Once upon a time, before Malaysia built its efficient, rest stop-dotted North-South highway, the only way to travel between Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh was via two-lane blacktop. The journey took twice as long in those days, but I doubt anyone minded. You see, there's culinary treasure on the trunk road to Ipoh.
In the 19th century Perak state saw a massive influx of Chinese immigrants, drawn by the discovery of tin. Though the fortunes of trunk road towns like Kampar have faded with the decline of the tin industry, they are still host to eateries offering the (mostly southern Chinese and Hakka) specialties of the immigrants and their descendents.
Bidor is one such town. Its main street - the trunk road - is lined with a mixture of grand but crumbling old shophouses and contemporary concrete block uglies. It's population looks to lean towards very late middle age. There's no hustle or bustle in Bidor.
But there is Pun Chun, and there is Pun Chun's duck noodle soup, a dish that is known to probably every single Malaysian living on the country's west coast. Malaysians travelling between KL and Ipoh divert from the highway just to dine at Pun Chun. And many make the 3-hour roundtrip journey from KL just for a meal. We joined the ranks of the latter a few weeks ago.
Pun Chun has been in business nearly seventy years. It's your average Malaysian coffee shop: long and narrow, open-aired, high-ceilinged, fan-cooled, noisy, populated by a mix of regulars and food tourists.
Almost everyone's come for the specialty, ngap pei meen (duck thigh noodles). Ngap pei meen are the product of a lengthy process that involves first steaming the thighs in an herbal soup that includes ginger, dried longan, and wolfberries,
and then moving them, in their individual pots, to an oven.
The thighs are pulled from the oven to order and transferred, along with their broth, to a deep bowl.
Some patrons order their noodles 'dry' (tossed with seasonings and served on the side). Some skip noodles altogether and opt for a double order of duck.
The wait at Pun Chun can be lengthy,
but is justified by the mahogany-colored duck meat, thoroughly permeated with herbs and so tender that it falls off the bone with barely a nudge of the chopsticks. Long, slow cooking reduces the skin to little more than tissue paper and Pun Chun's slender, springy noodles are perfectly al dente.
Those crazy enought to pass on the Pun Chun Ngap Pei Mee Experience might investigate the coffeeshop's roasted meats stall, which serves up fragrant duck, moist chicken, expertly done pork, and chewy, slightly sweet sausages. Indecision can be cured with a mixed plate, a sort of 'meat salad' of roasted bits in a pool of light meat juices, bedded on sliced cucumber and topped with grated carrots and chopped cilantro.
Every visitor should order the woo kok, char siu-filled mashed taro dumplings dipped in batter and deep-fried. Covered with just a wisp of greaseless, crunchy batter, these 'taro puffs' are almost worth the drive in and of themselves.
There's also a display case with a fantastic selection of baked goods - including kaya puffs, pastries plump with lotus seed paste, and an intriguingingly spiced flat, round biscuit filled with a mash of dried fruits - to stop in front of on the way out.
A little something for the road.
Pun Chun, 40 Main Road, Bidor. Tel. 05-434-1554. Open from the crack of dawn till 10 at nite.