Saturday, 23 January 2010

Small-Town Roast Duck, Big On Heart

I think this encounter happened during a Christmas weekend getaway in Ipoh last year. After hearing Alex brag about her hometown's cuisine for ages, I finally took the leap to see what the fuss was all about.

And what a fuss it was.

Almost everything written in the piece happened: the food, the hospitality, and generosity of the owner. The duck was divine.

Divine roast duck in Canning Garden, Ipoh
by Alexandra and KW Wong

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 23 January 2010

"Is it my imagination, or is the Ipoh food scene ostensibly divided into two camps?" KW asks thoughtfully.

"What do you mean?" I furrow my eyebrows distractedly, trying to search for an empty lot.

"For dim sum, you have Foh San vs Ming Court," he begins.

"Ming Court!" I pipe up.

"For bean sprouts chicken, there's Loe Wong Wong vs Cowan Street bean …" he continues.

"And now Restaurant Hong Kong vs Restaurant Hong Kong Oil? Amazingly, not only do they sell the same thing, their shop names are only different by one word! Which is better, in your opinion?"

"Parking!" I yelp, ramming my Charade aggressively into an empty lot. Parking can be a devil in Canning Garden, this deceptively laidback-looking enclave in Ipoh shaded by ancient giant trees. It is also home to some of the best grub around, including chee cheong fun, Siamese laksa, nasi lemak... but that's a story for another day.

I opt for political correctness. "I've tried both and they are nice. But for some reason, I've always found myself gravitating back to Madam Heng's. The personalised intimacy keeps me coming back like a magnet."

And then, there's the supremely-addictive duck, of course. Which is why, on this food tour, I'm whisking duck-mad KW to my "favouritest" place in Ipoh for a gamey poultry fix.

"That's the madam of the manor, bubbly, personable and generous almost to a fault," I whisper, pointing to a middle-aged lady dressed in a flowy batik caftan, with a soft wavy updo and perpetually Manga-esque wide eyes.

"Miss Wong! Lei hoe moe (how are you?)? So long never see, kam leng chor keh (become so pretty already)?" Uh huh. That's Madam Heng, all right: a bundle of smiles, conviviality and outrageous flattery.

I ask for the usual — duck leg with a side order of curry chicken and acar. "Make sure you impress," I say with a wink.

Not that there's any doubt she will.

Fans rave about its signature crispy skin duck, the result of a six-hour labour of love. First, more than ten herbs are rubbed inside the bird to remove excessive gaminess, while retaining the trademark robustness that duck lovers go ape over.

Another eight herbs are slathered over the skin for flavour enhancement. Then, the bird is allowed to dry naturally for a few hours before it is roasted in a charcoal-powered Apollo stove for 40 minutes and finally fanned to cool.

Just before it is delivered to your table, the duck is drizzled with lashings of boiling oil to create that paper-thin, crackling-crispy skin that melts on your tongue.

Madam Heng once told me they use "jeli-weli" (Cherry Valley, actually -BP) duck, a specially bred duck of English origin, chosen by virtue of its leaner meat. In my first visit here, she actually lifted the glistening reddish-brown skin to prove her point. Look ma, no fat. (She didn't say that, I did.)

I'll let KW describe the results: "Simply one of the best roast ducks I've ever had, while making allowances for ducks consumed in the past and the future. The sweet plum sauce is nice but not necessary. Skill, technique, recipe and love went into this creation, and it clamped my mouth shut for most of the meal."

There is a bit of to-and-fro at the cash register when we're done. By our reckoning, the meal is worth every hard-earned sen: a plate of dry curry, acar, a gargantuan duck leg, two bowls of rice, three iced herbal teas, plus half a dozen mandarin oranges on the house.

What comes back as change for RM50 is... let's just say a KL-ite would think it's a steal.

We think so, too — us stealing from Madam Heng, if we leave it there.

"Go on, take it," Madam Heng implores.

"No, no," I protest. "It's way too much change. If you keep insisting I'll drop it and run off."

"Please don't fight with me! I'm old and I can't catch up with you."

What the hell can any decent upstanding person say to a water-tight argument like that?

After I thank her reluctantly, KW and I lumber out of the shop.

"Sai lei (fantastic) these small towners," he sums it up.

"Yes, I observed, the yan ching mei (interpersonal factor) is very strong," I add with a sigh that is half a complaint and half an affectionate observation.

Revisiting mom and pop shops like Restaurant Hong Kong reminds me why I'd rather review small-time entrepreneurs than big-boy chains.


Beyond the paper-thin crispy-as-Peking-duck skin...

Beyond the lean yet luscious meat, infused with heady, aromatic flavours...

Beyond the leisurely and cosy level of service...

...they remember – and appreciate you.

For life.

Restoran Hong Kong
60 Jalan Lee Kwee Foh
Canning Garden
Ipoh, Perak