Ipohworld's World

Saving Yesterday For Tomorrow


This steamboat is ‘powered’ by charcoal. Yes, I kid you not! This brass object is divided into the base, pot and lid. The soup is placed in the pot, which is heated by the charcoal in the base. I’ve never eaten out of one of these…have you?

  1. Ngai C O says:

    Hi felicia,

    Steam boat used to be done this way. That was once a upon a time in the days when fire wood was widely used for cooking. Maybe up to the 50s.

    LPG revolutionised cooking in Malaysia. Literally every household has a bottle of the gas.

    Electricity for frying never really caught on in part because the heating element was slow to heat up. If you have two heating elements in use, then the cable size has to be increased to be able to handle something like 30 amps. This was not very common except with the expats.

    The situation might change with induction cooking, whereby the heat output can be closely regulated and monitored.

    As regards the steam boat, it was quite fashionable at one time in the 70s and 80s, when either families or groups would dine out in these outlets. Either pressurised kerosene or LPG was used.

    We even did it at home using an ordinary pot of appropriate size. The outcomes were the same.

    Link below shows some of the design features.


  2. Ipoh Remembered says:

    Dear felicia … The charcoal steamboat was a traditional Hainanese thing. If you had one on the table, you had to watch out for sparks crackling all about.

    By the way, because it does offer some advantages over using propane or what-not, you can still find it in use, especially in restaurants that claim to be (and maybe are) “authentic.”

  3. Ruth Iversen Rollitt says:

    I had one of those! Was good fun and a talking point when entertaining in Europe! Quite dangerous thoug with fire and black smoke!

  4. NCK says:

    Literally, a steamboat is a boat powered by a steam engine. I guess the cuisine is called steamboat in English because the pot has a chimney as a boat-version steamboat does. The cuisine is called dá bīn lòuh (on-the-sides cooker) in Cantonese and huǒ guō (fire pot) in Mandarin.

    As far as I know, the steamboat pot in the photo is the original version of such pots – coal-fired with a chimney at the centre. Its brass construction puts its times to the 60′s and before, I think. Other usual pot materials are also used to make the pots.

    Gas steamboat was popular in the 1990s and 2000′s among eating outlets. It is done by placing a pot on a portable single-burner cooker (or stove, as Americans call it) that is fired by a small gas canister the size between a small aerosol and a hairspray. I suppose eating outlets use electric cookers nowadays. At home, you can enjoy your scrumptious steamboat with just your rice cooker.

    • NCK says:

      Sorry. The original steamboat pot is charcoal-fired, not coal-fired.

      At home, you can also place a pot on a single-burner electric cooker (induction type now) at the centre of your dining table and have everyone sit around the table to enjoy a steamboat session. The pot is preferably the shallow type.

  5. NCK says:

    Good-quality charcoal is cleaner and emits less smoke, and I don’t suppose ordinary-grade charcoal emits black smoke either. That is the characteristic of wood. That said, a charcoal steamboat pot should be used in a well-ventilated environment – either outdoor, or indoor with windows opened – to prevent CO2 accumulation.

    • Ngai C O says:

      Hi NCK,

      Correction!!! It is CO or carbon monoxide build up, which is the silent killer.

      Many people have succumbed to it. Entire families have been wiped out. There have been cases of death where BBQs were lit in tents. The next time you go on holiday, say in Greece, Spain or Africa, if the hot water supply comes from gas, check the flue to make sure the waste exhaust is vented outside in the open.

      Any fossil fuel burning, gas, wood, charcoal, gasoline, is bound to produce carbon monoxide.

      There are strict laws in the UK with regards to gas, wood and gasoline central heating and hot water.

      As for charcoal, the amount of smoke and ash it produces is due to the manufacturing process, I believe. If little residual wood is left and it is dry, then it will appear to burn cleaner with less smoke.

  6. Ngai C O says:

    Hi NCK,

    Point taken.

    Gas engineers always check for carbon monoxide levels in any confined spaces and not carbon dioxide. They will calibrate boilers to below the manufacturers’s and legal levels of carbon monoxide in the flue gas. Off the top of my head, it is below 50 parts per million.

    You probably are aware that carbon monoxide is produced by incomplete combustion of fuels.

    As regards to carbon dioxide, in large buildings where there is inadequate ventilation, the elevated carbon dioxide levels may cause what is known as sick building syndrome. People exposed to it feels lethargic. In that sense, carbon dioxide levels are monitored in conjunction either natural or mechanical ventilation.

