For countless Vancouverites, the pandemic has ruined their international travel plans. As a result, one of the few ways to experience faraway lands is through local restaurants.
In that spirit, I recently paid two visits to Ipoh Malay Cuisine (1316 West 73rd Avenue), a family-owned eatery tucked away on a side street in Marpole.
What lured me here? In part, because it’s the closest thing to a Malaysian museum in Metro Vancouver.
The entire restaurant pays homage to Ipoh, the Malaysian hometown of co-owner Michelle Liew.
Her husband, Sam Chan, hails from the national capital, Kuala Lumpur, which is 200 kilometres to the south.
A century ago, Ipoh was one of the wealthiest cities in Southeast Asia, thanks to tin mining.
Some of the photographs on the western wall of the restaurant attest to that, including an image of a spectacular colonial-era railway station in the city, which is the capital of the northwestern state of Perak.
There’s also a photo of a British tin magnate’s half-completed castle. He died before it was finished, and to this day, it remains in this state.
On the south wall, Liew and Chan display colourful kites and other Malaysian artifacts, including the flag. And near the front door is a large picture of a typical village house, which stands high above the ground on wooden legs.
These elevated attap dwellings with thatched palm roofs enable owners to place their farm equipment, chicken coops, and bicycles below. This architectural approach is handy to avoid flooding, which isn’t uncommon in this part of the world.
There are also Malaysian architectural touches inside the restaurant. They include two ornate Malaysian-Chinese windows, each with hand-painted floral motifs surrounding vertical wooden poles that are part of the shutters. And wall hangings display batik, a technique that originated in Indonesia to dye cloth to resist the elements.
The east wall is filled with photographs of colourful Malaysian dishes. On the opposite side are gorgeous images of the fruits of Malaysia, including durian, papaya, and jackfruit.
Malaysia is highly diverse, with the majority being either ethnic Malay or Bumiputera (Indigenous people). About one-quarter are of Chinese ancestry and another seven percent trace their roots back to India. And this diversity is reflected in the food.
My first dish at Ipoh Malay Cuisine was roti canai, a buttery flatbread brought to the country by South Indian immigrants. It was accompanied by delicious rendang lamb.
This curry-infused meat was incredibly tender as a result of being stewed slowly in spices and coconut milk. Rendang originated in West Sumatra and has since spread across Southeast Asia.
The meal was topped off with chicken satays. Admittedly, they weren’t quite as succulent as those at a much better known Malaysian restaurant, Banana Leaf, which has five outlets in Vancouver.
On the first visit to Ipoh Malay Cuisine, I also sampled the curry laksa, which was truly slurp-worthy with its coconut flavouring.
The food here is authentically Malaysian and not tempered in any serious way to suit the western palate. That was most apparent on my second visit, when I ordered Malay mee goreng and kari ayam.
The mee goreng was spiced so well that none of the noodles remained on the plate by the end of the meal. The kari ayam, a chicken dish, was more heavily seasoned than what I was used to eating at Kalay Malay Bistro on West Broadway before it closed permanently.
Malaysians, like many who live in countries with long coastlines, love their seafood. So, naturally, there are many choices available at Ipoh Malay Cuisine, including signature dishes such as clay-pot fish head and kim heong clam (often referred to as kam heong clam elsewhere).
There’s also a variety of colourful Malaysian beverages on the menu, including mango, tropical pineapple, and strawberry smoothies.
A Malaysian-born friend who grew up in Singapore has told me that there are many arguments between these two neighbours over which country owns certain dishes in the region.
For example, the Singaporeans use the term roti prata to describe their flatbread, whereas the Malaysians claim roti canai as their own. Similarly, they bicker over which country can lay claim to Hainanese chicken rice.
Of course, in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s no longer possible to zip over to Singapore and then up to Ipoh to determine which cuisine is superior.
Instead, diners will have to satisfy themselves with what’s on the menu of local restaurants, including Ipoh Malay Cuisine, found deep in the heart of Marpole.
And for those worried about the pandemic, this one comes with a instant-read digital thermometer near the door to ensure that nobody enters the premises with a fever.