Hometown Food is Where the Heart Is
Whenever someone asks me where I came from, and after my answer that it is Taiping, the next question definitely would be “what is good to eat in Taiping?” I am always stumped by this question, as to be honest, everything is good to eat here, but nothing is really so great to it that would make people travel from far and wide just to eat it. Other places are normally coined with a food, like Penang char kuey teow or assam laksa, Ipoh dim sum or nga choy kai, Malacca chicken rice balls, Anson chee cheong fun and, you get the picture. So normally I would just answer nonchalantly “oh, everything in Taiping is good to eat”, now you know not to trust a person speaking of its hometown food, after all it is an ego thing.
To be honest though, I do find a lot of food in Taiping really good to me, and I miss them a lot and compare them to KL food constantly, after all I grew up with these foods. What I can boldly say is, most of all the food here is of certain quality, ingredients are fresh, food are diligently made with care and some with traditional recipes which were passed from generations to generations. As I have mentioned, to be able to survive selling food here, you must have a certain degree of goodness. I never cease to be amazed by how food revolves around the life of Taiping-ites, it is common to discuss what the next meal is while having the current meal, or the subsequent ones even. The normal hot topic of gossips are mostly like which new stall had been opened and whether the food is worth a try, which food had hike up the price and lessen the ingredients, which shop has changed cook from father to son or to somebody and how is the current state now, which food are no longer what it used to be and so on. The viral word of mouth marketing in Taiping is so strong to the point that it is almost deadly. It is either make it or break it here for food business. If the people favours your food, you may well expect a huge crowd making beeline to taste your food, and hear people uttering the famous quote of “you better get there by this time, as they would sold out by that time and you would not want to miss it!” With that, you can safely know that the food is quite good enough and your food business is here to stay in Taiping.
In exception to the opening statement is one dish though, which is the kai si min (chicken slice noodle soup) which does have a kind of hook on people, like an addiction, especially to those who grew up or spent a significant amount of time in Taiping and left, this is one dish they always must eat whenever they return! It may not be something that would capture a visitor’s heart immediately; it will definitely grow on you if you savour it enough to admire its hearty simple taste that warms the heart. I have a cousin who had once spent a month here in Taiping, had my mum buy this kai si min for him every night for supper and till now, whenever he comes to visit Taiping, it is one dish he would head out to for a dose of. Similarly, I have various friends and relatives, who had left Taiping, would come back with anticipation of this dish and I myself am no exception to this crazy addiction.
Photo by Rokh
Normally when a non-Taiping person answers to the question of ‘what is good in Taiping’, it would be most likely with another question, “isn’t it popiah?”. I have never considered popiah, a soft thin crepe made from wheat flour that wraps around variety of fillings, often accompanied by a sweet sauce (a blend of soy sauce, bean sauce and hoisin/shrimp sauce and optionally a hot sauce), as anything special in Taiping. Curiosity got the better of me though and I went into a frenzy of asking many Taiping people that I know, young and old alike, whether was popiah famous in Taiping, where is the best to get one and so on, and I came to conclusion that popiah used to be really good in Taiping, the best stall was now closed down, and mostly it is just a reminiscence of the year bygones. Few times I tried ordering popiah at various stalls in Taiping, and to be honest, it fell short of my expectations, KL ones are way better (a rare case indeed).
There is one unique dish in Taiping that you can’t seem to find elsewhere, variations probably, but definitely not the same one, which is the chee cheong fun (large flat rice noodles rolled up and then served in various sauces). The chee cheong fun in Taiping is doused liberally with tim cheong (sweet red sauce) and sprinkled with sesame and fried onions. The taste is unique, with the sweet sauce pairing real well with the amazingly soft and silky cheong fun which will have one dreaming of it on many mornings. I remembered I used to even wake up early (very unusual for a teen) and then go for this as breakfast before attending tuition nearby with a fellow friend who is also an addict. It was such nostalgia, I remembered vividly ordering the chee cheong fun small with hong tao sui (sweet red bean soup) that just somehow sums up a perfect breakfast.
Another decidedly famous food from Taiping is the heong peng. Not to be mistaken as the mini heong peng from Penang, as this one large, with a tough yet crunchy layer of pastries enfolding just-right-earthy-sweetness-savoury malt and shallots inside of it. Taiping’s heong peng had always been famous for being really fresh, superbly flaky layers (do not attempt to eat this without anything to catch the falling crusts), and chewy yet not sticky sweet filling that just about brings the entire pastry together flawlessly.
There you go, after saying that there is nothing really to-die for in Taiping, I proceed to let you know there are some things definitely worth to-try for. If you are ever in Taiping, do not miss out those that I mentioned, in exception to popiah, and also to add is the Nonya Kuih-muih that I had featured earlier, as they would make your trip there worth a lot more times, gastronomically of course. One may leave you dreaming of it long after you had gone, another may have you tried something decidedly new and unique where you may not find anywhere else and the others may bring you the best of what Malaysian Chinese desserts and pastries can be! So what are you waiting for? Make an excuse now to make the trip to this tiny little town up north in Malaysia that has such big things to offer, or make it a point to stop by if you are passing by on the way up to Penang or on the way down to KL, and leave after that with a huge smile and a huge belly to boot!
Rokh is a food columnist on Malaysia Travel Guide, she’s an epicurean and a cook who loves to eat, also writes in her own Malaysia Food Guide – Thamjiak.com . In this column, she will bring you along while she explore various Malaysia foods, like what is good, what makes them so special and how or where to best well enjoy them. More [+]