Off the beaten track: Good eats near Taiping town

A heartwarming bowl of shredded chicken noodle soup with killer sambal belacan at Pokok Assam market to start the day with — Pictures by James Tan
A heartwarming bowl of shredded chicken noodle soup with killer sambal belacan at Pokok Assam market to start the day with — Pictures by James Tan

TAIPING, May 25 — The previous story on Taiping’s amazing street eats stirred up a whirlwind of emotions inside some of us. If you’re a Perakian and wondering how in the world you missed all these delectable treats, don’t blame yourself.

It took me a good deal of travelling between Ipoh and Taiping a few years back to discover these incredible eats in Taiping.

And that explains the expanding girth of one hungry soul plying this route constantly.

But there is more; the suburbs of Taiping are no pushovers when it comes to housing great food finds. Kamunting, Pokok Assam and Aulong are smaller towns around Taiping that require almost next to none travelling time. The entire Larut-Matang-Selama district may be large but the populous towns are adjacent to one another.

Let’s start off with Pokok Assam; the third largest town after Taiping and Kamunting. A short distance away from town and in fact nearer to the North-South Expressway’s Taiping toll exit, Pokok Assam is primarily a serene neighbourhood without any high-rise buildings or commercialised retail outlets.

Pokok Assam Market’s food court is a hive of activities in the morning; with more than a dozen food stalls selling great breakfast fare
Pokok Assam Market’s food court is a hive of activities in the morning; with more than a dozen food stalls selling great breakfast fare

Driving around Pokok Assam evokes a strong sense of comfort as though you are navigating through a neighbourhood unaffected by the wave of modernisation since half a century ago.

Some of Pokok Assam’s more popular food might not have made it to guide books or food reviews just yet, but ask any local in Taiping for the best fried chicken, mee rebus, rice noodles (lai fun in Cantonese) or even salted chicken around town and you will find yourself being led to this charming, quaint neighbourhood.

My recommendation? I started off with breakfast at the Pokok Assam wet market of course. No better way to understand the local culture and see what the locals buy/eat than paying the wet market a visit.

The food court lies adjacent to the wet market section so you don’t need to slurp your noodles beside the butchery or hear chickens clucking noisily while you are savouring your cup of thick, aromatic coffee.

Come earlier though if you don’t wish to jostle with the weekend crowd or miss the hawker fare from the more popular stalls. There’s the perpetually packed lai fun stall; serving up bowl after bowl of piping hot rice noodle soup with a variety of stuffed fish paste and their signature chilli sauce with a piquant kick.

Then there’s the wantan mee stall serving up bouncy egg noodles coated in a moreish, dark sauce with delicious morsels of minced pork dumplings in a clear broth.

The Chinese style mee rebus can be had at Pokok Assam market for less than RM4 per portion (left). Have them with steamed rice or fried man tou buns; the curry fish and steamed salted chicken at Aun Loke are definitely not to be missed (right)
The Chinese style mee rebus can be had at Pokok Assam market for less than RM4 per portion (left). Have them with steamed rice or fried man tou buns; the curry fish and steamed salted chicken at Aun Loke are definitely not to be missed (right)

But if you’re a fan of mee rebus, then head for the stall nearer to the main entrance of the food court. The stall operated by a Chinese lady and presumably her family members also sells curry mee, laksa and wantan mee, but it’s their mee rebus that’s luring the breakfast crowd.

A starchy gravy thickened with sweet potatoes and packed with a faint hint of spiciness from the chilli paste, the lightly blanched yellow noodles are complemented with a quarter of a hard boiled egg, crispy prawn fritters and bean curd.

The portion is just right for breakfast; some may complain that it’s a tad too small but that’s the beauty of having breakfast here. You can and really should order a few items (if not all) from the other stalls for sharing.

This man sells wan tan mee at Pokok Assam market for breakfast
This man sells wan tan mee at Pokok Assam market for breakfast

One excellent example is the nasi lemak bungkus from a Malay stall that is packed with fragrance from the creamy coconut milk used to cook the rice, and spicy sambal ikan bills (anchovies with chilli paste) on top. Or the dough fritters stall selling freshly deep-fried you tiao (Chinese crullers) that will no doubt go extremely well with a cup of hot kopi O.

The chicken noodle soup next to the mee rebus stall is not bad as well, packing a punch with their own sambal belacan sauce but still a notch below Restoran Kakak’s version of the same in Taiping town.

Other notable mentions include the economy noodles; the moniker given to this dish of simply fried noodles with bean sprouts in a dark, soy-based sauce. Since the market opens from morning until evening, you can have multiple meals here if so happen you’re stuck in Pokok Assam without transportation.

But what if you can drive around? Then by all means, make your way to Aun Loke Restaurant along the main road of Pokok Assam for their signature salted chicken, curry fish head and assam prawns.

A household name in Taiping already, and even a branch in the Klang Valley, Aun Loke serves only a handful of incredibly delicious dishes for lunch and dinner under the shack-like structure with a portion of the premises shaded by mere zinc roofs.

Come here during lunch on a weekend and bear witness to the overwhelming and enduring support from not only the local folks of Pokok Assam, but fans from neighbouring towns and even tourists stopping by for a bite. Order their curry fish head or fish fillet, which is a mild curry with assam (tamarind juice) cooked with fish head or fish fillet with tomatoes, okra and long beans.

Nasi Lemak Bungkus with sambal ikan bilis for those feeling peckish yet not game for a heavy breakfast
Nasi Lemak Bungkus with sambal ikan bilis for those feeling peckish yet not game for a heavy breakfast

The layered flavours of the curry excites the tastebuds; a combination of savoury, sweet, spicy and sour that showcases their mastery of the marriage between Chinese and Indian style of curries. To mop up the curry, order a few fried buns (man tou).

The salted chicken is one of the better ones outside of Ipoh featuring a bigger farm chicken instead of Ipoh’s famous Aun Kheng Lim’s smaller free range poultry. The flavours from the herbs seeped well into the flesh; tender, firm and still juicy despite the steaming process. We took away one to be enjoyed later at home and it still was very much edible hours later.

From Pokok Assam, you should consider driving to the Aulong area to buy a few packets of the famous Aulong Heo Pia (or heong pneah; fragrant biscuits literally), now they come in coffee flavour as well!

The biscuits are suitable for vegetarians as well. However, the challenge here is to locate the house (yes, not a shop but an unassuming single storey house in the middle of a residential area in Aulong). Aside from the flaky, smaller than palm-sized heo pia, this confectionery also sells a good variety of biscuits, snacks and local produce.

After our mouthwatering stories on food from Taiping and its surrounds, are you game for a detour on your way up north to Penang? Share with me your beloved Taiping food stories, and I just might consider expanding that waistline a little bit more for an enjoyable culinary hunt.

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

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