Two wet markets in Ipoh: Childhood memories and other musings

Sweet and juicy Tambun pomelos are grown at the Canning Garden fruit stall owner’s own backyard. - Pictures by James Tan
Sweet and juicy Tambun pomelos are grown at the Canning Garden fruit stall owner’s own backyard. - Pictures by James Tan

IPOH — Tell a kid from the “i” generation (yes, the ones who grew up swiping digital screens with their fingers from a really young age) to drop by a wet market for breakfast and the reaction is almost always predictable -- a look of horror mixed with disgust.

Wet markets are generally thought of as wet, dirty places that smell of rotting something or other and well, basically are literally not-very-cool places. They are suited for the older generation. Or patronised only by aunties on their marketing rounds early in the morning.

Options for breakfast are usually limited to stalls manned by some elderly uncle, brewing cup after cup of dark and robust coffee. This is usually served with freshly toasted Hainanese bread slathered with kaya and “butter”, and a pair of half-boiled eggs.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the market will allocate space for a Malay stall selling nasi lemak bungkus, or a fish ball noodle stall ladling up bowls of piping hot noodle soup and yong tau foo.

In Ipoh, I grew up tagging along (unwillingly most of the time, unless it’s for food) with grandma or mum for visits to the Pasir Puteh wet market. This is at the crossroad junction of Jalan King and Jalan Pasir Puteh, opposite of the secondary school.

Not exactly an adolescent’s idea of a great Saturday morning. I would squirm at the sight of fresh meat butchered in front of my eyes, turn my nose up at the stink from the seafood section and the stench of “live” chickens cramped in coops.

Then, there’s that pleasant thought of my reward for surviving the torturous ordeal:my favourite pack of nasi lemak, plain with half a hard boiled egg with the spicy kick from the sambal and crunchy ikan bilis. That, and a steaming hot cup of coffee or tea, plus a piece or two of sweet kuih from the stalls.

Back then during my school days, these were considered treats although it felt a bit morbid eating my food within spitting distance of the butchery. And without the comfort of air-conditioning or wifi!

Either I kept myself entertained with the lurid gossip of the ladies resting after their morning walks or shopping duties, or if grandma was kind enough to grant me the modest reward of a toy or Doraemon magazine... but time passed by real quickly and the visits to the market did not feel like a dreadful chore after a while.

* Pasir Puteh wet market food section is wedged in between the poultry section and the butchery. Come early for their coffee, breads, nasi lemak bungkus and noodles. Usually closed before lunch time.

The chirpy lady who runs the kuih stall at Pasir Puteh treats each customer like her long lost friend (left). Service with a smile from the lady who runs the kuih stall at Pasir Puteh (right)
The chirpy lady who runs the kuih stall at Pasir Puteh treats each customer like her long lost friend (left). Service with a smile from the lady who runs the kuih stall at Pasir Puteh (right)

Fast forward to the present. When we first moved to Ipoh Garden, the visits to the Pasir Puteh market slowed down considerably. Instead, mum and grandma changed their marketing routine and started to patronise the Canning Garden market.

This is a market that is many times cleaner and more organised (that barely feels wet or dirty, by the way). A recent visit home for the Qing Ming festival had me paying the market a visit early on a Saturday morning.

The leafy Canning Garden market
The leafy Canning Garden market

Walking through the square populated by about 30 plus stalls felt like time has stood still since the last visit. Back in the late 90s and early part of the millennium, this area of Canning Garden was frequented so mum could stock up. This would be followed by breakfast at one of the many stalls along Lorong Cecil Rae. Yet, I still find myself honing in on my favourite chicken pie at Stall No. 29 at the market.

The colourful sight of fresh vegetables at Pasir Puteh (left). Mountains of purple shallots can be found at the stall in Pasir Puteh (right)
The colourful sight of fresh vegetables at Pasir Puteh (left). Mountains of purple shallots can be found at the stall in Pasir Puteh (right)

Since 1998, the mother and children team has been diligently baking pies, tarts, cakes and pastries for sale in the morning. Their signature chicken pie (priced at RM2.40 each), is filled with chunks of chicken, potatoes, finely chopped carrots and studded with black pepper. The filling is not of the juicy kind, but more of the type of chicken pie with a dry filling; perfect for eating on the go.

Aside from that, we also tried the apple pie (RM2) which was excellent; caramelised cubes of apples flavoured by spices encased in a round-shaped, palm-sized pastry skin.

These sweet kuih in cups is scooped out and sprinkled with freshly grated coconut
These sweet kuih in cups is scooped out and sprinkled with freshly grated coconut
Signature pies with their golden flaky pastry (left). The mother-and-son team run the 16-year old stall no. 29 that sells cakes, pies and pastries (right)
Signature pies with their golden flaky pastry (left). The mother-and-son team run the 16-year old stall no. 29 that sells cakes, pies and pastries (right)

They also bake immensely fragrant butter cakes in blocks, flaky kaya puffs, muffins and even breads. Everything’s neatly arranged in the glass display counter. The entire preparation and serving area appears to be spick and span, so there is nary a doubt of their emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene.

Stall No. 29, Canning Garden Market @ Lorong Cecil Rae, Canning Garden, 31400 Ipoh, Perak.

Opens from morning until about 12pm, or until everything’s sold off.

If you ask me whether I still hesitate or am reluctant when offered a chance to tour a new wet market, or one that is yet not explored although in a dilapidated state, it’s a firm NO.

Break open a flaky chicken pie to discover potatoes, chicken and carrots all seasoned with black pepper
Break open a flaky chicken pie to discover potatoes, chicken and carrots all seasoned with black pepper

Places like these exude that extra bit of character from the collective years of serving the neighbourhood and perfecting their trade. And there’s nowhere else better for one to understand the culture of the locals than by eating where they’re eating, and buying from the wet markets catering to local needs.

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