Ipoh’s Keng Nam: All about sweet and spicy memories

Fiery red curry noodles that is Keng Nam’s specialty, but the heat level is quite tolerable even if you are not a fan of spicy food (left). Sit back, relax and soak in the Sunday morning atmosphere with a cup of brewed milk tea (right). – Pictures by James Tan
Fiery red curry noodles that is Keng Nam’s specialty, but the heat level is quite tolerable even if you are not a fan of spicy food (left). Sit back, relax and soak in the Sunday morning atmosphere with a cup of brewed milk tea (right). – Pictures by James Tan

IPOH, Nov 9 — One of the perks, if you can call it that, of living in Ipoh is the abundance of great spots for breakfast on Sunday mornings.

It’s true.

Aside from the usual suspects ie. dim sum restaurants, white coffee specialists in Old Town and the super-crowded curry mee (Xin Quan Fang) and hakka mee (Paris Restaurant; formerly Yin Yau Kui) stalls situated a few shops apart on Hugh Low Street in town, there are a few lesser-known names tucked away within the neighbourhood.

The kopitiam that introduced me to, and subsequently left me in awe and completely head over heels in love with, pulut kaya is this resilient humble coffee shop named Keng Nam at the end of Cowan Street.

Pulut kaya or steamed glutinous rice served with coconut jam (or kaya, the quintessential Asian jam) was a crowd puller at Keng Nam back in the late 80s up to the early 90s, and still is enticing new fans and loyalists after all these years.

I mean, it’s not hard to see why. The ability to steam the glutinous rice to a perfect texture; neither too hard or soft and sticky is a tricky skill to master but the old lady has never faltered when it comes to sustaining the quality.

And the spoonful of golden, creamy kaya on top of every serving is the icing on the cake. The coconut and egg jam has quite an intense fragrance from the screw pine leaves (pandan) and just the right level of sweetness that leaves one craving for seconds after mopping up a plate in record time.

But really, the portion is meant for a light snack than actual breakfast, so feel free to ask for a second helping. Or a third.

No one will judge you.

And it is not particularly hard to imagine why I was so enamoured by the taste when I was a kid back then. Sweet, creamy kaya paired with chewy bits of sweetened glutinous rice. A dream come true for the sweet-toothed, no doubt.

But that’s not their trump card, seriously. At least, not the only one.

People flock to Keng Nam for the fast food-like speed of service of the curry noodles stall. Although it appears scary at times when the crowd spills to the walkway and corridor of the adjacent lot (which is closed on a Sunday morning, thankfully), and every table seems to be tapping their foot, chopsticks, fingers and all waiting patiently for their bowl of curry noodles, the length of time between ordering and getting served is actually pretty bearable.

Although personally Keng Nam’s interpretation of the renowned Ipoh curry noodles was never my favourite, this is clearly not the case with the many locals and long-time patrons of the stall.

The pulut kaya at Keng Nam Coffee Shop is to die for; a very traditional, Hainanese style of kaya that will leave you wanting seconds (left). Ipoh-style chee cheong fun is available at Keng Nam and the silky smooth steamed rice noodles go well with any condiments (right)
The pulut kaya at Keng Nam Coffee Shop is to die for; a very traditional, Hainanese style of kaya that will leave you wanting seconds (left). Ipoh-style chee cheong fun is available at Keng Nam and the silky smooth steamed rice noodles go well with any condiments (right)

To be honest, the curry noodles here isn’t half bad. In fact, compared to many other half-baked versions (cooked by foreign workers or from a stock made from instant noodle seasoning, probably), Keng Nam’s version stands tall above them all.

The broth has this fearsome deep red hue that belies its true self. A layer of chili oil floating on top of the curry is the culprit, but give it a good stir and you will get nicely-coated strands of noodles (as usual, pick from the selection of yellow noodles, rice vermicelli or kuey teow), paired with cuts of smooth, poached chicken and simply garnished with a handful of mint leaves.

But of course, we Ipoh folks are spoilt for choice when it comes to excellent curry noodles all year round, across the city. Hence, I still draw comparisons with Xin Quan Fang, Nam Chau and Yee Fatt.

The chee cheong fun (CCF) stall at Keng Nam is a crowd pleaser too. As how one should enjoy Ipoh-style CCF, go with the combination of chili and sweet bean sauce (tim jeong), or go plain with soy sauce and shallot oil, and ask for more pickled green chillies.

Half-boiled eggs on toast (or dan ji) is a lighter yet wholesome breakfast selection, in case you are suffering from food comatose after bouts of eating
Half-boiled eggs on toast (or dan ji) is a lighter yet wholesome breakfast selection, in case you are suffering from food comatose after bouts of eating

Sometimes, eating CCF in Ipoh can be such a wondrous experience. Every single plate can be so significantly different depending on your choice of condiments.

At Keng Nam, one can also pick the mushroom and minced pork gravy for an earthy, savoury flavour laden with sweetness from the fungi, or the more sinful curry pig’s skin that sounds awful on paper but really is far from fear-inducing.

When all else fails, and you crave for a simpler yet wholesome breakfast, try their half-boiled eggs on toast; two runny eggs on top of perfectly toasted, buttered slices of bread. Or the conventional combination of butter and kaya toast sandwich.

And last but not least, cap the feast off with a beautifully brewed cup of Ipoh white coffee, or a cup of silky smooth milk tea.

The reasons why you should refuse having breakfast in the hotel or settling for a fast food solution when in Ipoh are many. And maybe you should wander beyond the places listed in guide books for a thoroughly enriching, local experience.

That’s the undeniable charm of going street food hunting in Ipoh. Enjoy the journey.

James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)

Keng Nam Coffee Shop
No 127, Jalan Raja Ekram (Cowan Street)
30300 Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia

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