Musings on Ipoh Food

By SeeFoon Chan-Koppen

Being a foodie, I have a burning mission to encourage the flourishing of good food in Ipoh. As a food writer, I operate by a personal credo where I write only about dishes that I have tasted and are judged palatable by my taste buds. I therefore don’t criticise establishments that serve poor food on the premise that they won’t survive for long anyway. And I have on a few occasions mentioned that if readers order dishes aside from the ones reviewed in my columns that prove not to their liking, then, they do so on their own cognisance. 

However, I do get personal satisfaction from seeing an establishment that I had reviewed, grow from strength to strength. One such restaurant is Li Garden, near the airport. It’s been five years since I wrote about Chef Chan and in the meantime, his fan cooled corner coffee-shop lot has expanded to include an air conditioned space next door. And so has his repertoire of dishes.

I still go occasionally for his three irresistible signature specialties, beginning with the Fish Head hotpot, with its homemade meatballs, homemade tofu, pigs tendons, fish lips, the freshest fish head chunks, and other delectables, the soup enhanced with a generous swig of Chinese sherry or Siew Hing Tsao and as much baby romaine lettuce to cook in the soup as you may wish. This dish suffices as a meal on its own if you’re only two or three people but on a recent visit, I had to have all my other favourites as well as check out some of his new offerings. RM160 which was more than adequate for our party of seven.

The other two favourites for me are the nam yu fah lam or fried pork brisket; tender brisket marinated with fermented red bean curd and deep fried, sliced and served on its own, without any need for sauces or dips. This is the perfect appetizer, to nibble on while we wait for other dishes to arrive. RM15 for small portion.

The Bread Wrapped Curry came next, a golden parcel of bread enveloping a most delicious chicken curry. This time I had rung Chef Chan and requested that the curry be cooked with santan (coconut milk) instead of the evaporated milk which earlier health propaganda had touted as being healthier and coconut milk was vilified as bad for cholesterol. The bread was still crispy on the outside and soft and fluffy inside, making it perfect to sop up the gravy from the curry which was yummiliciously good especially with the addition of santanRM33.

The next two dishes were the new additions to Chef Chan’s repertoire. The first to arrive was spectacular, in a huge covered foil pan, which on exposure, revealed a large Tilapia sitting on racks above some rock salt, both white and black. The rock salt was still burning when it arrived at the table and we had to wait till it subsided to cut open the foil package. The fragrance of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves wafted from the fish as smoke rose from it.

Everyone in the restaurant stopped eating and watched as the presentation was so unusual and also because it was an unfamiliar dish in Li Garden. The taste was equally interesting too: salty, umami, the fresh herbs lending its aromas to the fish flesh and chillies imparting a mild bite. It was devoured in a flash and we unanimously agreed to come back for more. RM33 per kilo with most fish weighing in at more than a kilo so do check on the weight of the fish you’ll be getting. Be prepared to wait at least half an hour to 45 minutes for this dish as the smoking is done over slow fire.

This was followed by a chicken dish which arrived in a clay pot, two perfect halves of a kampong chicken (or the Wu So Kai depending on availability) slow roasted on a rack in the clay pot itself, marinated with soya sauce, rice sherry and cooked to perfection. The chicken meat was juicy and we hardly needed the sauce that was served with it. RM30 for half chicken and RM57 for whole.

Li Garden is one restaurant that never disappoints. Because it is chef-owned and the chef is in the kitchen, it has a sure fire recipe for success and I wish it and Chef Chan continued progress and much success.

Li Garden
57 Laluan Pinji Seni 4, Taman Pinji Seni, 31650 Ipoh.
Open: 5pm-Midnight
Closed Wednesdays
GPS: N 4º 34.637’  E 101º 5.855’
Tel: Chef Chan 017 518 2734 or Liew: 012 518 3370