    Another area where excessive carbon dioxide may pose a hazard is volcanic activity.

    Carbon dioxide is widely used in the food, manufacturing and many other industries as the link below shows.

    It is not considered as a toxic gas in the true sense of it.


    • NCK says:

      Hi Ngai CO. Indeed CO is much more toxic than its wannabe cousin CO-too does. But the cousin is more deadly, for it is on the course of pulling off a colossal kill on the scale of the Earth, and it is not doing this with its measly toxicity.

      • Ngai C O says:

        Hi NCK,

        You can worry about your CO2 to prove your point.

        I would look after my potential immediate life threatening danger having gas central heating, i.e. the carbon monoxide.

        That is the difference between you and me. We can debate about the merits but I do not think we can argue about it.

    • Ngai C O says:

      Hi Mano,

      Could one still have the stomach for steam boat or bak kuk teh after pub crawl? After six to seven pints let alone nine to ten for some people.

      I wonder where one will put the rest of the fluids and contents without eventually bringing the whole lot up.

      • Ngai C O says:

        Hi felicia,

        What a shame!!! It would be fun to see your reactions after a few pints rather than hitting the sack. HaHaHa.

        I had a few Scottish friends and would mimic their accent when I lost the inhibitions.

        I cannot keep count of the number of times my head was in the toilet bowl after mixing beer with chasers. I have never thrown up in public or on the pavement.

  7. Mano says:

    Ngai CO, those six, seven or nine to ten pints do not stay very long as the visit to the ‘loo’ increases with the intake. Now, as for the steamboat or Bak Kut Teh, as you work your way through those wonderful morsels, you’ll gradually find that the world has stopped spinning around you, you’re slurring less, what you say is beginning to make sense (at least to yourself) and you don’t see double anymore! Especially after the condensed soup at the end of the steamboat meal. Basically, it leaves you with a pleasant high (that permanent smirk on your face will attest to that!)as you make your way home. Most importantly, there’s no hangover the next morning!

  8. felicia says:

    Kok Mun Tang left us an interesting message on Facebook:
    “There used to be a very popular steamboat restaurant in Ipoh Old Town during the 80′s…two doors away from Thean Chun Coffee Shop. Tables with this type of charcoal-type stove is available both inside the shop and outside at the open back courtyard area. For several years during the 80′s, economy was so bad that wedding dinners were replaced by steamboat dinners so that guests can give angpows with much lesser amount….”

    Does anyone know which restaurant this is?

    • S.Y. says:

      Heep Heng Restaurant. It has since closed and taken over by Lou Wong (of Nga Choy Kai). I was told that Heep Heng has a branch in Jalan Pasir Puteh or thereabouts. For those who are still interested in steamboat with pieces of chicken, pork, fish, fish balls, meat balls, vegetables, etc (instead of the so called steam boat with fish balls, tau foo with fish paste, etc), you can go to Teo Chew Restaurant at Labrooy Road. A bit costly but no prohibitive. No air-cond, just fans. They use gas instead of char coal.

      Nowadays, very people use charcoal for steamboat. More likely, they use the electric rice cooker which can serve as the pot for boiling the meat.

    • Ngai C O says:

      Hi felicia,

      When the tin price collapsed in the 80s, the majority of people, especially those who relied heavily on tin for a living, be they hardware outlets, foundries, bars, goldsmiths etc. were hit heavily.

      This was followed by mine closures as their tin reserves reached end of life soon after.

      As for the traditional charcoal fire steam boat, I did attend a few of them in the 70s and 80s in the Ipoh Garden and Fair Park areas. They were powered by either pressurised kerosene or LPG. In fact there were fair number of such outlets in these two locations.

      We also made our own at home on occasions using the gas stove.

      I think charcoal was on its last legs out of the window.

      I wonder anyone bothers with it in this day and age unless it is for nostalgic reasons.

      My sister, a firm believer in using charcoal outside in the garden to slow cook soup, has since given up this practice four to five years ago.

      • felicia says:

        Ngai…I think you’re right. Perhaps using a charcoal stove is more for nostalgic reasons now, since modern appliances are more convenient.

  9. S.Y. says:

    I just want to add that Heep Heng Restaurant (hope I spell it correctly) used to serve raw crabs with pounded groundnuts, parsley, sesame seeds and the squeezed lime juice (or vinegar). You have to be very brave to take this but I survived without stomach upset.

  10. S.Y. says:

    I also want to add that I was recently in Cameron Highlands. At the hotel/apartment where I stayed, there was a steamboat restaurant and they used charcoal.

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