IPOH, Oct 5 — Sungkai is a small town wedged between Bidor and Slim River along the North-South Expressway that has benefitted significantly from a surge in tourism thanks to Sungai Klah Hot Springs Park.
In all honesty, this little town that was barely known to outsiders (this includes Perakians too, I can assure you that!) has much less to shout about compared to neighbouring towns like Bidor, Kampar, or even Slim River.
In terms of attractions, like I mentioned earlier, the hot springs park is one of Perak’s major tourism highlights. Although not known to many, there is one wildlife conservation centre aka Sungkai Deer Farm that also houses other wildlife such as ostrich and exotic birds.
But when it comes to food, there is nothing the likes of guide books-worthy specialties, unlike Bidor’s duck noodles, Kampar’s curry chicken bun, or even Tanjung Malim’s halal pau.
Seldom do people mention Sungkai and food hunt in the same breath. Even holiday makers tend to stay cooped up in the Felda resorts at the hot springs park; or even drive all the way to Bidor for their meals.
I literally grew up together with Sungkai; in tandem with the delayed development this side of Perak desperately needed. My late grandfather used to stay in Sungkai, and this was a favourite stopover during our Ipoh-Kuala Lumpur trips before the PLUS expressway was built.
There was a sense of jubilation upon reaching every “checkpoint” along the way; from the food lover’s dream of Kampar for chicken biscuits, curry chicken buns or even claypot chicken rice to Bidor for some quality petai sold by the
Orang Asli, or the delicious tropical fruits like guava, rose apples or soursop.
Road trips were so much more fun than they are now where the only requirement is for one to read the signboards and drive towards the toll exit.
Aside from my grandmother’s absolutely mind-boggling acar and sambal petai, we were very fond of a nameless nasi lemak bungkus stall in one of Sungkai’s back streets; this very small shack but with huge character run by a Malay lady.
And then there is the Chinese restaurant that served chu char (Chinese style of various dishes served with steamed rice) near the main wet market where our relatives are still selling fresh produce from neighbouring farms. Or the still famous char siew bao at Choi Yuen.
But none of the aforementioned names come close in terms of popularity when pitted against Choy Kee, the restaurant that raised the bar when it came to braised pig’s trotters.
Choy Kee has been around for as long as I can remember. During reunion feasts, someone from our large extended family is almost always tasked to buy a portion of the pig’s trotters from Choy Kee. It was more of a special occasion dish than an everyday affair, or so I was brought up to believe.
Fast forward to almost two decades later; Choy Kee has grown from the single shoplot it used to occupy for many years along the inner part of Sungkai main town.
It has been sold to Mr Lee who, together with his wife, has been passionately running the business for about a decade now. And they have also successfully moved the business to larger premises along the main road just off the PLUS expressway, towards Bidor.
The spanking new outlet has three floors though only the ground floor seats diners in a fully air-conditioned environment. A far cry from what Choy Kee was back in the old shop lot where flies sometimes pestered diners.
The main kitchen is located on the upper floor; a relatively weird choice but somehow makes sense to allow for a larger seating capacity and comfortable kitchen space to whip up a storm, literally.
Mr Lee is the one who not only runs the business, but also commandeers the kitchen crew.
The now Choy Kee staple of braised pig’s trotters with a handful of choy sum as garnishing (or to suppress the guilt-ridden feeling of devouring an artery-clogging juggernaut braised to tender perfection) is of course, the mainstay in their menu.
But Choy Kee also excels in their execution of freshwater prawns sourced from Teluk Intan. Named udang galah in Malay, the size of each crustacean exceeds the length of one’s palm, so clearly the prawns here are no mere medium or large; they were more like a small lobster.
As one would have expected, be prepared to pay a princely sum for such indulgence too; at about RM95 per kilo, each prawn can weigh up to half a kilo.
They can whip up the prawns in several ways; the recommended one would be to steam them in a light broth with egg white, crispy deep fried shredded ginger and topped with lots of chopped scallions. This brings out the natural sweetness of the succulent flesh, and don’t forget to slurp up the creamy roe from the carapace pure, mindless indulgence.
If you are in luck, remember to order their freshly prepared saito fish paste (ikan parang or wolf-herring) either cooked in soup or stir-fried with ginger and scallions. The firm, bouncy texture of the fish paste really stands out; a clear case of how freshness brings out the true flavour of such a simple dish. Back in the kitchen, I saw how the huge fish was filleted and the flesh spooned into the boiling water.
Other not to be missed dishes includes the one-of-a-kind ikan terubok cooked in a tamarind juice-based broth; the fish is left to simmer overnight until the bones soften and become completely edible. Yes, you can practically devour the entire fish whole!
And sometimes it’s best to check with the staff on the freshest catches; the freshwater fish are some of their best sellers, but do be cautious of the price for each. The simple steamed la la clams in soy sauce and Chinese wine is marvellous; the toothsome bite of every morsel needs no more than a faint hint of wine to elevate the flavours.
Choy Kee is not only about proteins, mind you. The sambal belacan pucuk pakis (wild fern) has the making of the best and the freshest version available; the vegetables come direct from the sellers that know best — the Orang Asli community.
Although Sungkai might not have crossed your radar when choosing a getaway, it makes more sense now to consider dropping by for a taste of superb Chinese cuisine, a dip at the hot springs park and a walk around the Sungkai deer farm, right?
James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)
Sungkai Choy Kee Restaurant
No. 1, Jalan Sungkai Perdana 1, Taman Sungkai Perdana, 35600 Sungkai, Perak.
Opens for lunch and dinner.
Tel No: +605-438 6287, +6019-336 9609