Kopi OO and more

Peggy [3rd from Left around table] with friends
at Kluang Rail Coffee shop, Kluang Railway Station
After a successful jaw-gathon trip to Batu Pahat, PEGGY LOH and friends attempt to repeat their feed-good experience with a trip to the coffee-town of Kluang

I know the “O” in kopi-O means coffee without milk but I am baffled by the word kopi-OO on the wall menu inside the quaint Kluang Railway Coffeeshop in Kluang. This leads to a guessing game about what it means and to put the matter to rest, I ask the proprietor who says kopi-OO means coffee without milk or sugar.  I also learn from him that Kluang has a coffeeshop culture, that locals enjoy dallying over their cuppa at least four times a day and that XO is not a hard liquor but a combination drink of tea and coffee without milk.

After last year’s successful Batu Pahat food trail, our group of 10 (three from Singapore, two from Australia and five from Johor Baru) decide to meet again. This time, we’re headed for Kluang, bringing along appetites geared up for a gastronomic time.  With a strategy to share and enjoy more food varieties, my foodie friends coined the word “jaw-gathon” which aptly describes our marathon jaw exercise as we chit-chat over good food.  Meeting us is my Kluang buddy, Barney Lim, who not only makes us feel welcome but gives us an interesting and insightful time to his hometown.

Day One

The train promptly pulls into Kluang at 9.43am for our railway station rendezvous and breakfast at its iconic Railway Coffeeshop that harks back to 1939. For the last 70 years, it has faithfully served customers its classic coffee and toast. The crowded shop is cooled by whirring fans while a light breeze blows in through wire-netting walls reminiscent of a bygone age.

As trains trundle in and out of the station, Lim Jit Chiang, a fourth generation family member who now runs the coffeeshop, serves us kaya toast and coffee while we help ourselves to packets of nasi lemak and mee siam, pulut panggang and curry-puffs from a tray on the table. It’s all simple but tasty fare that leaves us completely satiated.

Then it’s time for us to check into Hotel Anika. It’s easy to spot the hotel from the station and after checking in, we set off on a drive around town.

Shophouses topped with lion figurines in different poses
We see many modern malls and traffic lights at junctions but we can’t help noticing how Kluang still has a good number of roundabouts, which can be a bane in traffic-choked places.  At Jalan Lambak, we stop to admire rows of sturdy shophouses with intricate roof parapet designs of lion figurines in different poses. These date back to 1934, 1936, 1937 and 1940.

We discuss our lunch options and finally settle on curry noodles at Yong He. Served in traditional ceramic bowls painted with cockerels, the noodles are drowned in thick curry gravy and are topped with ingredients like fishballs, meatballs, fried wantan, soft white tofu, fried tofu, cockles and beansprouts.  While Barney, who has been enjoying noodles here since he was a little boy, prefers dry-tossed lo shee fun noodles with just a dash of curry gravy, vegans can ask for the vegetarian variety.  To cool down after the spicy meal, we choose pai mu er, a sweet, soothing brew of white fungus with red dates.

Ghani Kadir dishing up his famous cendol
At Tong Huat Confectionery, I meet Loo Swee Hon, who has been making traditional Chinese pastries like tau sah piah for 13 years. Pointing to pastries cooling on trays, he tells me how to tell them apart – savoury ones filled with green bean paste are glazed while those sprinkled with sesame seeds are sweet.  When I emerge from the bakery, I am not surprised to see the others with bags of pastries they had bought!

Having had our fill of pastries, we are ready for Kluang’s famous thirst-quencher – Ghani Kadir’s cendol. Before him, Ghani’s grandfather and then his father were operating the cendol stall. 

Surrounded by 10 women thirsty for his family recipe of refreshing iced cendol with boiled red beans, the affable Ghani looks more than amused to dish out bowl after bowl to cool us down.

Goh Chuan Kian [Right] and his wife, serving up
delicious beef noodles at Restoran Yean Kee
For dinner, we have our stomachs… I mean our eyes... set on Restoran Yean Kee’s beef noodles. Like Ghani, Goh Chuan Kian’s family has been serving beef noodles for three generations. As we’ve been warned that there’s usually a long queue waiting for these individually-prepared noodles, we decide to make our way there early.  The rice noodles come with sliced beef, tripe and tendons and are topped with chopped salted vegetables, peanuts, sesame seeds and secret sauces. The noodles are served dry, with a side bowl of delicious herbal soup.

