“May we join you?” the woman asked, smiling and gesturing to two empty stools at our table. Tom and I looked up from slurping our bowls of prawn noodles and nodded. “Please!” Tom said, laying his chopsticks on the table. Kim’s son DQ was home from Kuala Lumpur for the Christmas break and they were out for breakfast at his favorite kopitiam, or coffee shop, which just happened to coincide with our first Ipoh-white-coffee experience. We spent the next hour or so getting acquainted and tasting the first of many specialties the two wanted us to try.
As we prepared to leave the cafe, Kim and DQ looked at each other, and chorused “Would you like a personal tour of our city?” “We have our car down the block”, Kim said, “and there are some places we want to take you!”
Out we went, for a drive past the main sights in town, then into the outlying neighborhood of Pasir Panji for a whopper of a lunch at the infamous Dai Shu Geok (Big Tree Foot), and a final stop for sweets at JJ Cakes and Swiss Rolls, a personal favorite of Kim’s. Thanks to Kim’s introductions, the stall owner at Big Tree Foot brought out one of just about everything on offer there. Our jelly roll stop was a treat, as well, the owner making sure we tried every flavor of her healthy versions of a favorite Malay dessert.
Our day with Kim and DQ was an unexpected marathon of tasting and talking and tasting some more. Tom and I were deliciously lost most of the time and unable to keep track of all the dishes we shared. We returned to our hotel mid-afternoon, belly full and head spinning from all we’d heard about life in Ipoh, food in Malaysia and much more. It was quite a breakfast!
The colonial-era train station in Ipoh, PerakOriginally a river village in the world’s richest tin-producing field, Ipoh became one of British Malaya’s richest towns. Chinese, Indian, and Europeans, as well as Malays, came to work and to seek their fortunes. Traditional crafts from the area include lion dance heads, bamboo blinds, and Ipoh’s fragrant heong peng biscuits.
Ipoh is a gateway to the Cameron Highlands, and just outside town, beautiful caves and hot springs. It has a rich architectural heritage and an Old Town that looks like a movie set. Lots of street art just adds to the local color.
The Old Town is filled with heritage buildings. Around Kong Heng Square, long-time tenants of colonial-era shop houses, such as coffee shops and barbers, share turf with chic cafes, boutique hotels and fashion and craft stalls. Vines drift over flaking walls and rooftops, and trees grow inside buildings. “Concubine Lane” and other narrow streets are flanked by restaurants and shops. For culinary travelers, vibrant night markets, neighborhood cafes and Ipoh versions of numerous Malay-Chinese dishes take center stage.
An Ipoh foodie shortlist
Tom and I went to Ipoh for the food, and it certainly lived up to its rising reputation! We came away with fond memories, especially of our ramble around town with Kim and DQ. We enjoyed just about everything we tried, but my notes of food names and places did get into a jumble after a bit. We tasted a lot and came up with a short list of must-try foods for Ipoh, but we know that we missed just as much. Ipoh definitely merits a return visit!
If you go
- Locals follow the food, so you should follow the locals! Try these traditional foods we loved, and visit these six popular cafes with a contemporary vibe (2 March 2018 update).
- In traditional restaurants and streetside, watch your food being prepared—it’s often a symphony of movement—and try everything. Sit with locals when you have a chance and they will happily explain to you what they/you are eating, and very likely offer a taste.
- Go to Han Chin Pet Soo, the former Hakka Tin Miners’ Club, to learn about the history of tin and the lives of the miners (advance booking required) or check out guided tours of former tin-mining towns and historical attractions in the Kinta Valley.
- Visit the Valley’s limestone caves to see Chinese temples, prehistoric paintings and after a steep climb, a view of the city from a hilltop pavilion.