Southern Favourites

Laksa Johor is a Johor specialty with royal origins!
Over the years, many Johor Baru folks including my relatives and friends have moved away for study, work and family reasons.  Whether they live abroad or in another state, I know they often long for familiar comfort food that is uniquely Johor.  Some get so desperate that they try to replicate it in their kitchens but often end up with less than satisfactory results.  So whenever they are back for annual festive visits or short trips, they will definitely have an itinerary to visit all the familiar food places for a taste of typically Johor specialties.

While many may take our local food for granted, it is a precious heritage treasured by those who live away and do not have easy access to a taste of home.  Each family may have their favourite restaurants or stalls and I know some people who swear that this or that shop serves the best-in-the-world familiar food.  In any opportunity to revisit a favourite food place, they will eat to their heart’s content and also pack takeaways and store in deep-freeze to savour later.  Our tastes and opinions may vary but here are top picks of some Johor comfort food that everyone enjoys.

Savour fried bananas [pisang goreng] the uniquely
Johor way with a dark spicy sauce dip
Mawar Cafe started as a humble little stall in the front compound of the former Mawar building at Jalan Sungai Chat for fried bananas, local kueh (cakes) and hot beverages like teh tarik, a frothy pulled tea.  A few tables set up under open umbrellas attracted a consistent crowd who enjoyed snacking from midday through to the evening.  

Regulars do not mind the wait for tables or the long queue for orders and takeaways because they simply love the freshly fried bananas – particularly the king of bananas, pisang rajah – that are served the uniquely Johor way, with a dark spicy dip sauce.  As its popularity increased, Mawar Café expanded with more comfortable premises.  Located opposite the Sri Gelam football field along Jalan Sungai Chat, close to Dataran Johor, Mawar Cafe is open daily from 12.00noon to 6.30pm except Public Holidays.

Haji Wahid's family recipe mee rebus or stewed noodles
Loyal customers of Haji Wahid mee rebus followed him wherever his stall moved probably because only his serving of fragrant warm yellow noodles drenched in tasty thick gravy, garnished by ku-chai, bean sprouts, green chilly with a slice of lime and topped by special pendaram or crispy condiment, will meet the lip-smacking mark.  

This local brand of tasty noodles established by grandfather, Wak Baidali since 1918, continues to be served by his family members in various outlets throughout the city and beyond.  His son, Haji Wahid took over the business from 1938 and now this familiar favourite, with its closely guarded family recipe, is served at outlets in the Plaza Angsana food-court and Zainal’s Place in Taman Sri Tebrau as well as in the Pandan Wholesale Market and Larkin Sentral.

Tiga-T or Three T's is a popular dish created with cucumber
(timun), bean-sprouts (tougeh) and beancurd (tahu)
served at Warung Saga
Almost everyone who visits Warung Saga is impressed with the décor – a historical tribute to the Johor sultanate, politicians and pop stars – displayed in a wall-to-wall collection of portraits and photos.  Regulars are familiar with the daily change in their breakfast menu and from 12 noon lunch is ready to be served with favourites like freshly fried noodles and lontong kering.  

One of the must-have items must be Tiga-T or Three-T’s, a simple dish created with deep-fried beancurd (tahu) squares – crispy outside with smooth and soft insides – topped with sliced cucumber (timun) and bean-sprouts (taugeh) and drizzled with a delicious dark nutty-garlicky sauce.  Warung Saga is at No. 5, Jalan Mahmoodiah, next to the surau on the corner of Jalan Mahmoodiah and Jalan Yahya Awal.  Open from 7am for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Laksa Johor served with a side of sambal belacan
While laksa is usually a dish of rice vermicelli or noodles in curry gravy, laksa Johor is created with spaghetti.  Laksa Johor is associated with the Johor royal family as legend has it that when Sultan Abu Bakar visited Italy, he liked spaghetti bolognaise so much that on his return, he told his chef to modify the recipe with spicy fish gravy to go with spaghetti.  This noodle dish was once palace food and served only at special ceremonies but now authentic laksa Johor in rich fragrant gravy topped with a dollop of spicy sambal belacan, is available from many outlets in JB.  Check out the varieties of laksa Johor served at Restoran Bumbu Asli at Jalan Kolam Ayer, de’Kayu Manis Café, Restoran Mak Teh and Olive Music Café at Nong Chik Heights also along Jalan Kolam Ayer, Hailam Café at Taman Molek and other cafes in and around the city.

Cantonese style stir-fried kway teow at Hwa Mui restaurant
Restoran Hwa Mui holds the enviable reputation of being the only modern café that had developed from a traditional kopitiam and have been serving a loyal clientele since 1946.  The nostalgia of this restaurant is rooted in its history as a preferred dining destination for civil servants in the colonial era for a menu of Western cuisine served by Hainanese cooks.  

