Hungry City: Eating Through Ipoh
Gingery dumplings. Coconut milk curries. Spicy noodle stir-fries. The city of Ipoh, Malaysia is a vibrant melting pot of Asian cuisines
Photo: Todd Coleman
Uncle Taru pulled into OldTown White Coffee—a chain, he explained, but one that celebrates the Chinese coffeehouse culture that's specific to Ipoh. I knew that "white coffee," a strong brew served with sweetened condensed milk, was an invention of Chinese tea sellers who set up shops in Ipoh's Old Town about a hundred years ago. But the dishes we ordered weren't Chinese. They were part of the rich culinary heritage of the ethnic group that began migrating to this part of Malaysia, probably from Borneo, around 1,500 years ago. We had nasi lemak, a dish of rice cooked in coconut milk and flavored with turmeric, and rendang ayam, a curry of chicken and coconut milk that's slowly simmered until the liquid is cooked away and the meat is caramelized on the outside and lusciously juicy within.
As we ate, my uncle explained: True, Ipoh is revered across Malaysia for its Chinese cooking—about 70 percent of the population here is Chinese, and the city's dim sum is considered some of the best in the country. But Malaysia's entire culinary heritage is represented in Ipoh, and that makes for a dramatic convergence of ingredients and flavors. The country—comprised of former British colonies and territories that united to form a nation in the early 1960s—is spread out over two land masses divided by the South China Sea. Ipoh lies in the western portion, on the Malay Peninsula, which extends southward from Thailand. Malay people brought to the Peninsula a style of cooking that resembles other tropical Southeast Asian cuisines in that there are chile-hot coconut milk curries and stews seasoned with brightly flavored ingredients like galangal and lemongrass as well as belacan, a pungent fermented shrimp paste. People from India—predominantly Tamils from the south, but also Punjabis and other groups from different parts of the country—brought with them curries spiced with cumin, turmeric, and mustard seed, as well as soupy lentil and chickpea dals, buttery griddled flatbreads, tandoor-roasted meats, and vegetables like cauliflower and eggplant. And there are the many foods that came from southern China along with Hakka and Hokkien immigrants: the long-aged, salty-sweet "double black" soy sauce; the tofu; the starchy noodles, dumplings, and buns; and the vast array of dim sum that Ipohites snack on day and night. Perhaps even more extraordinary than the diversity of foods on offer is the fervor with which they're all embraced. "To be a citizen of Ipoh," my uncle said, "is to know and love food."