JOHOR BARU, Jan 11 – I frequently receive strange stares when I tell my buddies one of my favourite places for food in the country is Johor Baru. As true-blue Malaysians, we are notoriously willing to travel great distances in search of good eats. The capital of our southernmost state, however, doesn’t often come up when discussing culinary hotspots.
More’s the pity, my friends have no idea what they’re missing.
Whether it’s a take on bak kut teh that’s unlike anything you’ll taste in the Klang Valley or old-school banana cake that’s baked using a wood fire oven, the Johoreans have it good. Time the rest of the country discovers this hidden food paradise.
For breakfast, head to the old neighbourhood of Taman Pelangi, not far from the Causeway. You should have no problem finding the morning market located between two rows of shophouses at Jalan Sri Pelangi. This is where the residents gather for their yau char kwai (Chinese crullers), tau foo fa (soymilk curd), and daily gossip.
Look out for a tiny chee cheong fun stand run by a middle-aged Chinese couple. Ee Yang Hong and his wife will be busy making the Hong Kong-style steamed rice noodle rolls – some of the very best I’ve tasted – to order. Imagine layers upon layers of thin, slippery-smooth rolls doused in an addictive secret sauce.
Freshly made and still warm, your first bite will be a revelation. Unlike the Penang-style chee cheong fun which is dressed with sweet sauce and hae ko (thick shrimp paste), here the flavours are cleaner and more refined.
Instead of a heavy sauce weighing down these steamed rice noodles, a lighter soy-based sauce is used while the chilli paste is more fragrant from frying with dried chillies.
Options for their chee cheong fun fillings include shrimp, pork, or both. A sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds is added and that’s about it. Unlike other stalls, they do not add any fried shallots; the dish simply doesn’t need any further embellishment when it is already so good.
Ee has been at this for over 20 years. He first picked up the craft from a sifu (who has since retired) near the Pudu Old Pasar in Kuala Lumpur. After returning to Johor Baru to open his own stall, he tweaked his recipe for the sauce (made from chilli and shrimp paste, from our repeated tastings) over the years. The steamed rice noodle rolls are divine, but Ee’s secret-recipe sauce is to die for. Make sure to ask for extra.
Come noontime and it’s time for lunch. How about some Johor-style bak kut teh? While the Klang Valley version has strong herbal notes and a richer, darker broth, the southern version showcases subtler flavours and a milder soup.
The basics – simmering pork ribs in a broth seasoned with peppercorns, star anise, cloves, garlic and other secret ingredients for hours – remain the same; the difference lies in the balancing act of going lighter or heavier with the spices and herbs.
The best place to sample Johorean bak kut teh is at Hwa Mei Bak Kut Teh. The original shop was started in the 1960s before moving to its present location at Jalan Lumba Kuda, beneath the shade of an ancient tree.
The current owners, Johnny Zhu and his wife, represent the third generation, having taken over from his uncle (known to locals as Ah B; in fact, most still know the shop as Ah B’s Bak Kut Teh).
Walking in, you will notice kettles on charcoal heaters in every corner. The water in the kettles are kept boiling so patrons can refill their teapots with hot water on their own. It’s a family tradition that’s both nostalgic and efficient.
Having sat down and placed your orders, observe the magic happen “live” in the back of the shop. As they use charcoal for cooking, a lot more work is required to fan and watch over the flames. It’s well worth it as the resultant flavours have that trademark charcoal-meets-herbs touch.
Enjoy a delicately aromatic herbal broth for a change; you might discover you don’t miss the full-on, in-your-face bak kut teh flavours you are used to. Besides the standard pork ribs, also try their braised pork belly and pig’s skin; the former is lusciously rich while the latter has a delicious, gelatinous bite.
By mid-afternoon, you may well be feeling a bit peckish. Time for some tea and cakes. For the latter, join the queue at Hiap Joo Bakery & Biscuit Factory, a local bakery that has been in operation since 1919. The crowds are there for their signature banana cake, freshly baked in a traditional wood fire oven.
The story goes that Hiap Joo Bakery was first started by an Englishman before being handed over to the grandfather of the current owner Lim Meng Chin. Today the wood fire oven is manned by Lim’s two sons Poh Shian and Toh Huei.
But it’s not the historical value of the bakery but the taste of what its almost century-old oven produces that has customers returning all these years. Their hand-sliced banana cake is moist and spongy, with a slight smoky fragrance and flavour. No artificial additives are used so the cakes are not overly sweet and best consumed within a day. This is never a problem as they finish quickly!
What’s for dinner? Head over to Tapai Tang, a Chinese restaurant in Taman Melodies, just off the busy Jalan Tebrau, to find out. Tapai Tang was first set up in 1998 by Perak-born Lee Kee Peng who started working at the tender age of 11 in a kopitiam in his hometown of Teluk Intan. Lee’s signature dish is his salt baked chicken.
The chicken is marinated in spices and Chinese herbs, then wrapped in parchment paper and baked for about an hour in a casing of coarse rock salt. The resultant flavours are surprisingly subtle and not too salty, despite the dish’s name.
Kampung chicken is used here so the flesh is lean with little fat (typical of free range birds), moist and naturally sweet. You may dip the chicken in the accompanying chilli sauce but my advice is to enjoy the succulent meat as is.
Tapai Tang may be famous for their salt baked chicken but come here for their real secret weapon – their incomparable wat tan hor (rice noodles in egg gravy). It’s the best I’ve had in the country (yes, not simply the state) and it lives up to its hefty reputation with a luscious, yolk-drenched gravy coating strands of noodles that slip down the throat like pure manna.
The dish comes with the usual slices of pork, greens, and some decent-sized prawns, but I could eat this alone for just the noodles and gravy.
Another must-try is their Salad Prawns or “Three-Flavour-Prawns” in Chinese. The trinity of flavours here refers to a typically Malaysian-Chinese restaurant creation using mayonnaise, salad dressing and sweet corn. Sounds dodgy? Maybe but wait till you taste it. You’ll mop up this strange-sounding sauce even after the last prawn has been devoured.
If you’re worried about all the grease and hardly any greens in sight, complete your meal with an order of their Green Bean Floss, where the crunchy stir-fried French beans are topped with deep-fried shredded kai lan (the “green floss” in question), and a savoury garnish of dried anchovies and dried squid.
Clearly Johor Baru is a true food lover’s paradise, full of history and flavours, and well hidden from casual travellers not in the know. Fortunately, after reading this, that’s not you. Time to plan a trip down south, yes?
Hong Kong Style Chee Cheong Fun
Alley-way market (mornings) and open-air carpark (evenings) at Jalan Sri Pelangi, Taman Pelangi, Johor Bahru, Johor
Open daily 7am-11am and 7pm-10pm
Hwa Mei Bak Kut Teh
146, Jalan Lumba Kuda, Bukit Chagar, Johor Bahru, Johor
Open Tue-Sun 8:30am to 2pm; Mon closed
Hiap Joo Bakery & Biscuit Factory
13, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Johor Bahru, Johor
Open Mon-Sat 8:30am to 6pm; Sun closed
Restoran Tapai Tang
128, Jalan Chengai, Taman Melodies, Johor Bahru, Johor
Open daily 10am to 4am