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
As delicious and exciting as all of this food was, after a week of meals at teahouses, cafés, markets, hawker centers, and street carts, I had to admit: I was craving an honest-to-goodness home-cooked dinner. And so I was delighted to be invited to the home of my great-uncle Chenna and his wife, Rato. They live in a town 15 miles outside of Ipoh called Batu Gajah, where many Punjabis first settled generations ago. My mother had lived with them while she was finishing high school, and they welcomed me into their home as if they'd just seen me yesterday.
After a few questions about my family in the States, they fell comfortably into discussing the latest local gossip. At the broad table in their dining room, they fed me Indian foods I recalled fondly from childhood: aloo gobi (sauteed cauliflower and potatoes with turmeric) and freshly griddled chappati flat-breads, hot and buttery as any Punjabi would demand. But we also ate rendang ayam, that slow-simmered, spicy Malay chicken dish. We all tucked in eagerly, and Aunt Manjit proclaimed, "We eat everything in this country, you know. There's no difference between this Indian dish and that Chinese dish. In Malaysia, we'll eat it because it's good."
I thought about the meals I'd enjoyed over the past few weeks and it suddenly came to me—in no instance did I see Chinese, Malay, and Indian influences fused together in a single dish. Instead, dishes from all three cultures share space on the table. But then there is always room for cooks of different stripes to bring their own interpretations to a recipe; the rendang we were eating, for example, was made in a soupier style than the classic Malay version. For dessert, there were Chinese pineapple tarts my aunt had picked up at the market. "We're Indian," she said as she served them, "but we're also Malaysian." Luckily, the same goes for me.
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