Road Trip to Ipoh: Salt-baked chicken and a 280-million-year-old wine bar

2 Nov

The verdant mountains of Ipoh

Did you know that Groupon has extended its reach all the way to Malaysia? Their trademark absurdist (and slightly snarky) copy loses something in the translation, but the concept of killer deals doesn’t. We took advantage of one of these for a weekend getaway to The Banjaran Hot Springs Retreat in Ipoh, about two and a half hours north of KL. The Banjaran is a resort nestled in the mountains, with natural hot springs and spectacular limestone caves.

Doesn't this scream for a glass of Bordeaux? Or maybe a cask of Amontillado?

One of these caves was converted to a bar/wine cellar for the owner of The Banjaran’s parent company, the Sunway Group, Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah. Sunway is a huge developer in Malaysia — there are all sorts of everything with Sunway’s name, including several malls (one of which has a pyramid and a sphinx — it’s called Sunway Pyramid, natch), major thoroughfares, and a series of universities. There’s a photo of him in the bar, with a fresh floral arrangement, posing between his private helicopter and his Lamborghini.

The literally cavernous wine bar

So with that kind of equity, why not convert a 280-million-year-old paleozoic cave into your own private wine cellar? I bet he hosts some rocking parties in that cave. (Though the echo effect might ruin the karaoke.) Oddly, we were the only people at the bar — we had to scrounge up a staff member to serve us — which made it a bit eerie. Maybe the other guests were busy enjoying the private pools and jacuzzis in their villas.

Of course, no trip to Ipoh is complete without bringing home a salt-baked chicken.

Aun Kheng Lim, the salt-baked chicken shop

Salt-baked chicken is a traditional Hakka Chinese preparation in which a whole chicken is seasoned with ginger and other Chinese herbs and then buried in hot salt, where it slowly cooks. The method results in a flavorful, moist chicken. It’s similar in concept to the more famous Beggar’s Chicken, where the chicken is wrapped in lotus leaves and then clay before being placed on the fire.

The gift box

Apparently the chicken is a popular omiyage (gift you bring back to the folks at home, including office mates), and they’re packaged attractively in gift boxes. I saw some people leave with what looked like six boxes. The chickens are small, but still, that’s a lot of poultry.

The bird of the hour

The chicken was as tender as promised — we had a carving knife at the ready, but it wasn’t necessary, as the bird could be torn apart with bare hands — if a bit salty. Apparently you’re supposed to serve this with the chili-garlic-lime sauce that usually accompanies chicken rice, but it was tasty enough on its own. Would I drive to Ipoh again just for this dish? Probably not, as I suspect that if  you could get your hands on the secret herbal blend, it would be pretty easy to recreate at home. (In fact, here’s a recipe.)


One Response to “Road Trip to Ipoh: Salt-baked chicken and a 280-million-year-old wine bar”

  1. Nate @ House of Annie November 15, 2011 at 10:45 pm #

    Wine bar in a cave! Cool.

    I’ve been to that salt-baked chicken store. Very tasty chicken, I must say. Even thinking about it now makes my mouth water.

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