Ipoh only really came into its own at the end of the 19th century with the growth of the tin-mining industry. Fleeing famine and poverty in China or as indentured slaves, countless Hakka families moved to the city in pursuit of a better life. Able to marry several times and to take concubines, the population of Chinese grew exponentially, creating a city in the shade of the Cameron Highlands that was predominantly Chinese in character. Under British rule until 1960, at first glance, arriving at the elegant railway station, Ipoh appears distinctly British too. Vast white wedding-cake buildings flanked by columns and laced with balconies rise up to greet you with a charming colonial atmosphere. The black and white timbered Royal Ipoh Club sits beside the padang (grassy, square parade ground) where once cricket was played, looks every inch a cricket pavilion. Yet, away from the station, designed by Hubback, the same chap responsible for the station in Kuala Lumpur, roads narrow, trees disperse and instead rows of Chinese shophouses fill the streets. This is where real life happens in Ipoh. This is where we want to spend our time.
It is Ian’s birthday weekend and, after two and a half years in Malaysia, it is the first time we have visited Ipoh. We travel by train, after work on a Friday, purchasing First Class tickets for less than 30 quid return, for both of us. The journey takes about two and a half hours, which is probably about the same, if not less, than it would take to drive. Having driven up the dull, straight and boring E1 twice already in the last month, we can’t face it again, particularly on a Friday night. We made the right choice and take ourselves some vino and crisps and embarrassingly stinky guacamole along for the ride.
Our hotel is M Boutique, a funky looking choice that is tremendous value. What we don’t know is that it overlooks a main road and is slap bang in the middle of rows of second-hand car showrooms. It is also too far to walk to the old town, which is where everything worth seeing, and eating, is located.
During the two days we spend here we follow the Heritage Walk, picking up a guide in the tourist office beside the padang and following the fat yellow footprints that have been painted on the pavements to show us the way. We gawp at buildings that are majestic, impressive and have fascinating histories to tell. The church of St John the Divine that was taken over by the Japanese in World War II and turned into a laundry, Mosques, temples and clubs. Malaya’s first multi-storey car park; just two floors high and built in 1962, the law courts, the first HSBC in Malaya. Everything is worth our attention. Even the lack of mopeds buzzing around like mosquitoes gets our attention, the lack of traffic, the quiet streets, the ability to walk around on pavements under the shade of the five-foot ways typical of Chinese shophouses without having to dodge broken storm-drain covers, skirt parked cars and motorbikes and people whose shops spill out as far as the road. Street art has arrived there too, like in Penang, and as in Penang, it draws a crowd.
Our Ipoh priority is to eat. A UK Masterchef fan for many years, I had been thrilled to learn that 2014’s winner was a Malaysian and that she won the final with a refined version of one of my favourite local dishes – nasi lemak. Even better I know that Ping Coombes hails from Ipoh. She has a cookbook, entitled Malaysia, out on May 5th and has been in the papers because it’s promotion time. In last week’s Star she had declared that she always ate pork balls and hor fun at a place called Thean Chun and so, of course, it was my topmost priority of all to do the same. Day one and we were there for lunch.
As is typical of street-side open food-court cafés here, the building seems to belong to the chap who sells the drinks and then punters order what they want to eat from a choice of hawker stalls in the vicinity.
Ipoh is known for its special blend of white coffee. This is coffee made with margarine, roasted beans, milk and sugar. Ours comes slopped into the saucer, dark and rich. I’ll stick to my cafetière, thanks, but when in Ipoh you have to do what the locals do. Hor fun, we discover, has nothing to do with spending time in the Red Light District. It is a soup of pale chicken stock served with flat rice noodles, prawns sliced down the centre, skinny slices of chicken and two-inch strips of spring onion tops. It comes in an orange plastic bowl with plastic soup spoon and chopsticks along with a vinegary dipping sauce, dotted with discs of green chilli, which lifts the dish a little. It is impossible to eat it without decorating my chin and tee-shirt too, but much-enjoyed. The pork balls are dense and gently spiced like a good British butcher’s sausage, again with noodles, with yellow mee this time, again with soup, again with spring onions. Also very slurpy. This time our condiment is an orange peppery sauce into which I very much enjoy dunking my pork. We are delighted with Ping’s recommendation.
Our taxi driver tells us that Ipoh is famous for its beansprouts and that they are fatter and juicier than any other. We must try them with chicken. We make a mental note. Their chicken rice is famous too, says another driver. Another mental note. And there is some North Indian cuisine better than anywhere else in Malaysia. Oh and white toast with kaya (a kind of lemon curd made with coconut milk) for breakfast. There is no way we are going to be able to try all this and still be able to walk. And it’s Ian’s birthday and birthdays mean one thing – cake!
By three o’ clock we are dripping hot and desperate not just for cake but an a/c when, oh joy, we stumble upon a café with a door on it. Everyday Lifestyle is at 29 Jalan Market and weirdly has exactly the same décor as our hotel. They provide unlimited free iced lemon water and so we are sold. Two birthday affogatos and a sharesy of a hazelnut torte and at last Ian can celebrate properly.
