IPOH, June 22 — There are at least a dozen or so famous names constantly being bandied about when speaking about chicken rice in Ipoh. Being a hotspot for bean sprouts chicken (nga choy gai) in the country, the chicken which is usually poached to retain that smooth texture of the meat, and the accompanying nga choy aka bean sprouts grown from the supply of hard water from the limestone hills in Ipoh are parallel to none.
However, with so many names to pick from (Lou Wong, Onn Kee, Cowan Street and Buntong just to name a few), where does one start to draw the line between good chicken rice and excellent chicken rice?
The more renowned bean sprouts chicken stalls listed above are hot picks amongst the tourists — and locals to some extent; more so for their repertoire of poached chicken, bean sprouts and kuey teow (flat rice noodles; also known as sar hor fun to the locals) but not so for their version of chicken rice.
Now, the line has blurred a little when we mention chicken rice and bean sprouts chicken in the same breath. And let’s not drag kai see hor fun stalls (chicken kuey teow soup) into the mix. That gets even more confusing as some of those noodle stalls also offer sides of blanched bean sprouts and poached chicken with soy sauce.
Chicken rice — a staple favourite of Malaysians — can be found in almost every coffee shop in the country, across all the states. Backed by a sturdy Hainanese origin, the conventional chicken rice stall will feature a seller continuously chopping away at the selection of poached and roasted chicken; some also include fancier varieties like sesame chicken into the mix.
The chicken is served on top of rice which is usually cooked with the chicken fats collected from the cooking process, plus a few slices of fresh cucumber and a bowl of soup on the side. You have yourself a power-packed meal. Oh, don’t forget the garlic chilli sauce too.
Of course, these stalls routinely sell other roasted meats like char siew (BBQ caramelised pork), siew yoke (crispy roasted pork), roast duck, and more to meet the demand for variety.
Chicken rice can be enjoyed any time of the day; some have it for breakfast, most would enjoy this over lunch (being a relatively fast item which can be conveniently taken away) while others go for chicken rice for dinner or supper as well.
A restaurant in the town centre has been passionately staying true to its roots for more than three decades now. Pak Kong Nasi Ayam is still fending off stiff competition from Rasa Sayang Chicken Rice right next door and Lou Wong/Onn Kee just a block away.
The secret of their success is really simple; delicious and reasonably-priced food, pleasant workers high on the efficiency scale and a rapid turnover of customers at lunch (Pak Kong only opens for lunch daily).
You can browse the dishes available for the day the minute you step foot into the shop, that is if the perpetual line of people patiently waiting for their turn to order for takeaways doesn’t intimidate you into making a detour to elsewhere for lunch. If you’re dining in, then you can grab a seat; at times you need to share if you’re alone or just with a friend. The lady boss will walk over and take your orders, but be prepared to quickly tell her what you want.
The safest choice is, of course, the chicken rice (duh!). If you’re sharing, then ask for a plate of yin yang aka half portion of roasted chicken paired with another half portion of poached chicken. Succulent cuts of perfectly cooked chicken (no gory sights of bloodied marrows and uncooked flesh; a common issue with subpar bean sprouts chicken places), doused in a dark sauce and generous handful of chopped scallions and julienned carrots complemented by the fluffy and fragrant yellow-tinted steamed rice infused with chicken oil. If health concerns forbid you from ordering that, they of course offer plain white rice as an alternative.
Don’t stop just yet. The other dishes they offer should not be passed off as fillers, unlike at most chicken rice stalls. They serve quality cuts of char siew too; roasted to a caramelised finish and served with a killer sweetish sauce. Don’t look down on their version of sambal petai (stink beans) either; the spicy paste has been given a piquant kick and rivals some of the best versions in town.
We complete our feast usually with a serving of greens: the spicy and sour kai choy to be exact. This dish, also unglamorously known as choy geok (remnants of vegetables) is a common sight at chicken rice stalls; maximising the use of “waste” like the spare cuts of chicken and bones which give the stock a flavoursome sweetness paired with fibrous mustard greens, dried chillies and tamarind.
The Japanese tofu steamed in soy sauce and topped with fried shallots may be simple in presentation and execution, but is one of those dishes that please every palate. Even children’s. And every serving of chicken rice comes with a bowl of salted vegetables (ham choy) soup, believed to reduce heatiness.
Searching for Pak Kong Nasi Ayam along Theatre Street is relatively easy; dead in the centre of town populated by famous eateries and specialty shops like Aun Kheng Lim Salted Chicken (diagonally across the road), Funny Mountain Soya Bean (a few minutes’ walk away), Sin Eng Heong’s kaya puffs and Ching Han Guan’s meat floss biscuits, as well as the prior mentioned Lou Wong and Onn Kee Bean Sprouts Chicken outlets.
Come early for lunch as they open from 11am onwards and operates for a few hours only every day.
James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)