IPOH, April 6 — I remember how we used to stay up really late into the night pondering over school projects; the conversation would be peppered with mindless small chats and life anecdotes (well, whatever’s significant during those teenage school years).
The few of us school mates would be struck by hunger pangs at the most inconvenient of times; say, way past midnight. We would wonder where we could go for a “quick” bite.
But of course, when I say “quick” bite, you have to remember this was Ipoh back in the 90s and I am not referring to 24-hour “mamak” stalls or fast food outlets.
There probably was only the one round-the-clock “mamak” outlet back then which is still around today; Salam Corner at the back of Jusco Kinta City.
But since we usually congregated around the Pasir Puteh area, it made sense for us to look for alternatives nearby — in the form of Kum Kee's noodles, chicken and bean sprouts.
Yup, imagine being able to eat Ipoh’s famous nga choy gai (bean sprouts chicken or ayam tauge) in the wee hours of the morning. Kum Kee is the official name of the corner lot opposite the Pasir Pinji police station, yet most of us remember this place for its “Big Small Feet.” Let me tell you why.
Kum Kee has been around for a good many decades. Back in the day, when we were still younglings in the 80s — ignorant of directions and with barely-awoken palates — Mum would bring us here for the noodles and various lieu or stuffed vegetables and tofu which the rest of the country calls yong tau foo.
Kum Kee started as a humble stall further down the road but as business expanded, they moved to a corner lot and recently took over the adjacent premise to cater to the crowd; more often than not the night owls.
Back to the “Big Small Feet” story, the name sounds slightly unappetising but in reality this is their most iconic dish. A combination of soy sauce braised pork knuckles and chicken feet spiked with a dash of white pepper and garnished with chopped scallions; the sauce used to braise the, erm, limbs of both animals is the winning factor.
But do come early for this dish (order the dai sai geok — as it is known in Cantonese) as the braised pork knuckles is a bestseller compared to the chicken feet.
The dish, however, is not eaten with plain, steamed rice if you’re hankering for some carbo to soak up the moreish gravy. Instead, you can’t go wrong with a serving of plain sar hor fun (kuey teow/flat rice noodles), another Ipoh specialty. The unbelievably smooth noodles slither effortlessly down one’s throat, and you can either have yours in soup (flavoured with a dash of pepper), tossed lightly in a combination of soy sauce and dark soy sauce, or even an optional (highly recommended) dollop of chilli oil paste. The last option will no doubt perk up your appetite but the fiery tone might just overshadow the rest of the dishes if you’re reckless.
Besides this, Kum Kee is also famous for the poached chicken and blanched bean sprouts; that deadly combination which makes up Ipoh’s must-have — nga choy gai. I am glad to proclaim that Kum Kee’s version of the chicken will put many other places to shame, including the over-rated tourist magnets in town. Seriously. The chicken is poached to tender perfection; smooth yet without annoying bits of blood red marrow or worse, under-cooked meat.
We actually polish off an entire platter of chicken prior to the entry of our noodles, chicken feet and bean sprouts. That good.
The juicy bean sprouts lightly blanched then tossed in a mix of soy sauce and sesame oil are flawless as well; a more or less expected outcome from the already top-in-class Ipoh bean sprouts.
The only item that seems lost amidst the deluge of satisfying eats is the poorly-executed sar kok liew (deep fried stuffed jicama) that had more flour than chopped jicama, resulting in a chewy texture that pales in comparison to some of Ipoh’s best; the famous Big Tree Foot stall for one. Still, if you are keen on light snacks of yong tau foo, try their pig’s skin (!) stuffed with fish paste. This is not found in the routine line-up in the Klang Valley, that’s for sure.
The sheer fact that Kum Kee is still standing strong and overflowing with late night diners nightly is testament enough of their popularity and sustainability in the heart of Ipohans. The food is priced very reasonably too; a meal for three comes to less than RM30; including a serving of grandma’s favourite chicken feet for take-away. Oh if you’re seeking to polish off the meal with something sweet, go for a bowl of tau fu fah (sweet soy bean curd pudding) served warm. Be aware that that finishes early as well!
James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com).
Kum Kee Restaurant
798 - 799, Jalan Sekolah
Pasir Pinji, 31650 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
Opens for dinner until about 3am.
*Opposite Pasir Pinji police station