Ipoh is perhaps Malaysia’s No. 2 gourmet city after Penang, and Ipohians are known to be sticklers for very well-prepared food using the freshest ingredients, meticulously cooked to preserve the traditional flavours. Its mostly century-old eateries are usually packed to the brim at any time they’re open, with eager customers either joining long queues, or willing to wait for hours just to have their favourite food.
Ipoh street food is mainly Cantonese and Hakka-influenced, in contrast to Penang street food, with its Hokkien and Teochew roots.
There are many great food rivalries in Ipoh: Nam Heong versus Sin Yoon Loong for the best Pak Ka Fei (怡保白咖啡) - the rich, insanely aromatic Ipoh “white coffee”; Lou Wong versus Onn Kee for the best Ngah Choi Kai (芽菜雞) - Hainanese-style chicken rice, served with a side of Ipoh’s famous juicy/crunchy beansprouts; and Xin Quan Fang against a whole line of competitors: Nam Chau, Yee Fatt, Sun Seng Fatt and Keng Nam, for the best Ipoh-style curry noodles.
But Ipoh is renowned by Malaysian gourmands near and far for its Kai See Hor Fun (鸡丝河粉) - a unique Ipoh dish of thin rice noodles (“hor fun”) served in a hearty chicken-shrimp broth, with slivered chicken (“kai see”) and poached de-shelled shrimps, topped with chives. The broth usually has an orange-ish hue as a result of its method of long, slow-boiling of prawn-heads and prawn shells to extract the deep, mellow flavours.
Strangely, in a mainly Cantonese city like Ipoh, the top two Kai See Hor Fun spots in town - i.e. the well-known stalls in Loke Wooi Kee coffeeshop and Thean Chun coffeeshop respectively, are both started by Hokkien immigrants from Nan’an City in Fujian Province, China. This rather revealing nugget of information explains why the Kai See Hor Fun broth is made of chicken and shrimp - because only the Hokkiens/Fujianese, among all the different Chinese dialect groups, obtain their soup broth by combining meat with seafood. In this respect, the Kai See Hor Fun broth’s Hokkien origin is rather similar to the broth for the Penang Hokkien noodles, or even the pork-shrimp stock added during the frying process to Singapore fried Hokkien noodles.
The only difference is the use of “hor fun” (flat, white rice noodles) favoured by the Cantonese over the traditional yellow egg-wheat Hokkien noodles - and the reason for this is very likely because the clientele in Ipoh is almost wholly Cantonese.
The two rivals go head-to-head here:
1a) Kai See Hor Fun from Loke Wooi Kee
Delicately flavoured broth, perfectly textured rice noodles, topped with tender slices of chicken, shrimps and matchstick-sized chives.
1b) The Loke Wooi Kee stall
The stall has been operating at Loke Wooi Kee for over 80 years.
1c) The Loke Wooi Kee stall
The current owner only speaks Cantonese, but his grandfather was from Nan’an, Fujian. The stall opened in the late-1930s.
2a) Kai See Hor Fun from Thean Chun
Same composition as the dish by its rival from Loke Wooi Kee. However, the taste here is deeper and more mellow, with more pronounced flavours of the chicken and shrimps.
The chives were cut into shorter lengths, which is more practical as the leaves can be stringy.
2b) The Thean Chun stall
It started operating in 1944, during the last days of Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II. The current owner is a second-generation stallholder whose father also hailed from Nan’an, Fujian.
2c) The Thean Chun stall in front of the coffeeshop.
The stall is very well-patronised. Average waiting time for your bowl of noodles at Thean Chun is more than half an hour, way longer than the 5-10 minutes’ wait at Loke Wooi Kee. So, Ipoh foodies really know their food.
1d) Loke Wooi Kee coffeeshop in Ipoh New Town
Loke Wooi Kee is located relatively close to famous Ipoh dining institutions like Lou Wong and Onn Kee for their Hainanese chicken rice (芽菜雞) and Funny Mountain (for its soybean curd or “tau fu fah”).
2d) Thean Chun (left) and Kong Heng (right) in Ipoh Old Town
These two coffeeshops are almost the epicentre of Ipoh’s dining scene in the Old Town. They are also relatively close to the other dining hub (5 minutes’ walk away) where Nam Heong and Sin Yoon Loong are located - for the best pak ka fei/white coffee (怡保白咖啡) in Ipoh.
Kong Heng and Thean Chun are virtual twins - you can order food from stalls in each coffeeshop and they’ll bring the food over to wherever you’re sitting. But Kong Heng also has its own Kai See Hor Fun stall, also long-standing (I first ate its version in 1972!) but it never achieved the status to rival either the Thean Chun or Loke Wooi Kee ones.
Operating hours given here are published ones but, like most Ipoh coffeeshops and eateries, they can suddenly be closed, either unannounced or at short notice.
Thean Chun Coffee Shop (天津茶室)
73, Jalan Bandar Timah
Operating hours: 8am-4.30pm Mon-Sat, 8am-12noon Sunday.
Loke Wooi Kee (乐会居茶室)
28, Jalan Mustapha Al-bakri, Taman Jubilee
Operating hours: 7.30am-4pm Mon - Sat. Closed on Sunday.