JOHOR BARU, Aug 11 ― Another weekend rolls around and we are off to explore yet another part of our beloved country’s food culture. This time we head to the southern tip of the peninsula.
Johor Baru is popular with our neighbours across the Causeway; now this is an opportunity to find out what they’ve been enjoying. Let’s be kiasu too and not miss out!
If you’re approaching Johor Baru from the north, do stop by Kulai, a small town at its periphery for some breakfast, the way the locals have it. We’re driving a Mazda CX-5 so we set its navigation for Jieping Café, a no-frills shop famed for their fish balls. These are made fresh daily by hand, using only 100 per cent fish, specifically the meat from fresh yellowtail snappers.
The result are less-than-perfectly-spherical fish balls due to being shaped by hand, but looks hardly matter as these are springy (or “QQ” as the Taiwanese call it) and subtly flavoured (no MSG here; only a little salt is used as seasoning). Enjoy it in a bowl of light broth, made from fish bones and skin, leftover from the fish ball-making process; with some dry, soy-sauced noodles; or with a side serving of authentic Hakka yong tau fu stuffed with a blend of dried shrimp and minced pork.
For your morning cuppa, head over to Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters in Johor Baru’s famous Taman Pelangi. Run by Penang-born Ang Yeesiang, previously of Art52 Coffee and Coffee Stain, the café stands out amidst a sea of Third Wave coffee bars that have opened in the city in recent years for the barista-owner’s studied craft in brewing and roasting.
Expect sublime espresso-based coffee such as ristrettos and cappuccinos here, as well as seasonal beans – some roasted by Ang, others by Singapore’s Nylon Coffee ― for drip coffee. Though the café is located in a quiet corner of Taman Pelangi that is green with mature trees and shrubbery, we had no problem finding it thanks to the built-in navigation system in our Mazda CX-5. Good thing too, for Ang’s cuppas are not to be missed.
For lunch, head to Restoran You Kee XO, a family-run establishment in Skudai famed for their roast meats. (Yes, we are driving all over the city and more, but that’s where a comfortable, steady ride comes in.) You can’t go wrong with the classic combination of roast duck, siew yoke, and char siew. Their XO roast duck has crispy, golden-brown skin and luscious, fall-off-the-bone duck meat. The siew yoke is fairly decent too.
The star, without a doubt, is the Crystal Char Siew ― slices of caramelised roast pork that are the perfect balance of moist and slightly charred layers. Also don’t miss their Volcanic Tofu, a slab of tofu sizzling away in a claypot, surrounded by savoury gravy. A bowl or two of steamed white rice for all that sauce, and perhaps some stir-fried greens for fibre, and you’ll have a meal to remember.
By teatime (or maybe even before, if you have a voracious appetite), satisfy your cravings by dropping by Season Confectionery & Bakery in Taman Pelangi. You can find the usual baked goods here but what’s unmissable is their ang koo kueh. Smaller than what you’d normally find elsewhere, these diminutive snacks make up for their size by being mostly filling and very little skin. In fact, the sticky, gooey skin is but a vehicle for their aromatic peanuts, mung bean or coconut stuffings. Delicious.
Come late afternoon or early evening, the sensuous silhouettes of amber-hued lamps at Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters beckon us again. If you need a break but feel it’s too late for coffee, try Ang’s green tea latte. The matcha is procured from Japan and has enough tea-like flavour without being overly bitter, perfect when paired with silky steamed milk.
For nibbles, there are a number of baked treats including a coffee crumble and assorted cakes. The highlight may be Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters’ salted caramel chocolate and red velvet cupcakes. The former is especially enticing, with the caramel oozing like liquid manna when you cut into the cupcake. It’s hard to stop at just one.
Dinnertime is time to discover why locals flock to Taman Iskandar, where car workshops line almost the entire stretch of Jalan Sultanah Aminah. No, it’s not for vehicle repairs but for Restoran Ah Meng’s famous “burnt beehoon” or charred beehoon. Every strand has soaked up a rich stock and fried with plenty of wok hei, so the noodles are crispy on the outside yet moist to the bite. Enjoy this with the accompanying sambal and a generous squeeze of lime.
Another Ah Meng signature dish is their spare ribs curry. The curry is rich from using fresh santan (coconut cream) and aromatic from curry spices and generous use of fried shallots. The meat is succulent and tender, practically falling from the bone. Cubes of pan-fried potatoes add substance to the curry, which only begs for a big plate of steamed white rice to complete the dish.
Still feeling peckish after all that food? (Who can blame you ― food hunting requires serious energy, what with all the driving around the city and then some.) Good old Taman Pelangi comes to the rescue yet again with a supper fare that’s more normally associated with breakfast. Along the busy (even at night) Jalan Sri Pelangi, several stalls open for business at the open-air carpark come nightfall.The best of the lot is a small chee cheong fun stall run by Mr and Mrs Ee Yang Hong. The husband-and-wife team are old pros at making the Hong Kong-style steamed rice noodle rolls, and also run the same stall in the mornings, albeit at a side alley on the opposite side of the road.
Imagine tucking into freshly-made, still warm rice noodle rolls, slippery-smooth and doused in an addictive soy-based sauce and fragrant chilli paste made with dried chillies. The fillings include shrimp, pork or a bit of both. A sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds and you have a supper that will leave you dreaming the most delicious dreams afterwards.
562 Jalan Kenanga 29/18, Bandar Indahpura, Kulai, Johor
Open daily 6:30am-4pm (except Tue closed)
Sweet Blossom Coffee Roasters
28 Jalan Maju, Taman Pelangi, Johor Baru, Johor
Open daily 8am-6pm (for occasional off days, check their Facebook)
Restoran You Kee XO
93 Jalan Pendekar 2, Taman Ungku Tun Aminah, Skudai, Johor Baru, Johor
Open daily 10am-10pm
Season Confectionery & Bakery
82, Jalan Serampang, Taman Pelangi, Johor Baru, Johor
Open daily 8:30am-8:30pm
Restoran Ah Meng
38, Jalan Sultanah Aminah, Taman Iskandar, Johor Baru, Johor
Open daily 12:30pm-11:30pm (except Tue closed)
Hong Kong-style chee cheong fun stall
Open-air carpark at Jalan Sri Pelangi, Taman Pelangi, Johor Baru, Johor
Open daily 7pm-10pm