Any opportunity for me to hitch a ride to Penang invariably fills me with glee, because, more than just the chance to immerse myself in the majesty of the natural landscape flanking the highway, the drive north also affords me the perfect excuse for road trip feasting, and the position of being food guide on said trips is a task I take most seriously and, not surprisingly, excel at. I'm writing this today because I'm riding to Penang with Debra, an attentive driver who loves making the trip, but prefers to do it with a (food loving) companion to keep her company. And although we have made plans to fortify ourselves with pork noodles at Shangri-La in Jalan Batai (with perhaps a tiny side of char kway teow to, you know, add colour to breakfast), before heading directly to Penang "with only one toilet stop" in order to arrive in time for lunch, Debra is unaware that I intend to thwart her plans with (as yet) unscheduled stops in Bidor and Ipoh.
It always seems such a thunderous squandering of opportunity to make a beeline for Penang without taking the time to stop at these two gastronomic landmarks. After all, they are on the way!
First stop en route: Bidor, where duck noodles, yam puffs, local fruit, petai, and chicken biscuits tend to be the most sought after items by day trippers. Pun Chun (38 Jalan Besar, Bidor) is unquestionably the place to go for all of the above, and whilst I might grumble that portion sizes, quality, and value for money have slipped, the duck noodles—herby, aromatic, nourishing, moist—will still do the job in lining not yet appeased stomachs and keeping them going till the next stop: Ipoh.
Quite often it takes all my powers of persuasion to convince my drivers of the day to stop in Ipoh, especially when the intake of food in Bidor has exceeded initial expectation and packets of chicken biscuit originally bound for Penang are opened—and consumed—prematurely, and highway guilt sets in. It's amazing what a little arm-twisting can do however, and as we drive into Ipoh, I can hardly contain myself at the prospect of gobbling a plate or two of chicken rice (Onn Kee, 51, Jalan Yau Tet Shin; Lou Wong, 49, Jalan Yau Tet Shin) and Ipoh hor fun. Finding meritorious versions of Ipoh hor fun outside of Ipoh can be challenging because the purportedly magical properties of the water from the surrounding limestone hills contribute to the plump crunchiness of the Buntong bean sprouts and the silken texture of the noodles. Whether there is truth to this urban legend I cannot say, but I can certainly attest to the pleasingly buxom bean sprouts and the satin smoothness of the kway teow, and so when in Ipoh I make a beeline for the iconic Thean Chun (73, Jalan Bandar Timah), famous not just for its food but also for its cameo in a Lat comic. A wait is inevitable, so waste not precious time in, well, waiting, for a plethora of pleasing diversions in the form of chee cheong fun, pork satay, rojak, and caramel egg custard beckon.
By this time, my driving hosts tend to get a bit twitchy about getting back on the road, so my persuasive muscles are given another hard flex as I tell them that they simply cannot resume the drive without a reviving bowl of soya bean curd. Their hesitation gives me the perfect opportunity to steer them to Funny Mountain for aforementioned tau fu far, which, lo and behold, happens to be right across the road from Ayam Garam Sin Tat Seng, thereby enabling me to tacitly accomplish my proverbial strategy of killing two birds with one stone: wolfing down a steaming bowl of TFF whilst deftly packing a salt baked chicken to go.
After Ipoh, I will keep my silence, because I know I will have stretched my host's willingness to accommodate me to the limit. It's also because I will be busy secretly texting my parents to secure a table, order plenty of char siew, and rendezvous at Sky Café in Chulia Street with us when we arrive in Penang. I do so love road trips!