Taste of Taiwan in Kulai

Porcelain replica of traditional Taiwanese hawker stall
I’m familiar with Kulai’s reputation for good food as I enjoyed steamed pau from here as well as Hakka Harm Cha in nearby Kelapa Sawit.  As a driver I must focus on the heavy traffic and may not pay much attention to the shops that line the main road when I pass through Kulai so I must be forgiven for not noticing No. 79. 

But now with Evelyn as my navigator, I slow down and turn off beside the block of shops to an open car-park in the rear before finding our way to the main road to GuoMa Taiwan Steamboat restaurant.

Built in 1962, this row of double-storey shops has a quaint corner coffee-shop that is still serving customers as a traditional kopi-tiam. 

Entrance to GuoMa Taiwan Steamboat restaurant
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised to see the stark contrast even in the façade of the steamboat restaurant.  It’s outdoor dining area is separated from the air-conditioned section by a glass paneled wall and as we entered through the sliding door, the waitress politely asked in Mandarin, “Yew mei yew ting wei?” loosely translated as, “Do you have a reservation?”

Evelyn, a regular here, is aware of its popularity and to avoid disappointment, she had made a prior reservation for us.  As we were shown to our table, I looked over my shoulder at the main road where vehicles were whizzing pass to remind me that we are actually in Kulai.  I admired the modern fixtures in the tasteful décor and when my eyes fell on the charming porcelain replica of a traditional Taiwanese hawker stall and a stack of Taiwanese beer on the counter, I was convinced that this is a little bit of Taiwan in Kulai!

Macel Chai Ven Chee presenting healthy
ingredients for the steamboat meal
Guo means “cooking pot” in Mandarin and GuoMa simply means, my Mama’s Pot,” said Macel Chai Ven Chee, the young proprietress who had been operating GuoMa Taiwan Steamboat since January 2012.   The eldest of three Hakka siblings, Chai has the support of her parents to start a food business in this shoplot that belonged to their grandfather.  

While she learnt the tricks of the trade from her uncles who run a chain of popular Taiwanese hotpot restaurants in Taipei, the business concept in GuoMa is the brainchild of Chai, who is also a Business Management graduate.  When her mother, Chiang Shu Lan, visits from Taipei, she lends a hand in helping to prepare the soup stock and hand-making Taiwanese sui chiau, little dumplings stuffed with chopped cabbage, chives, spring onions, minced pork and ginger sauce.

GuoMa serves an array of 76 items in a steamboat buffet that includes Lu Ro Farn or braised meat rice, leafy salads, noodles, a selection of meats and fish-balls, Taiwanese sui chiau, dessert and drinks.  You just pick your choices from a list on the table and are welcome to repeat your order countless times on any of your favourite item/s but be sure to finish everything you ordered! 

Ingredients are served on this 5-tier rack
A typical selection is served in a space-saving 5-tier rack of plates filled with fresh ingredients like chunks of pumpkin, sweet corn and radish to boil in the soup, dried beancurd and noodles, a range of mushrooms, fresh prawns, fish and cuttlefish, and sliced meats.  Fresh meat like beef sirloin, tenderloin and marbled pork are sliced and served upon receiving the orders.

Evelyn picked two soups and a pot with her yin yang choice of clear soup and mala soup was served on the induction cooker that is neatly built into the table.  While the clear soup is made from a slow-cooked blend of chicken and pork bones, their traditional mala soup is created from ingredients imported from Taiwan.  

The word, mala, aptly describes the soup in a combination of two Chinese characters: ma for “numbing” and la for “spicy hot” and that’s how your mouth may feel after tasting too much of the soup.  It’s the Szechuan peppercorn mixed with chillie peppers and various spices, simmered in oil that gives the mala soup such an interesting spicy and savoury taste which is both numbing and often addictive!

A selection of condiments to make your GuoMa dip sauce
While waiting for the soup to boil, Evelyn showed me how to create the dip sauce.  She confessed that when she first saw ground roasted peanuts among the condiments, she was skeptical about how the sauce would taste.  But after her first taste of their signature GuoMa sauce, she was hooked!

Just select your choices from porcelain jars arranged in rows that contain: [Top Row Left to Right] dark vinegar, white vinegar and sesame oil, [Centre Row Left to Right] soy sauce, minced garlic and ground roasted peanuts, [Bottom Row Left to Right] minced red chillie, Taiwan Sar Cha Chiang – preserved Huangdou or yellow beans barbecue sauce, and chopped spring onions. 

GuoMa dip sauce should be topped-off with
an egg yolk
When you have filled your sauce bowl with your choice of condiments, there’s just one more item to add.  Crack one fresh egg into a little strainer placed over a glass jug to drain off its whites before you gently slide the egg yolk into your sauce bowl. 

This is indeed an interesting combination of flavours that tastes as good as it looks.  Mix well to create a creamy blend of your unique spicy and savoury GuoMa sauce!

Next, Evelyn introduced me to Lu Ro Farn or braised meat/pork rice, a comfort food to line our stomachs as we savour our Taiwanese steamboat meal.  There are three simple steps to prepare your own portion of rice.  First, fill your bowl with a small scoop of steaming hot white rice (eh, remember to save space for the steamboat!).  Then use the ladle to dig deep into the pot of meaty gravy to dish up a balanced measure of meat with gravy to pour over the rice. 

Adding meat sauce to Lu Ro Farn
Finally, sprinkle chopped salted vegetables over the mixture.  Give it a good stir to mix well before you savour the blend of fragrant flavours!  Yum!

By this time, the soup is ready for cooking and we added platefuls of fresh ingredients, layer after layer in the 5-tier stack of food into the pot.  One of their signature items is beef tenderloin that (I was told!) should be savoured after being dipped in steaming soup for just 12 seconds! 

I enjoy it most when the clear soup turned rich with meat and vegetable stock but I’m careful to sample a taste of the mala soup to keep my tastebuds “awake” and ready to taste the wide array of items in the buffet.  Meanwhile, look out for cubes of Tong Tofu or frozen beancurd that are boiling in the mala soup and approach it with caution because when it is soaked in the spicy soup, you may experience an explosion in your mouth when you chew into it!

Macel Chai with her mum, Chiang
Shu Lan at GuoMa Taiwan Steamboat
Chai said GuoMa regulars usually come in after 9pm to enjoy a leisurely meal and eat well into the night.  They seem to appreciate the dining concept where they pick their own items to eat as much as they want and have more of their favourites.  She said homesick Taiwanese dine here quite often and some regulars even add the Taiwan Sar Cha Chiang, provided as a condiment, to the clear soup to create a familiar flavour! 

We are almost up to our ears with food but the meal is not over until we tasted the sweets.  There is a daily choice of dainty homemade cakes and puddings in a variety of flavours like mango, honeydew, pandan or beancurd.  So as Evelyn helped herself to her favourite chocolate ice-cream, I cooled my tongue with a wobbly honeydew pudding. 

Non-halal GuoMa Taiwan Steamboat restaurant at No. 79 Main Road, 81000 Kulai, Johor, is open daily from 3.30pm to 11.30pm.  Prices are RM29.90+ per adult and RM15.90+ per child.  Their upstairs section is open on Saturday and Sunday to accommodate the weekend crowd and to avoid disappointment, make your reservations by calling Tel: 607 – 662 6868, Fax: 607 – 663 4703.


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