes its name from the birthplace of the popular beverage.

As history goes, in 1958, a Hainanese devised the ingenious style of roasting coffee beans. The Hainan clan was among the last to arrive at the shores of Nanyang (as the greater Nusantara region of Malaya, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines were collectively called back then), and they were hired as cooks and workers in the food and beverage business. They made the coffee powder into a coffee beverage that suited the taste of the Chinese traders who often had to drink coffee when entertaining their Western clients.

I made up my mind to down as many cups possible just to taste the variations offered by the many old traditional coffee shops which mostly were ran by the third or fourth generation of the founding families.

So, I sat and ordered a char kuey teow to go with my coffee. It was a week day and the crowd was small. My cup arrived soon. It didn’t take too much effort to appreciate the whiff of the bitter sweet, strong brew that teased the senses; and if made by deft, experienced hands certainly delivers the punch needed by coffee addicts.

Why call it “white”, some may wonder. The answer lies in the blend of different coffee beans – arabica, robusta and liberica – a modification of the Western coffee. The secret ratios of the roasted beans yield the special “pak ka fei” as it is called by the Cantonese.

The OLDTOWN White Coffee brand products therefore is said to be of authentic, old recipes that have their roots in Ipoh Old Town. The coffee is a must-have in menus.

Hoong Tho restaurant.
Kong Heng popiah.

Of course, I did not put up much resistance to other delicious fare which was available at those shops as well.

Like the popiah made by an elderly lady who had been selling it for almost 50 years. The crunchy spring rolls filled with dried shrimps, yam beans, shallots and Chinese sausage slices with a dash of special sauce provided yummy bites. Her niece who helped her run the business said the stall had been around since the conception of the coffee shop itself.

Walk further down the street and more food await.The dry curry noodle piled with cockles just as I liked it proved to be another must-try. Opened only nine years ago, this particular shop could be considered a newbie in the business unlike others. The noodles were served with a handful of bean-sprouts on top while the gravy had a tinge of sweetness that pleased the taste buds.

The lady boss also introduced a poetic dish called: Moon Jewellery Box Toast that was simply delicious. It was basically two slices of toast sandwiching a luncheon meat, with a window on top that held the dripping poached egg.

Those who appreciate handmade fish-balls made from freshly caught “ikan parang” or “ikan belida” as third generation operator Andy Yin, 37, insisted; the ones found at his shop would surely satisfy their need. The restaurant, which was opened eight days after Independence Day, sourced the fish from Lenggong where the owner had three other restaurants.

It was said that the Jalan Sultan Yusuf, formerly known as the Belfield Street, that cuts through the town was the original path of the Kinta River before the British decided to re-route it for flood mitigation purposes.

> To be continued next Saturday, May 3.

Must do's in Old Town

1. Taste the authentic white coffee from the region.

2. Try the delicious local fare that are reasonably priced.

3. Explore the centuries old traditional houses at Jalan Panglima.

4. Check out the trendy, one-of-a-kind cafes that are housed in old buildings and the wall art that covers the buildings.

5. Go on a heritage trail to see historic buildings that have been converted for modern-day usage.

Tags / Keywords: Travel , Ipoh Old Town


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