Thursday, 20 September 2012

Bite-size Ipoh

Thean Chun is a must stopover coffee shop in Ipoh,
with Sekeping Kong Heng on its right.

I made my first and only visit to Ipoh in August last year. It was a trip long overdue -- at least for 20 years. Thanks to the persistence of a friend who grew up there, and is now a Singapore citizen, I had a wonderful culinary escapade of 3 days 2 nights in this city of two-hour drive from the capital of Malaysia.

It’s impossible to write about Ipoh food in one article. I’m told that Ipoh has one of the highest percentages of Cantonese living in a city anywhere in the world; and, due to its geographical location, there is little dilution to this Cantonese culture and cuisine. The hawkers that I met on this trip truly are the guardians of this unique cuisine -- as most of them produce, cook, and sell much of the food from scratch using traditional methods.

For those on a whirlwind stopover, I know of one coffee shop where one could sample the true spirit of Ipoh in a matter of minutes, minus the queuing time. Thean Chun is a 10-sq-m-ish coffeeshop that has been around for as long as my friend could remember. One of its must-eats is Chicken Kuey Teow Soup (or Ipoh Hor Fun as Singaporeans call it).  This dish has been one of my favourites since I first ate it in Holland Village, Singapore, nearly 40 years ago. But the true McCoy is far different from its Singapore cousin. The hor fun was so much smoother; I’m told this is due to the lime content of the water in Ipoh. Unfortunately Ipoh water doesn’t keep well over long distances. The hor fun was served in a thin but robust chicken/prawn stock. The accompanying prawns and chicken didn’t matter: just the hor fun and stock was enough to send me to heaven!

Chee cheong fun, a variation of rice noodle, is another childhood favourite of mine. Again, Thean Chun’s chee cheong fun had texture that was smoother than a face applied with SKII. When one encounters a great plate of chee cheong fun, it’s best to keep the sauce simple in order to savour the texture of the rice noodle. Therefore I declined when the offer was made to add curry sauce to it. The old man who runs the store also operates a factory that distributes his produce throughout Ipoh.

Next to his stall was a makeshift satay grill tray. The satay was great, but I had eaten better elsewhere. What caught my eye, though, were the sticks of innards -- and those were really delicious.

Just when you thought you were spoilt for choice, you were even allowed to order food from the right-next-door-coffeeshop, Kong Heng’s. A must from this neighbouring shop was the popiah. Portions were generous and the stuffing of various ingredients and sweet sauce was extremely tasty.

The endnote, and another must-try, is the custard. Creamy rich, eggy, and smooth, each nibble of this tiny dessert ended with a sweet caramelized after-taste.

Thean Chun (Hall of Mirrors)
73 Jalan Bandar Timah
30000 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
Opening hours: 9.30 am till late lunch
Closed on Thursdays

P.S. Thanks Lee Lee, Johnny, Bee Bee and her family for being such wonderful hosts throughout our stay.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Durian Pengat – A Little-known Sweetie

Two weeks ago, I visited a durian plantation in Muar for the first time. Muar is a mere three hours or so by car from Singapore, but driving there was a little adventure in itself. We stopped beside the highway and met a local business representative. He guided us along a scenic riverside route. We drove through some areas that reminded me very much of Malay kampongs in Singapore back in the 60s and 70s, particularly those at Pasir Panjang and Geylang. Mid-way in the journey, the plantation owner met us and we drove a further 45 minutes towards the hills.

The edible durian flowers
Durian trees grow much farther apart from each other than other trees, such as palm. Durians hung from the branches. We reached a D13 durian site. The leaves of D13 trees are sharper in shape than those of other durian breeds; so are the spikes of the fruit. The durian flowers were plump looking and grew in clusters. The plantation owner explained to us that each tree yielded two harvests (of around hundred or more fruits each) a year on average, depending on the weather. The yield from the same tree might even taste different from day to day depending on rainfall and sunshine. And just like the vineyard, the older the tree the better the fruit. Durians are best eaten around 6 hours after falling off the tree. Once after, fermentation sets in and the fruit starts to decay.