That evening though, as it is Ian’s day, he gets to pick where we eat and inevitably he picks Indian and so we ask Tripadvisor for its recommendation and find Tandoor Grill. This time our taxi driver tells us the beansprouts are nothing special any more and made with ordinary tap water. He also says he can recommend better places for our dinner, and as he’s Indian, we tend to believe him, but we’d heard tell our first choice has a/c, tablecloths and beer so I’m afraid there is no contest. We are not disappointed.
Sunday and our agenda is mostly filled with food again. TripAdvisor recommends another street-side café for breakfast and we head off again in another taxi. Before you think we are either lazy or rich, let me set you straight. This weekend there is an Uber promotion and all taxis are free. Also, Ian has a bad knee. Also, a face that sweats so much your sunglasses slip off gets old quickly.
And so to Jalan Bandar Timur and Sin Yoon Loong. It’s time to try those beansprouts and sample another Ipoh white coffee. This place purports to be famous for its coffee. When we arrive the tables are heaving. We are asked if we mind sharing, which happens a lot here. A Chinese lady is already at the table and she doesn’t mind sharing at all. Nor does she mind sharing her tips on what to eat.
“Roast pork, very famous,” she says, showing us one of the hawker stands at the front. “Five ringgit, small bowl, ten ringgit large.” We discover her name is Elaine.
I look across and start to salivate. It’s ten thirty and we want our breakfast.
Elaine’s friend, Tina, joins us and between them they recommend what seems to be everything on the menu. Ian and I make suitable noises and before we know it our Tina is ordering hor fun again, prawn soup, beansprouts and more white coffee. We get to choose our own noodles. I ask for kway teoy again because the flat rice noodles are soft and melty and my favourite. She looks at us slightly sniffily.
“Mee hoon and bee hoon better. Or you can mix.” Mee hoon are the yellow ones you find in Pot Noodle. Bee hoon is a really skinny version.
I plump for rice noodles for the hor fun and a mix for the prawn soup. She seems satisfied.
Food arrives at the table from all sides and while we gasp in awe at the vast quantity in front of us our new friend pays our bill. We complain. She waves us away.
“You try kaya?” she asks.
“I love kaya.”
“Very good here.” I expect it too is famous.
A toasted sandwich oozing with caramel appears on our table. Not normally a fan of white bread I find myself eulogizing about this and before I know it, I’m being told the recipe. Equal quantities of sugar, coconut milk and egg, flavoured with pandan leaf for colour and taste. Cooked over a bain-marie, preferably for four hours.
The coffee, when it comes is, I have to say, richer and nuttier than the one from Thean Chun the day before. It’s the same cup and saucer though and also slopped. The hor fun has a tastier broth and the prawn soup, full of chicken and a peppery broth that tastes of bouillabaisse is quite delicious. The beansprouts are fat after all, and though served simply in soy sauce with fried sliced shallots on top, are wonderful.
Our two friends swap phone numbers with us and promise to take us on a proper tour next time we are in town. Sorry, Ping, but Sun Yoon Loong beat your choice.
After breakfast we head to Ha Chin Pet Soo, the home of the Hakka Tin Mining club, recently restored by Ipoh World. To me, the name Ipoh World sounds like a theme park, so I prepare myself for disappointment. What I find is a fascinating trip into the lost world of tin-mining, hardship, coolies panning tin ore out of the rubble and silt and people working frighteningly hard in a hand-to-mouth existence in the baking heat. Possibly my most fascinating fact is that the Chinese avoided cholera because, they believed, they drank tea. Of course, it was not the tea itself they had to thank but the fact that the water was boiled first.
From here we move next door to Ho Yan Hor, the home of a pioneering tea seller. Nothing could be more fitting a follow-on. Ho Kai Cheong was a trained Chinese medical doctor, who, after the Japanese surrendered, had to begin again with nothing. Thanks to the only $4 he had in his pocket he decided to make a large vat of tea, which he then sold at 5 cents a cup, making a healthy profit from his first day. Reading the information boards in the museum I am at once struck by the systematic way the doctor went about growing his modest business into an empire that now sees his tea exported worldwide. Tea to relax, tea to cool you down and tea to heal, it uses 25 different roots and herbs. Back then his tea stall was in the part of town with the highest population of Chinese, proving again that a success can be achieved if you can operate close to your target market. From his stall he moved to buy a bicycle, make up packets of his dried tea concoctions and peddle up and down the Malay peninsula delivering (it is hundreds of miles). Later, he bought a van, then a factory. He used branding, marketing and advertising, was a whizz at PR, inviting celebrities to visit his factory, using his skill as a poet and calligrapher to write a poem in praise of tea. The business remains in the family to this day and Ho, whose motto was ‘Work hard, play hard’, achieved a degree in divinity at the age of 87.
Ipoh may be sleepy but it is in no way dull. Its heritage is rich in flavour and pioneer spirit. We leave inspired and sated and vow definitely to return.