Besides the typical kopitiam fare of kaya toast and half-boiled eggs, there is also a menu of Western food as well as halal Chinese food.  Now a new generation of diners is still enjoying a local version of chicken chop and Chinese stir-fried noodles not only in the city’s original Hwa Mui but also at an outlet in the suburbs.  Restoran Hwa Mui at No. 131 Jalan Trus, is open daily from 8am to 6pm while Restoran Hwa Mui Sutera at No. 50 Jalan Sutera Tanjung 8/4, Taman Sutera Utama in Skudai, is open from 7.30am to 9.30pm.

It Roo Cafe is reputed to serve the
Best Chicken Chop in Town
Speaking of chicken chop in Johor Baru, It Roo Café at Jalan Dhoby proudly lays claim on serving “The Best Chicken Chop in Town.”  There’s something about that nostalgic charm of the décor in the tightly packed dining hall and their familiar serving staff and food which continues to please a loyal clientele who returns again and again for their menu of Western cuisine with popular local favourites like spicy mee mamak and a range of stir-fried Chinese noodles.  Almost every diner will order chicken chop in a choice of grilled or fried chicken with either mushroom or black pepper sauce, served with a side of coleslaw and chunks of real fries – cut and fried from fresh potatoes the traditional English way!  The original It Roo Café is at 17, Jalan Dhoby while their new outlet is at 18-G, Jalan Sutera Tanjung 8/4, Taman Sutera Utama, Skudai.

A serving of Nasi Padang-style rice with
rendang and vegetables at Qin Garden kopitiam

For the past 20 years, a stall that serves freshly cooked meals within a kopitiam in the heart of the city has been pleasing diners who yearn for a taste of nasi padang.  This unique partnership works well as diners can enjoy freshly brewed coffee, tea with kaya toast along with a range of local favourites like nasi lemak, mee rebus, mee siam and lontong for breakfast.  

By 11am, freshly cooked dishes for the nasi padang are ready for lunch.  There’s a casual and convivial atmosphere as diners collect their portion of rice served on greaseproof paper in a basket and help themselves at the buffet with favourite items like beef or chicken rendang, assam pedas fish, spicy mussels and vegetables like glass noodles with tempe, and sit down to eat – often sharing tables with strangers!  Qin Garden Kopitiam at No. 12, Jalan Trus, Johor Baru is open daily from 7am to 6pm while the Nasi Padang closes by 5pm.

Kacang Pool is a popular snack in Johor

Kacang pool can be described as the Johor version of chili con carne, a broad bean and minced beef stew that is savoured with chunks of toasted bread.  Unlike the American version which has a tomato-base, kacang pool has Middle Eastern influences in a recipe which is modified with spices to meet local tastes.  

Fans of kacang pool in Johor Baru are familiar with Kacang Pool Haji which is served topped with a sunny-side-up egg, chopped fresh onions, fresh green chillies and freshly squeezed lime.  Kacang Pool Haji located at the Larkin Food Court, Susur 5, Jalan Tun Abdul Razak, next to the Larkin fire station opens from 7am till late while the outlet in the Plaza Larkin Food Court, adjacent to Larkin Sentral opens from 7.30am to 6.30pm.  Their latest and largest outlet is now opened at 12, Jalan Dato Jaffar, Larkin Gardens to serve customers from 7am to 12 midnight.

A dry version of beef noodles with a side of beef broth filled
with slices of tender beef, tripe and tendons

Steaming hot Hainanese beef noodles served in beef broth or dry with a side of beefy broth is a comfort food often referred to as “Cathay beef noodles” because the stall is situated close to Johor Baru’s former Cathay cinema.  

The dry version is made by tossing the noodles in secret sauces and served topped with chopped beef, salted vegetables, coriander leaves and toasted peanuts.  This comes with a side of beefy broth, brewed in a delicious herbal recipe, filled with slices of tender beef, tripe and tendons.  Tin & Tin (Cathay) Beef Noodle is at No. 141 & 142, Jalan Lumba Kuda, open from 7am to 2.30pm and closed on Monday.  [Non-halal]

Loyal fans don't mind waiting to eat own-made duck's egg
wantan noodles at restaurant Ho Seng Kee!
Fans of Ho Seng Kee dry-tossed egg noodles followed their stall when they moved from Jalan Meldrum to Century Gardens.  These ultimate noodles are own-made daily from top quality high protein flour, fresh duck and chicken eggs with no preservatives or artificial colouring.  Serving sizes range from small, medium, large and extra-large bowls of noodles topped with slivers of char siew and a sprinkle of spring onions with a side of wantan soup.  

Regulars are familiar with the long queue for these popular noodles because diners often do takeaways to store in deep-freeze, often to carry abroad.  Ho Seng Kee continues to serve a loyal clientele from their shop at Jalan Kancil in Century Gardens, open daily from 8am except on notified days off. [Non-halal]

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 5 March 2015

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