What fun is getting from point A to location B if it's done on an empty stomach?
No fun at all, say Malaysians, who view a road trip as an opportunity, or an excuse, or both, to engage in four-wheeled sport eating. According to Malaysian logic driving two hours from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh just to eat lunch might make sense ... but it makes more sense to add an extra hour to the journey, divert off the north-south expressway onto the old two-lane trunk road, and stop along the way for a meal-sized snack.
We're not quite that hard-core - yet - but we are willing to drive for a meal, which puts the old trunk road's treasures within our occasional reach. On a Sunday back in January we head up Highway 1 aiming not for Ipoh but for a favorite pit stop for Ipoh and Penang-bound car travelers: Restoran Fook Seng, in the small town of Slim River.
Lured by tales of 'field chicken' and unsurpassed river fish preparations, and armed with a carefully hand-drawn yet utterly indecipherable map, we cast about up and down the old two-laned road for a good 45 minutes before figuring out that the nondescript corner shop we've already blown by five or six times is our destination.
We enter to find most tables occupied by groups of beer and tea-drinking male regulars. Sure enough, every group is noshing on at least one fish dish. At the back of the restaurant, utterly oblivious to the racket of cleavers-to-chopping-blocks and rattling pans coming from the kitchen, a small child sleeps comfortably.
Fook Seng's owner, Madame Yong Mee Lan, greets us as if we're regulars too (always a good sign) and recommends the very dishes we've come to try: claypot river fsh, caught near town, and 'field chicken'.
'You must try the paku (wild fern tips),' she says. Madame Yong buys the foraged greens from orang asli who live in the green velvet-carpeted hills visible from Fook Seng's door.
The fish arrives at the table spitting and sizzling. Cooked flesh side down on the scorching clay, it's charred and smoky underneath, moist and flaky up top. Green onions, red chilies, and stalk of kangkong (water spinach) share space in the pot with an exquisite sauce made with Chinese sweet rice wine and dried orange peels. Detecting none of the the muddy flavor often associated with river fish, we declare this specimen a fine one indeed.
'Field chicken' turns out to be bullfrog ('doh', as Homer Simpson would say), livened with peppery young ginger and so tender it slides right off the bone. Frog is a protein we usually avoid (all those tiny bones - too much work for not enough reward) but the apparent heft of the creature that gave his life for this dish renders it worth the effort.
After stir-frying, the paku retain their perkiness, and are combined with just enough belacan to complement, rather than overwhelm, their agreeable earthiness.
After dinner we wander back to the kitchen.
The quality of Fook Seng's ingredients is not to be questioned - we're pointed to a bin of hopping live bullfrogs the size of puppies (at this moment I regret our order of field chicken) and instructed by Madame Yong to give the the ikan bawang (our claypot speciment - not a catfish, she says, but the whiskers suggest it's a member of the catfish family) laying in a tray in the refrigerator a poke. They pass the fresh test.
Then our hostess hauls out one of the biggest freshwater fish I've ever seen (opening photo), a 2.5-kilo monster of an ikan tapah. She tells us she would have recommended it but it seemed too big for just two to tackle. On this point we are in complete agreement.
As I'm paying the bill Madame Yong apologizes for her thirty-year-old restaurant's peeling paint. She'd like to fix the place up, she says, but she can't get the landlord (her mother) to sell so she hesitates to make the investment. I assure her that we didn't come for the decor, and a bit of peeling paint sure as heck won't keep us from returning.
Restoran Fook Seng, 17 Jalan Mahsuri, Taman Aman, Slim River, Perak State (about one hour north of KL on the old trunk road). Tel. 05-452-8698.