Ipoh, Perak State, Malaysia
Ipoh's incredible food is no secret to Malaysians, who think nothing of driving hours on a day trip here just to eat. Many other tourists pass it by heading north to the culinary delights of Penang, but if you love eating, Ipoh really shouldn't be missed. You're here for the food, let's not beat around the bush, so it's an added bonus that this former tin mining town is also quite charming. Old town stretches four blocks, with crumbling two-storey Straits shop houses that host coffee shops, and the city’s colonial past is remembered by the impressive British-era town hall, railway station, courthouse and Padang or village green, where schoolboys still play cricket. Over the bridge is New Town and the air-conditioned malls and five-lane highways that are familiar the length of the Malay peninsula.
It's hard to know where to start, so it's best to drop your bags and just head straight to a coffee shop. Take a seat and order yourself a drink of Ipoh's renowned white coffee, lightly roasted with margarine, then assemble your own feast by ordering from the stalls inside. The intoxicating, smoky aroma of sate ayam, chicken skewers cooked over charcoals and served with a thick, sweet satay sauce and chunks of cucumber, will have you salivating. Ipoh kway teow, a soup loved for its slippery, wide rice noodles, is a must. Order some popiah, fresh spring rolls cut into bite-size quarters with that addictive combination of shrimp, peanuts and chilli. Other dishes to look out for include chee cheong fun, fat rice noodle rolls doused in a pork and mushroom sauce, sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with pickled green chillies, Ipoh laksa, similar to Penang's fishy assam laksa, brilliant dim sum and thick, rich curry mee (curry noodles). If you're still hungry, hunt down a bowl of clay pot chicken rice cooked to order until golden and crisp on the bottom, but be sure to leave room for Ipoh's most famous dish.
If you only eat one dish
Ipoh bean sprout chicken, known as nga choy gai in Chinese, and ayam taugeh in Malay, is synonymous with the city. A variation on Hainanese chicken rice, Ipoh's version also includes succulent, beautifully poached chicken, but it's served with a side of blanched bean sprouts, splashed with a mixture of soy sauce and sesame oil, and instead of rice it usually comes with hor fun, flat noodles in a chicken broth. Locals insist that this dish made anywhere else in the world won't taste the same. Ipoh's mineral-rich spring water runs through limestone caves, and is thought to be the reason that Ipoh's food tastes so good, producing the juiciest, crispest bean sprouts which are very short and plump, and the silkiest, most flavoursome noodles. Everyone has their favourite spot for the dish, but the two most renowned are Restoran Lou Wong and Onn Kee, which stand across the street from one another in a delicious stand-off.
Old town’s quiet streets with their quaint, tiled 'five-foot ways' are perfect for strolling and working up an appetite, though the heat means you’ll need plenty of iced coffee to keep going. Thankfully, it’s the namesake of the nationwide white-coffee chain, OldTown White Coffee, which has its original store in the city, along with dozens of other family-run shops serving their own brew and a handful of hip cafes in renovated shop houses. Skip the museum and instead do as Malaysians do – make a trip to Taiping, an hour's drive away, for yet more food. It's home to a magnificent lake with sprawling gardens, and the equally magnificent Larut Matang food court.
No Malaysian will visit Ipoh without loading a few local specialties into their boot. Buy some white coffee powder, then stock up on heong peng, crisp, flaky biscuits with a caramelised molasses filling traditionally cooked over coconut husks. Ipoh is also famed for its sweet, juicy pomelos, and many people leave clutching a salted chicken from Aun Kheng Lim, though this probably won't survive the flight home.