BREATHE in. Hold it. Now breathe out.

If you find yourself stuck in the middle of a Christmas-shopping crowd and desperately gasping for a breath of fresh air, then you are not alone.

I sometimes suffer from this never-ending, vicious cycle as well when the festive season draws near and all I can think of is… which shopping mall to raid next.

As the novelty wears thin (more like the wallet running dry), don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone, break free and embark on a road trip.

Nowadays, the notion of travelling almost always conjures images of flying (after all, everyone can fly now, to steal a quote from a local budget airline), a privilege back in the old days but more common now with a few clicks on the web, a credit card for payment and a passport.

However, flying may not always be the best option. Some people are just not born to handle the stress of commuting to and from the airport, the packing and the check-in process.

And thus, let’s come to my story for the day – road trips.

Khiong Kee Restaurant is located along the main road of Tapah town, but easily missed due to its rather simple layout (left). Steamed sang yue with choy poh is one of Khiong Kee’s signature dishes, but be prepared for a slightly lengthy wait. Good things, after all, come to those who wait (right).

What we Malaysians are blessed with is good sunny weather all year round (save for some heavier downpour on certain months, but still within sanity range), relatively good expressways and roads to drive on, and the most irresistible element of all?

Exceptional food from street peddlers, food courts,  a few established restaurants  and everything else in between.

I once wrote about Choy Kee in Sungkai, a restaurant that I grew up eating at whenever we gathered for family reunions and festivals in the small town wedged between Bidor and Slim River to the south of Ipoh.

But Sungkai is not the only stopover that you can consider while travelling along the North South Expressway between Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur.

In fact, throughout the two hours-odd journey, there are similar small towns like Kampar, Bidor, Tapah, Slim River, Kuala Kubu Baru and Tanjung Malim, with notable eateries here and there.

One of the more under-rated towns in terms of food is Tapah, located slightly more than 50 kilometres to the south of Ipoh and accessible from the PLUS expressway.

Probably overshadowed by the more media-friendly neighbouring towns like Kampar which is a much bigger township with a university, better infrastructure and signature foods like curry chicken bun, claypot chicken rice and “chicken” biscuits, or even Bidor for the sheer popularity of Pun Chun’s herbal duck noodle soup, fresh guava and petai (stink beans), Tapah is famously known for being the gateway to Cameron Highlands, the cool retreat above the clouds.

If you are somewhat stumped for ideas on a good lunch in Tapah, I would suggest that you visit Restoran Khiong Kee located along the main road, just a short distance away from the Shell petrol station in the town centre.

The inconspicuous-looking restaurant may pass off as just another random coffee shop for the retirees to sip their cups of kopi-o, accompanied by singing birds in cages.

To be honest, I had that impression earlier prior to stepping into the place. The chicken rice stall at the front of the restaurant was kind of misleading too, as my sources informed me of good chu char dishes that are the real deal breaker here, not chicken rice for lunch. (Although in Khiong Kee’s defence, the queue of eager beavers during lunch hour for take-aways may prove me wrong.)

Marching in and finding a corner table for two, I took in the spiral staircase at the back painted stark white, the white tiled walls, and the dozen or so tables that populate the place.

The trademark dishes were all proudly printed in colour (albeit fading) and pasted on the walls.

And so, I invested my faith in a reader’s recommendations and settled for three of their most popular dishes; fish steamed with choy poh (preserved radish), stir fried wild fern shoots (pucuk pakis) with eggs, dried shrimps and salted fish, as well as wild boar meat with ginger and spring onions.

All the three dishes we sampled were excellent in quality, the cook’s skillful mastery in controlling the wok fire was evident in the wild boar dish. Usually, wild boar as with other game meat might have an unpleasant gamey taste that can only be masked with robust gravy like curry or even black pepper. But to simply stir fry the pieces of lean wild boar meat with slices of ginger and spring onions is testament to the culinary expertise of the one behind the wok.

Needless to say, this has immediately placed Khiong Kee as a place to visit just for their rendition of the wild boar dish.

Creativity in cooking may mean that at times, quality may be compromised. Hence when I came to know about their version of pucuk pakis that is NOT cooked with sambal belacan but instead stir fried with eggs, I was a little apprehensive.

The ambience may not be much, but the food speaks volumes at Khiong Kee Restaurant.But I should have known better. The years spent in perfecting any single dish may put some newer restaurateurs to shame, really.

Fresh, crunchy shoots of wild fern (a common item within this area of Tapah – Bidor – Sungkai) may taste sweet on its own, but stir fried with a beaten egg, red chillies, finely-chopped salted fish and briny dried shrimps? The cumulative result was marvelous. And this was mild enough to please any tastebud, including a child’s.

The steamed fish took a little longer to arrive as predicted. The crowd started to swell as the clock struck 1pm and the line of people buying chicken rice snaked along the warm corridor beyond the entrance.

Their version of choy poh fish uses ikan haruan or sang yue also known as snakehead fish in English. The key determining factor for this dish to be a success or otherwise is the amount of deep fried crispy preserved radish used. This is mixed with fried shallots. The fish was steamed to a firm, bouncy texture but do be cautious of the small bones within the flesh.

The other dishes that came highly recommended by the lady who took our order were Marmite chicken, steamed la la clams, and of course, a perpetual favourite of mine; sambal petai with prawns.

The slight detour from the expressway translates to minimal effort really, when at the end of the day, you shall be well-rewarded with quality home cooking that has stood the test of time and challenged the evolving food landscape around neighbouring towns. – James Tan malaymail