MUAR, Aug 21 — If you ever find yourself driving on the KL-Seremban Highway from the capital to Johor Baru (or vice versa) and wish to avoid the weekend crowds in Malacca, the town of Muar makes for a very nice stopover for breakfast for hungry travellers. Also known as Bandar Maharani Bandar Diraja (“Royal Town of the Empress”), Muar is officially the royal city of the state of Johor.
The town is easy to navigate; look out for the white-and-grey Muar clock tower near the Sultan Ismail Bridge (which spans the Muar river) and use it as your main landmark. There are plenty of old Chinese shophouses in this area selling everything from dried goods to parking coupons.
Start your breakfast run at Jalan Yahya where most of the stalls open early; most from 7am and some as early as 5:30am. The kopitiams along this stretch are fine with customers bringing takeaway fare from these outside stalls so long as they order some beverages.
Expect local breakfast standards such as min jiang kueh (Chinese peanut pancake), chwee kueh (steamed rice cakes topped with preserved radish), cai tao kueh (fried radish cake) and kway chap (Teochew braised meat and innards with broad rice sheets) here. Judging by the lines, the first two are by far the most popular breakfast choices.
The min jiang kueh pushcart stall is run by a middle-aged couple; the husband does the cooking while the wife cuts and packs the pancakes (also known as apam balik in Malay). First, the pancake batter is poured on a hot, well-greased griddle. Once it’s cooked, a coarse blend of crushed roasted peanuts and sugar is sprinkled on top before the pancake is folded in half and cut into pieces.
The result is a spongy, chewy pancake; every bite is a burst of nutty savoury-sweetness. The aroma of the min chiang kueh is perhaps the best part and you will be licking the peanut grease off of your lips long after your last bite.
More popular down south, in Johor and Malacca, than elsewhere in Malaysia, chwee kueh is perhaps part of a uniquely southern cuisine. In Hokkien, chwee kueh literally means “water rice cakes”, which makes sense as these rice cakes are steamed in their characteristic saucer-like cups.
The freshly-steamed rice cakes are bowl-shaped and wobbly-soft, needing only a topping of sweet chye poh (minced preserved radish) and spicy chilli sauce to complete them. Here, a nod to traditional methods can be seen as a charcoal stove is used to keep the chye poh mixture simmering hot.
Over at Jalan Ali, a few streets away, we locate Medan Selera 333. From outside, it looks just like any other food court in Malaysia. Within, near the rear, is a stall dishing up something that is particular to Muar and no where else: char kway teow with otak-otak.
You have to admit it’s quite a stroke of genius to pair the ubiquitous local hawker fare with an ingredient that, for many, represents the taste of Muar. Execution-wise, the char kway teow is fried in a wok as is normal practice; perhaps the use of dark soy sauce here is a bit more generous but that’s about it. It’s the addition of a couple of slices of otak-otak that lifts this dish up to something special.
Those hoping for more lard and wok hei may be disappointed and this stall’s char kway teow is a tad wetter compared to the more celebrated Penang version. However, the dish makes up for it with the excellent flavour and texture pairing of greasy, just-fried noodles with the soft, umami-rich spiced fish paste.
Our last stop is Muar’s “Wai Sek Kai” or Glutton Street, which has been around since 1952. Located along the entire stretch of Jalan Haji Abu, most of the food stalls offering delicacies such as braised duck rice, pork satay and oh chien (oyster omelette) only open in the afternoon till late at night.
For morning visitors such as us, the pickings are slimmer. Fortunately there is one must-visit eatery that opens early — Kedai Kopi Lu San, famous for their Hainanese curry rice. The façade of the corner shop harkens to the colonial era like many other old buildings in the town centre, albeit painted a vibrant red (now faded) to catch the eyes of passers-by.
Inside, the walls of the kopitiam are covered with ageing green tiles; locals sit at tables sipping their kopi O and waiting for their curry rice. Near the front of the shop, the owner, Mr Wee, reigns supreme over the simmering pots of home-style dishes. According to him, he is the third generation of his family running Lu San, which was founded in the 1960s.
In fact, Mr Wee assures us the recipe for their Hainanese curry rice hasn’t changed in all these decades. (Indeed, why mess with a good thing?) The dish consists of hot steamed white rice covered not only with chicken curry but also gravy from braised meat, chun kuen (Chinese spring rolls) and half a stewed hard-boiled egg.
Lu San’s signature dish is aromatic, mildly spicy and not too lemak (rich) as no santan (coconut cream) is used. The chicken meat is still on the bone so it remains moist; this is important since Lu San uses kampung chicken which can be tougher. Mr Wee proudly told us the addition of chun kuen, which sets their curry rice from others, is an innovation of his.
Don’t fancy curry? The braised pork belly rice is also quite stunning; the meat is tender and the right mix of fat and lean. The gravy is dark and moreish, so ask for more to banjir (flood) the rice with!
We had ordered a side order of hot soup too. Today’s special was bitter gourd soup, which was chock-full of foo chok (bean curd skin), egg and black fungus. Mr Wee told us no MSG was used and indeed the broth was light and sweet.
Wash it all down with a cup of Hainanese coffee — we opted for kopi O just like the locals — that is aromatic and full-bodied the way good kopitiam brews are supposed to be. Walking out, we observe stacks of takeaway curry rice being prepared by Mrs. Wee; the stuff is so good most locals order ahead then drop by to grab it to go, to be enjoyed at home or at the office.
Jalan Haji Abu is also one of the best places to grab some freshly grilled otak-otak (grilled spiced fish paste wrapped in banana leaves), a specialty of Muar. There are various stalls along the street and one of our friends, who is a Muar townie, told us most are actually quite good and that if one is rushed for time, just join the queue that is the shortest.
We do just as he recommends. Here in Muar, you have a choice of otak-otak in different flavours such as fish, prawn, cuttlefish or a combination of all three. Why not try them all? The queues at the stall we choose and at neighbouring stalls move quite swiftly; the vendors have the process down to an art — from grilling the raw otak-otak to quickly wrapping them in pieces of newspaper for customers buying in bulk. (Everyone buys in bulk.)
For those planning to travel long distance, they also sell frozen otak-otak that you can then defrost and reheat at home. Of course, we can’t resist having some on the spot — nothing quite like a freshly grilled otak-otak to end a delicious morning in Muar!
Min chiang kueh and chwee kueh stalls
Jalan Yahya, Muar, Johor
Open daily 7am-11am
Char kway teow stall at Medan Selera 33
52 Jalan Ali, Muar, Johor
Open daily 10am to 5pm (except Tue closed)
Kedai Kopi Lu San
33 Jalan Haji Abu, Muar, Johor
Open daily 9am-3pm
Various stalls along Jalan Haji Abu, Muar, Johor