KLUANG, Nov 20 — Travelling from Kuala Lumpur or Malacca to Johor Baru or Singapore (or vice versa) can be a tiresome journey passing by seemingly never-ending billboards. To break the monotony, a nice place for a stopover — say for breakfast — is the old railway town of Kluang.
Located smack in the middle of Johor, Kluang was founded in 1915 as the state’s administrative centre by the British. Named after the local flying fox or keluang in Malay, the town grew quickly thanks to the main railway line that passed through it. From this, its strongest claim to fame — at least with foodies — is the kopitiam at the Kluang railway station.
Formerly the canteen of the railway station, the Kluang Station kopitiam started operations in 1938 and is still run by the same family, now into the third generation. As Kluang was a compulsory stop for all trains, the canteen — marble-top tables in a tiny space framed by wooden planks — saw brisk business from the very beginning.
One can imagine passengers stopping for breakfast that wasn’t too different from what we have today: crispy, made-to-order roti bakar slathered with fragrant kaya and slivers of cold butter; tiny packets of nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaf with only sambal, ikan bilis and groundnuts as accompaniments; runny half-boiled eggs doused in soy sauce and white pepper; curry puffs and kuih; and their signature Kluang kopi, of course.
The coffee beans are roasted the traditional way, in butter, which gives it a bold, smoky flavour that goes well with condensed milk. Brewed using a flannel “stocking” and pulled, teh tarik style, a frothy cuppa would make any weary highway motorist coo with pleasure. You must have this with the aforementioned roti bakar — as either wafer-thin roti keping or crusty buns — that are still toasted over a charcoal fire.
Today there are a several branches of the coffee shop around the country as it is now a franchise (under the Kluang Rail Coffee brand). However, there’s nothing quite like visiting the original kopitiam and experiencing the nostalgic charm of a place that’s stuck in time. If you’re lucky, you might even get to see a train arriving and passengers getting off. What other breakfast in Malaysia captures the passage of time quite so elegantly?
After breakfast, it’s time for something sweet. Consider it a craving for a post-brekkie dessert. Kluang residents know where to go: Air Tahu Ah Wah, a small shop that sells tau jiong (soybean milk) and tau foo fa (soybean pudding).
Do not judge it by its unassuming store front; the family-run business is one of Kluang’s major suppliers of tau jiong and tau foo fa. Most customers drop by for takeaway thus there’s no need for anything more than a couple of small tables and a few chairs.
Originating in China during the Western Han Dynasty and popularised in Cantonese dim sum cuisine, where it is served in a wooden bucket with either clear or dark ginger syrup, tau foo fa is just one of those foods we take for granted here in Malaysia. They all taste more or less the same, right? So what’s the fuss?
Steve Jobs once said that “simple can be harder than complex”: the challenge is to do truly simple things well. One spoonful of Air Tahu Ah Wah’s smooth, silken tau foo fa proves this maxim. After all, the ingredients are only soybeans and water (and sugar, if you include the syrup). As basic as it gets yet when it’s done right, as it is here, the results are heavenly.
Using no preservatives — artificial or otherwise — and made fresh daily, the tau foo fa is best consumed on the day itself. For those who would like something fancier, you may add toppings such as longan, ginkgo and cendol. But it’s best to enjoy the tau jiong and tau foo fa as they are, so you can really taste the rich, subtle flavour of the soybeans.
Still feeling peckish or hoping to grab some edible souvenirs of your brief detour to Kluang? Then head to Yuen Fatt Biskut, a local bakery famous for their unique Shanghainese mooncakes — introduced over 20 years ago — that draw lines around the block during the Mid-Autumn Festival.
You don’t have to wait till mid-autumn to try some of these most unusual mooncakes. Unlike the conventional ones that are flat and circular, Yuen Fatt’s mooncakes are loaf-shaped. Some say they look like adorable loh shu (mice); others insist they resemble auspicious koi fish. What everyone can agree on is that these Shanghainese mooncakes are absolutely delicious.
In fact, you can sneak a peek of the process of creating them in the shophouse next to the bakery, which is their central kitchen. Workers employ the traditional method of crafting each mooncake by hand; no assembly line machines here.
You might notice some strange-looking holes on some of the mooncakes. Don’t worry; these aren’t defects but the bakery’s way of identifying the contents. A quick guide: a single hole corresponds to a single salted egg yolk while two holes means it’s a double yolk. And three holes? Oddly enough, this doesn’t mean three yolks but instead zero yolks!
Three flavours are available: aromatic pandan, dark red bean paste and the classic lotus paste. All of the fillings are generous and not cloyingly sweet; the salted egg yolks are moist, unlike some of those found in factory-style mooncakes that can be rather dry.
What makes these Shanghainese mooncakes spectacular is their rich, buttery crust. Crumbly and melt-in-your-mouth, they make for great gifts though best eaten within three to four days as no preservatives are used. I doubt that will be a problem; we finished an entire box before we even reached our destination!
Kluang Rail Coffee
Stesen Keretapi Kluang, Jalan Station, Kluang, Johor
Open daily (except Thurs closed) 7am-12.30pm & 2.30pm-6.30pm
Tel: 07-773 8391
Air Tahu Ah Wah
15A, Jalan Sentol 1, Haji Manan, Kluang, Johor
Open daily (except Thurs closed) 10am-6pm
Yuen Fatt Biskut
39, Jalan Haji Manap Nordin, Kluang Baru, Kluang, Johor
Open Mon-Sat 9am-8pm; Sun 9am-1pm
Tel: 07-773 7107