An old squirrel-bite mark
How to choose a good durian? Here are finer points:

  1. The stem from the fruit must be full, thick and fresh
  2. The fruit should feel light in weight, otherwise it would be soft and soggy
  3. The fruit’s colour should be bright and with a slight shine
  4. The shape should not be round, but with radial bulges similar to a pumpkin
  5. When the durian is shaken, there should be a slight sound of rattling
  6. Look for old worm- or animal-bite marks; it is a sign of a good durian
A kampong durian from a 50-year old tree. 

With this, I will introduce an “old” recipe used to cook below-average durian when you do not want to eat them neat. Durian pengat resembles a semi-porridge that is best eaten with apom, pancakes, or glutinous rice. The Malays and Peranakans would commonly cook it at home as a snack. Apom is often associated with the Indians, but it can be traced back to its origins as an Indonesian snack. The ingredients are simple, but the key is yeast, whose fermentation gives rise to a slightly sour after-taste.

Durian Pengat

Durian                         1½ cups
Water                          1½ cups
Palm sugar                  ½ cup
Coconut milk              40 ml
Salt                              a pinch
Pandan leaves            2

1.    Cook water, pandan leaves and durian until soft over low heat.
2.    Add palm sugar and let it simmer.
3.    Add coconut milk and continue to cook for another 5 minutes.
4.    Serve immediately with apom.

Apom (serves 8 pieces)

Coconut milk              1 cup
Rice flour                     125 g
Plain flour                    5 g
Instant yeast                ¼ tbsp                         
Sugar                           40 g
Eggs                            ½
Salt                              a dash
Pandan leaves            4 leaves

1.    Heat coconut milk with pandan leaves and infuse the milk thoroughly. Set aside.
2.    Beat eggs and sugar.
3.    Add flour, yeast and egg mixture. Stir well.
4.    Let it rest for one hour.
5.    Heat pan and wipe it with butter
6.    Pour a ladle of mixture and swirl to spread the mixture evenly.
7.    Cover the pan and cook over low flame.
8.    Remove when the sides of the apom turn light golden.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Lotus Root Soup – Old Faithful

Lotus root has made regular appearances on my dinner table for as long as I could remember. Depending on the technique of cooking, it could be crunchy, or soft as yam, or even powdered to become a drink.  Lotus powder has such high starch content that it is even used as a thickening agent.

The lotus is a versatile food source: every part of the plant can be used for some purpose, or cooked and eaten. In my family home, lotus root is eaten in many forms – stewed, in soup, as fried fritters, as fresh juice, as a snack, and even as health food. In fact, it was even a part of a medical recovery diet for one of my relatives, who suffered from tuberculosis back in the 60s. It may just have been an old wives’ tale, but he recovered and lived to a ripe old age!

I always yearned for a hot bowl of lotus root soup when the weather turned cold. Over the years, I have also accumulated more than a dozen recipes on making a bowl of yummy lotus root soup. Here is one of them.

Lotus Root Soup

Water                          2 litres
Lotus root                   300 g, cut into chunks
Dried oysters              15 g, soaked for 30 mins
Wolfberries                 15 g
Dried red dates           10 g, soaked for 30 mins
Red beans                   20 g, soaked overnight
Pork ribs                      400 g, blanched and washed
Chicken feet                250 g, blanched and washed
Salt                              1 tbsp
Light soy sauce           ½ tbsp

  1. Place lotus root, dried oysters, wolfberries, and red beans in room-temperature water and boil.
  2. Add pork ribs and chicken feet and continue to boil vigorously for 15 minutes. Remove any scum that surfaces.
  3. Cover the pot and simmer for 2 hours.
  4. Add salt and stir until it dissolves. Taste and adjust the salt accordingly.
  5. Before serving, turn off the heat and add light soy sauce.

Note: Dried oysters may be substituted with dried octopus.