Muar jalan-makan

Tasked with the responsibility to source for a suitable site for our annual church retreat, the search finally ended with a choice of a container hotel experience.

Our we-fie taken in the car which HJ enhanced
with an App and then it went viral!
After considering the various options, the organising committee agreed that it will be fun to stay in a hotel designed in recycled containers for the 4-day 3-night retreat in September. 

So I joined members of the committee on a day trip to Muar recently for them to recce the hotel facilities and get acquainted with the town for more ideas to plan an exciting retreat programme. 

Muar has its local attractions and street food must be one of them!

With an appointment fixed with the hotel at 12 noon, our group enjoyed a leisurely drive from Johor Baru to Muar.  As we whizzed our way along the North-South Highway, the conversation inevitably moved to plans for brunch before the appointment.

Delicious bak-kut-teh, Kh'ng Kee restaurant, Jalan Salleh
I was ready to be surprised by what they proposed to eat and as I listened to the chit-chat, I learnt that we were going to have bak-kut-teh or pork ribs in herbal soup.  While I’m not a fan of rice for brunch (rice is a staple item with this meal), I know I can always have only half a portion.  So I went along with their choice.

HJ, whose dad’s hometown is Muar, was the appointed leader for our food trail – as recommended by his dad – and I saw him sweating a bit because he was rather unsure of where this bak-kut-teh place was!

With our appetites kindled and our palates longing for a taste of this highly recommended meal, HJ was probably feeling the pressure of getting us to this place without delay.  

All the tables set out in front were occupied!
He’s been there with his parents but was unsure of where it’s exact location.  We quizzed him to jog his memory for any landmarks so that we could also keep a look-out and help to find this place.

HJ described it as a shop within a row of shops by the road with a church opposite.  This was as much info as he could offer so with stomachs growling, we kept a keen look-out for these landmarks. 

We were driving towards Muar along Jalan Salleh and suddenly HJ let out a yell when he spotted the Church of St Andrew.  We rarely ever hear a raised voice from HJ so our attention was totally riveted once we heard that sound!

Our steaming portion of bak-kut-teh served in a claypot
Only one stall was serving food and there was a crowd eating around tables set in front of the row of shops opposite that church.  So this must be it!

This was indeed the place.  The discoloured signboard read: Kh’ng Kee Restoran, and the vendor at the stall in front, was busy serving a throng of customers.  At a glance, I saw all the tables occupied so we had to patiently wait until a group left before the table was cleaned for us.

The space in front of the shops was cast in the shadow of the rising sun and provided enough light with plenty of shade for the bustling business.

Enjoying our Muar bak-kut-teh brunch!
While waiting, I made a quick survey of the stall and spotted a variety of meat cuts heaped in big bowls and a row of claypots simmering with meat and soup, on flaming stoves.  As far as I could see, the items to choose from were chunks of pork belly, ribs and tripe among other innards like liver and intestines.

Diners here seemed to be regulars who knew exactly what was on the menu and what they wanted to order.  By the time the busy waiter came to take our order, HJ knew what to order and just said the portion was for a certain number of people.  By this, the vendor should know how to serve the claypot in a small, medium or large portion.

We-fie over coffee and kaya toast at Sai Kee 434 kopitiam
The serving staff also seemed to know their duties, clearing tables, serving tea and plates of dough stick slices.  Customers were just coming in non-stop, probably because this was a popular stall and weekenders simply had to have some bak-kut-teh to kick-start their day!

I was glad we had already placed our orders because the tantalising aromas was making me feel rather hungry.  It didn’t take long for our claypot order to be served, bubbling and steaming hot from the stove.  

The waiter was back to ask for the number of bowls of rice we wanted and I quickly said that I only wanted half a bowl.  All conversation ceased as we hungrily tucked into this delicious bubbling broth.

Facade of Sai Kee 434 kopitiam
We had agreed that this was to be the first in several small meals on this trip but I guess the taste was so good that everyone finished all their rice and soup rather quickly!

