Baked in tradition

Buns fresh out of the oven at Hiap Joo traditional bakery
LONG before chic confectioneries and bakeries came along, folks in Johor Baru enjoyed tasty bread and cakes made by traditional bakers. Today the art of baking in charcoal ovens lives on as these bakeries continue to do brisk business in the heart of the city.

Kedai Kek & Roti Hiap Joo

My father loves his bread. When we were young, we would climb into the back of his VW Beetle for the daily trip to Jalan Tan Hiok Nee where he would stop in front of Kedai Kek & Roti Hiap Joo. There baker Lim Joo Ban could often be seen taking a breather in a rattan chair outside the bakery.  Dad would call out “ngiau kai!” (Hainanese dialect for small one) and Lim would bring a freshly-baked loaf and pass it to us through the open car window.

The Lim's putting dough into the charcoal oven to bake
Sometimes Dad would bring us into the bakery to choose buns and cakes. While he chatted with the friendly baker, my eyes often wandered to the huge charcoal oven. The first time I peeped in through the oven door, I almost got my eyebrows singed.  The fa├žade and shopfloor of this quaint little bakery remains virtually unchanged since Lim started it in the 1930s.

Today the younger Lims continue to bake sweet and savoury buns, French loaves, sandwich loaves and a deliciously light banana cake using the same recipes, with only some methods slightly modernised with automation. It’s fascinating how the Lims have honed that unique ability to gauge temperature and baking times without the aid of technology.

Shamsul Hak Kedai Roti

Sallahuddin putting dough into traditional oven
At Sallahuddin Bakery, in a road parallel to Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, the Khan family continues to offer bread and pastries baked in traditional charcoal ovens.  When Shariff Khan came from Rajasthan, India, almost 70 years ago to seek his fortune in Malaya, he opened Shamsul Hak Kedai Roti in Jalan Dhoby. Soon, his bakery became popular with customers who stopped to pick up bread and other pastries.

Today, grandson Sallahuddin Khan still produces the bakery’s distinctively concave-top loaves, cylindrical loaves, buns, cupcakes and sugee biscuits.

My personal favourite is the giant samosa. These triangular pastries are as wide as a man’s palm, filled with spicy meat and potatoes, and baked to crispy perfection.

Nostalgic Trip

Sallahuddin serving customers at his bakery
Today, I continue to brave the mad city traffic and limited parking space to get my favourite buns, cakes and samosas. I still feel kaya toast tastes best when it’s made with bread baked in a charcoal oven.

Part of the fun, when visiting these bakeries, is to observe the bakers using a long shovel to put trays of pastries in or remove them from the oven. Sometimes the queue for freshly baked items is such that if I am just a minute too late, I’d be turned away with “sudah habis!”

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 6 July 2009

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