IPOH, Sept 13 — “Well, the popiah aunty can no longer sustain the arduous task of standing for long hours daily. She’s more than 80 years old, after all.”
This confirmed my worst fear, that another one of my favourite popiah (fresh spring rolls stuffed with boiled jicama and smothered with a duo of sweet and chilli sauces) stall has disappeared, probably forever.
The popiah stall stationed at Wong Fee Kee Restaurant along the main road of Bercham, leading towards the older, residential area of Kampung Bercham used to be one of our favourite haunts; more so because the lady rolled up not only a decent version of popiah (not the best in Ipoh, but leaps and bounds better than most I have tried in the other states), she was also selling a rarer version made with egg-infused popiah skin.
Now, this coffee shop located along the super busy road of Jalan Bercham is famous not only for the popiah, but more for the crispy, crackling skin siew yoke or roast pork sold by another aunty but one with a no-nonsense attitude. This was the ideal stall for roasted meats during the festive season; her renditions of char siew (sweet, caramelised BBQ pork) and siew yoke are still some of the best in town.
Whenever we chose to dine in, like other customers who come to Wong Fee Kee, we would usually request for a combination of chopped roasted meats; remember to cherry-pick your preferred cut (some would prefer a fatter cut for that smooth, supple and creamy cut while others would shun away from any sights of fats), or ask for the char siew ends (more crust), and specify your desired weight.
No, not related to your waistline but the weight of the meats.
Then she would proceed to chop them up in a fairly nonchalant yet systematic way; every cut tailored for a bite-sized experience, laid out on a sheet of translucent plastic and supported by a piece of newspaper. Oh, not before she provides you with the cutlery of choice; toothpicks.
Very Malaysian indeed.
The succulent cuts of roasted meats paired with a vinegar-laden, garlicky chilli sauce provide one with a deeply gratifying carnivorous experience. But one may argue that this cannot be a complete meal for one, let alone a balanced diet.
Hence, the complementary stalls come to play.
The most prominent stall with a stark red signboard facing the street is this porridge stall that also sells various soupy noodles. But their specialty, at least which was what we order consistently is their chu zhap zhuk or mixed pig’s offal porridge.
Piping hot, cooked in individual portions upon ordering and loaded with fresh porky ingredients (think sliced pork, liver, and crispy deep fried intestines). Grab a bottle of white pepper and ask for an extra dash of sesame oil if you will. Pairing this with the char siew/siew yoke ensemble is a match made in heaven; the not-so-plain rice gruel actually tampering the robust, protein-laden feast to some extent, creating a balanced taste. If all that pork sounds vile or excessive to you, then feel free to request for a bowl of chicken or fish porridge.
With the popiah stall all but gone, leaving us shrouded in disappointment, the adjacent chee cheong fun and economy fried noodle stall has graciously filled up the vacuum.
The duo of ladies serve quite an extensive array of savoury items; including chee cheong fun with curry sauce (or top up that porky quota with a few slices of gelatinous pig’s skin curry instead) or mushroom and minced pork gravy, or even simply tossed in a mix of chilli and sweet sauces.
Complementing the chee cheong fun, or a plate of their simpler fried yellow or vermicelli noodles are at least half a dozen of stuffed fish paste items (yong liew) for your choosing. The ultra-crispy foo pei (beancurd sheets), stuffed beancurd and special fish balls were all passable, but somehow the only item lacking was a crunchy piece of Ipoh’s famous sar kok liew; stuffed yambean/jicama.
Although they do not serve sar kok liew (at least on that afternoon), next door to Wong Fee Kee is another eatery named Ngan Woh that fries up an amazing version of the addictive, savoury item. Cross-shop ordering is frowned upon typically, but feel free to pack a few pieces and steal a bite or two.
Oh, are you still wondering which other stall I was referring to in the starting paragraph on another stall disappearing? Remember that infamously-grumpy uncle that used to sell popiah from the back lane near to Canning Garden? He who commands such a strong following and long queues, and filled up his fresh spring rolls with chilled crab meat? He gave up the trade a year or two back; owing to his deteriorating eyesight.
I can only heave a sigh of relief, to be still able to savour these timeless food bites. I think the time is nigh for another weekend food adventure in Ipoh!
Wong Fee Kee Restaurant
Corner of Jalan Bercham and Lorong Bercham 5
Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
Opens for breakfast and lunch only, closed for dinner.
James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)