By the time our claypot was empty, the sun had risen so high that its rays was already cutting into the shaded area.  It was getting warm and just timely that we were ready to leave and head on to find some local coffee. 

When in Muar, we must taste Muar’s renowned Sai Kee 434 elephant bean coffee.  We found our way to Jalan Maharani and parked along that row of shops opposite the main market.  I remembered that this required parking tickets and it was very handy that the nearby provision shop also sold parking tickets by pieces, so we bought enough to use for the day.

It was not just the coffee connoisseurs among us who were thrilled with the fragrance that enveloped us when we stepped into the double-shoplot café.  We simply paused to enjoy the delicious aroma of freshly ground toasted beans and fresh brews being served to customers.

It took a moment for us to settle into a long table, which the friendly waitress felt could accommodate all seven of us.  It was a log-like table with benches for seats and we had to slide in…

A serving of mee siput with a side of sambal dip
Then the waitress had to wait for us to figure out the list of coffee choices in the menu before deciding on the orders.  Some preferred kopi-O while others chose the Muar 434 white coffee specialty and the others just wanted iced-coffee because they were warm and thirsty.

The kopitiam experience is not complete without some kaya toast so we ordered a variety to share.  I also placed an order for Muar’s mee siput just for the others to have an experience of this local snack. 

“What? Mee siput as in snail noodles?” I was asked in a tone heavy with disbelief.  “Yes,” I calmly replied.  “It’s even served in a bowl with snails on it,” I said, with a straight face.

Facade of the PPT Muar Hotel
Curiosity got the better of them because even though they were already full, they still wanted to see and sample this Muar specialty! 

When they saw the mee siput, they sat back with a sigh and much eye-rolling because this popular local snack was a dish of crispy noodles with a side of sambal dip, served in a ceramic bowl designed with snails on it!

Well, I did tell them that it was served in a bowl with snails on it! *wink-wink!

With stomachs comfortably full, we enjoyed a short walk along the row of shops to observe the traditional tradesmen doing business and the interesting façades of several Chinese clan houses here. 

Mindful of the timing for the parking tickets and our appointment with the hotel, we found our way back to the car and headed to the PPT Muar Hotel.

We were taken on an inspection of the facilities, particularly the meeting room and family-size bedrooms ingeniously designed within recycled containers and saw how these would do very well for our coming retreat.  

Facade of the Muar container hotel which houses the
meeting room and bedrooms
Since my previous stay with the hotel, they have added more facilities like a sauna and a gym as well as a Japanese restaurant.  After a brief discussion on the catering plans, we left the hotel with the necessary information for the committee to agree on the final details before making the arrangements with the hotel.

With our mission accomplished and the scorching sun beating down on us, we agreed that some thirst-quenching refreshments should hit the spot.  So it was again up to HJ to point us to the nearest watering-hole that served freshly made shaved ice desserts.

If not for the iced drinks, which may have helped to cool us down for a bit, we probably would be almost fried in the blasting heat when we walked over to our last stop in Muar to buy home some quality otak-otak, a local spicy fish paste specialty. 

Last stop to buy back some A-Class otak-otak products
A worker was toasting the coconut-leaf-wrapped strips of otak-otak on an electricity powered grill outside the A-Class Otak-Otak products shop, and I couldn’t help but imagined him being roasted by the natural heat as well as the heat from the grill!

The staff here are well-trained and familiar with their products as they quickly promoted the range to us and deftly wrapped up our orders in layers of old newspapers to preserve the frozen products for our onward journey.

This is clearly a regular stop-over for Muar visitors as the staff are familiar with how they would usually buy sufficient stock and require it to be properly packed.

On our return drive, I thought that our day trip to Muar turned out to be quite eventful and fulfilling.  Not only did we accomplish what we set out to do, we also enjoyed ourselves in good company with a taste of some Muar local food.  And even bought back a Muar specialty, packed in its frozen form, to savour later. 

A foretaste of what Muar has to offer has given us yet another good reason to join the church retreat later this year, where we will spend a few days together, discovering more from our fellowship and exploring the charms of Muar.

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