As for dessert to round off the evening (no pun intended), we settled for bowls of warm tong yuen, glutinous rice balls filled with crushed peanuts!

Day Two

A selection of ancient ear diggers!
Hot local coffee with buttered toast dipped in soft-boiled eggs at Jack Lim’s busy Kluang Rail Café is a nostalgic way to start the second day of our jaw-gathon.  After polishing off plates of mee siam, mee rebus and nasi lemak, we walk around the shops in Jalan Mersing, stopping at Kwong Yik Sang cane furniture shop where we buy a beautiful, woven cane stool.  In Wing Tong Onn, a dusty old Chinese medicine hall, our friend Ling discovers made-in-China “ear diggers” and buys up the lot because they are so rare and fascinating! 

Curry Fish is a signature dish at Restoran Patam
After the invigorating walk, we are ready for lunch at Restoran Patam. The signature dishes here are curry fish, fried fish head, garlic herb chicken and steamed otak-otak.  Apart from these, its vegetable dishes like fried special beancurd, petai sambal, kangkong belacan and bittergourd stirfried in salted egg are also very agreeable.  Even though I’m not a fan of fish head, I must admit that the unique flavour of spices and curry leaves in this fried fish dish, keeps me nibbling.

Such a sumptuous meal needs serious working off, so we head for Air Hitam to browse around Claytan’s ceramic warehouse and the souvenir market while keeping an eye on the time. Happily, we manage to return to Kluang railway station in time to send our friends safely off to Singapore on the 6.40pm train.

Desserts-to-die-for at Barney's
Before we begin our drive back to Johor Baru, we drop in again at Barney’s western restaurant. Barney whips up Caesar Salad, deep-fried silverfish and grilled prawn with imperial stuffing for appetisers.

For the main course, it’s (wait for it!) exquisite wagyu beef which I savour seasoned only with salt and pepper. Saving the best for last, we indulge in desserts-to-die-for – chocolate brownies topped with vanilla ice-cream, rich chocolate cake and tiramisu spiked with a tinge of Kahlua.

How To Get There

For the full Kluang experience, hop on board the Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM) train. By road, take the North-South Highway. Exit at Air Hitam toll and turn right to Kluang town. Or take the scenic route from Johor Baru via Air Hitam for a 90km drive to Air Hitam with another 20-minute easy dual-carriageway drive to Kluang.

Fast Facts:

• Kluang Railway Coffeeshop: At Railway Station. Open from 6.30am to 12.30pm and from 2.30pm to 6pm daily except Thursdays.
• Kluang Rail Café: 33 Jalan Manggis. Open on Monday and Tuesday from 7am to 7pm and on Wednesday to Sunday from 7am to 10pm. Closed every third Monday.
• Restoran Yong He: Curry noodles. 1 Jalan Bidara 1, Taman Suria (off Jalan Niyor). Open from 7am to 2.30pm daily except Mondays.
• Restoran Yean Kee: Beef noodles. 4 Jalan Murni 1, Taman Murni. Open from 9am to 2pm and 5pm to 8.30pm. Closed Mondays.
• Restoran Patam: Spicy curry fish. 28A Jalan Lim Swee Sim, Taman Kluang Baru. Open from 11.30am to 3pm and from 5.30pm to 10.30pm. Closed on alternate Tuesdays.
• Ghani Kadir’s Cendol: Stall in Jalan Dato Kapitan Ahmad. Open daily from 9am to 7pm.
• Dessert: Glutinous rice dumplings. Unit A-88, Jalan Panggung Hawker Centre. Open from 9pm. Closed alternate Mondays.
• Barney’s: 5-6 Jalan Yayasan. Open from 11.30am to 10pm. Closed Wednesdays. Pork-free. Tel: 07-774 4992.
• Tong Huat Confectionery: 28-30 Jalan Cantik, Kluang.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Travel Times on 16 November 2009

No comments:

Post a Comment