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
With so many choices for eating out, it's a wonder my family spends any time at all in the kitchen. Of course, they do cook; they just tend to round out their homemade dishes with prepared favorites they've purchased. One evening, my aunt took me to her favorite pasar malam, or night market. At one table we came upon a young Malay man making popiah, a kind of fresh spring roll. My aunt wagged her finger and asked him to slow down so that I could observe his process. He was waiting on a number of different customers at once, but he graciously showed me how he spread the translucent rice-flour wrapper with a sticky hoisin-style sauce. He then sprinkled it with chopped dried squid, julienned jicama, chopped peanuts, fresh cilantro, and sliced green onion, finally adding a drizzle of chili sauce and then rolling it all up, sealing it snugly, and slicing it into bite-size pieces. My aunt bought a half dozen, and later that night we ate them, along with lok lok—Malaysian-Chinese skewers of meatballs, fish balls, roast pork, sliced squid, chicken, and more—and some water spinach she'd stir-fried in a wok. It was like my mother's table all over again: a delicious hodgepodge of different cuisines, perfectly at home together.
Once I'd had a chance to get my bearings in Ipoh, I made a date with Honey Ahmad, a cheerful, seemingly tireless 34-year-old native of the city and the editor of the culinary website FriedChillies. Among the sources I had tapped over the years to explore my Ipohite roots, FriedChillies had become a favorite. I met Ahmad at a coffee shop called Sun Yuan Foong, and she suggested I order tauge goreng, a heap of Ipoh's famous bean sprouts stir-fried quickly with garlic, a splash of soy sauce, and chives until they were just wilted.
"This is one of Ipoh's signature dishes," Ahmad explained. "The groundwater here is full of minerals, so our sprouts are fatter and crunchier than others." Whatever the reason, they were the most delicious bean sprouts I have ever tasted: salty-sweet and bursting with juice. Ahmad smiled, pleased at my obvious and enthusiastic approval, and then gave me a taste of her chee cheong fun. Amped up with sesame oil, chili sauce, and sliced pickled peppers, these Chinese steamed rice noodle rolls were fantastic. If my uncle was right, and loving this food was the prerequisite to being a citizen of Ipoh, I was definitely starting to feel like one.