Five words to make your mouth water, eh? Yup, I didn't think so.
Which accounts for the more than nine months it's taken us to properly blog - that is, devote an entire post to - yong tow foo. This dish of bean curd, veggies, and fish paste is a Malaysian favorite, sold on nearly every other city block out of specialist shops (all yong tow foo, all the time) and noodle huts alike. When it's done right it's a perfect fusion of oppositional textures and a celebration of simple, straightforward flavors.
The thing is, yong tow foo suffers from what I call the 'porridge problem'. Ever tried explaining the utter beauty of congee to the unitiated?
"It's a kind of rice porridge," usually elicits narrowed eyes and a wrinkled nose.
Further explanation along the lines of, "No, really, you gotta taste it to believe it ... amazing depth of flavor ... most comforting thing in the world," rarely dispels doubts about what is essentially a form of gruel. The thing is, there's simply no way to prettify the word 'porridge' and make it sound appealing.
Ditto for 'fish paste' and 'bean curd' (for many non-Asians).
How to convey the delectableness of this humble dish? (In Malaysia, of course, I'm preaching to the choir. Locals, skip over my natter - take in the food porn and then head directly to eatery coordinates at the bottom of the post.)
From left: fish paste-stuffed red chili, deep-fried bean curd, bitter gourd, okra, 'natural' bean curd, eggplant
Let's start with the tow foo, aka bean curd. When I was growing up bean curd wasn't a food, but a tasteless 'protein source' consumed primarily by health food obsessives and vegetarians. It appeared in deadly dull brown rice stir-fries and mushy, underseasoned lentil stews, and sometimes even -scarily - in spaghetti sauce. (You know who you are. Don't worry, your secret's safe with me.)
How surprised I was then, when I landed in Asia, to find that bean curd actually has flavor, and quite a delightful one at that. Small-production bean curd exudes vegetal beany-ness, something along the lines of edamame. It's a thing to be savored on its own, or added to the most soft-spoken preparations (that said, it's also mighty fine stir-fried with chilies). A laudible yong tow foo will include the freshest firm-but-pillowy specimens, eggshell-colored squares that speak of their soybean origin. They can be had au naturel or deep-fried (for me, a combo plate is preferable). Bean curd is the first reason to love yong tow foo.
The second is the taste of the sea: assertive but not stinky-strong fish (mackerel, perhaps) pounded with starch, and perhaps a bit of fragrant white pepper, into a paste. Fish paste makes for an inspired, complementary stuffing for tofu and veggies like eggplant, okra, bitter melon, and mild red chile. As for texture, springiness well short of rubberiness is desirable.
And speaking of vegetables ... the yong tow foo master takes care to cook each to its appropriate degree of doneness. Eggplant must be creamy, okra softened just to the point at which its 'greenness' is still discernible but sliminess hasn't set in. Crunch is a no-no for red chilies and bitter melon.
The plate above, served up at Restoran Ipoh Road Yong Tow Foo, has all these elements. And (not a feature at all yong tow foo emporiums), they're united in a light seafood gravy that just begs to be dipped up on its own.
So, yes -bean curd, vegetables, fish paste. Yong tow foo is without a doubt one of Malaysia's yummiest standards. I rest my case.
RIR has been in business, at the same location, for over two decades. No wonder - there's much to love there. The memorable fish paste finds its way into thick-wrappered shui jiao (boiled dumplings) which, along with fish balls if you choose, are floated in a rich chicken broth zesty with ground white pepper.
Dumplings can also be ordered deep-fried; likewise petite logs of bean curd skin layered around skinny tubes of fish paste. Ours arrived amazingly devoid of grease, blazing hot, and pleasingly crispy-crunchy (on the side: zippy chili and sweet plum sauces).
There's covered seating outdoors and plenty of tables in, though you might find yourself waiting for a chair between 11:30a and 2p, especially on weekends. Penang-style rojak (swell, but not quite belecan-ish enough for my taste) and Seremban char siew pao (sinfully rich little baked buns filled with barbequed pork) are also available.
Note: I know, I know, Ampang's Foong Foong sets the standard for yong tow foo in KL. I've been, though too long ago (years) to draw a comparison. A return is in order.
Ipoh Road Restoran Yong Tow Foo, Jalan Ipoh just below Jalan Segambut and the Jalan Duta roundabout. 830am-4 or 5pm. Closed Mondays.