Ipoh, just a few hours north of Kuala Lumpur on the North-South highway, is known for many things. It's the capital of Malaysia's Perak state. Dubbed the 'town that tin built', it was formerly the center of tin mining in the Kinta Valley. Though partially gutted by a fire in the late 1800s, Ipoh retains, in its 'old town' section, some lovely vintage shophouses.
Oh, who am I kidding? Mention the word 'Ipoh' and Malaysians start salivating. Because in the national psyche, this dot on the map is known for one thing and one thing only: food. Ipoh ranks second only to Penang on Malaysian chowhounds' list of favorite drive-to-eat destinations.
They go for the white coffee (brewed from butter-roasted beans), the char kueyteow, the Hainan chicken rice served with a plate of bean sprouts. They linger for hor fun, wide rice noodles whose especially soft and silky texture is attributed to the local water. And they often leave town toting (among other things) a bag or two of heong peng ('xiang bing' in Mandarin), deliciously flaky, "fragrant biscuits" with a sweet palm sugar filling.
Ipoh's trade in heong peng market appears to be dominated by two players: Yee Hup Bakery, which displays monarchical aspirations with its self-awarded monicker of 'Biscuit King', and the slightly less strident Soon Ann Biscuits & Confectionary. The biscuits (or, in local lingo, 'biskut') turned out by these rival organizations bear a remarkable resemblance to each other (Yee Hup on the left). Close examination, however, reveals differences.
Overall appearance: Soon Ann's (right) heong peng are taller and more rounded, and sport a more generous topping of sesame seeds than Yee Hup's. They're colored a deep tan, to Yee Hup's longer-baked nut brown a (a darkness that might possibly be attributed to margarine in the pastry dough).
Texture: The Yee Hup biscuits are crisp, exceedingly so; one bite sent shards of flaky pastry dough flying about the kitchen. Soon Ann's, while crunchy, hold their shape a bit better when chomped into. Note, in the photo above, how 'flat' the Yee Hup (left, again) biscuit is in comparison to Soon Ann's. When broken, the Soon Ann pastry proved much more yielding, and I didn't have to squeeze the biscuit top-to-bottom as much to pry it apart. Both biscuits boast layers and layers of flaky dough, but Yee Hup's are more tightly bound, or 'compressed'. Soon Ann's pastry layers, by contrast, seem to trap more air.
Flavor: It's here that the biscuits diverge most strikingly. Soon Ann's pastry, while crisp, is bready, with a full-on 'wheaty' flavor. It's no wonder, as 'wheat flour' is one of the ingredients listed on the Soon Ann biscuit bag (Yee Hup lists simply 'flour'). Neither pastry dough is at all sweet; Yee Hup's contains lard, while Soon Ann uses only vegetable oil (this would explain Yee Hup's superior flakiness).
Both biscuits ooze smoky sweet palm sugar (Yee Hup's is darker than Soon Ann's), but Soon Ann throws a savory twist into its filling with the inclusion of onions. They're chopped so fine (or, perhaps, melted?) that they add no texture to speak of, but even before I perused the Soon Ann ingredient list I knew they were there. To anyone not used to the southeast Asian way with scallions/shallots/onions and sweet stuff, it sounds an odd mixture. But conjure up the sugary savoriness of slowly caramelized onions and you may begin to see the attraction.
Verdict? I'd call this a draw.
Sorry Yee Hup, but there is no indisputable 'Biscuit King' here. The crown must be awarded on the basis of what one is hungry for at the moment. Yearning for a substantial, bready - perhaps teatime - treat with a strangely alluring sweet-savory note? Look no further than Soon Ann's heong peng. Yee Hup's crackly, crunchy - and equally pleasing - offering falls more clearly into the 'dessert' camp.
Soon Ann Biscuits, 19-25 Laluan Tasek Perdana, Medan Tasek Perdana, Ipoh. Tel. 05-549-6927. Yup Hee Bakery, 7 Jalan Sri Ampang, Taman Ipoh Jaya, Ipoh. Tel/fax.05-313-2328.