Rich and Royal Taste

At last, there’s a café in Johor Baru offering Laksa Johor made with ikan parang or wolf herring (Cantonese: sai toh yue) in its gravy.

Laksa Johor has its origins as palace food!
Before opening the café, Saphia Nazreen Abd Hamid, better known as Nelly, a former banker with a passion for cooking and baking, had a successful home catering business. 

In the last five years, Nelly and her husband, Nasser, found that her mother’s Laksa Johor was the most in demand for catering menus.  This also increased their confidence to do more and it was just a matter of time before Nelly’s Café was opened.

Palace Food

There are no short-cuts to creating the rich gravy that makes all the difference in an authentic Laksa Johor.  Nelly’s mother, Ramah Suki, is the chief cook who prepares each batch of gravy from fresh ingredients including the all-important ikan parang

Nelly of Nelly's Cafe with some popular choices
While other types of laksa are made with 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 when the sultan returned to Johor, he told his chef to modify the recipe with spicy fish gravy.  So Laksa Johor has its origins as palace food and was then served only at special ceremonies and Hari Raya celebrations. 

Nelly’s Cafe Laksa Johor in fragrant ikan parang fish gravy (RM12.90) is topped with raw cucumber curls, slivers of onion, bean sprouts, chopped fragrant leaves and a sprinkle of crunchy chai poh or preserved turnip.  Spicy Ikan parang gravy is poured over these ingredients and served with a dollop of freshly-made sambal belacan and slices of fresh lime to squeeze its tangy juice into the gravy for an added kick! 

Family Favourites

A serving of Rojak Petis
Cekodok (RM5.90) is a firm family favourite and Nelly’s aunty, my former classmate Emma Suki, fondly recalls how they enjoyed eating these fried fritters made by her mother on rainy afternoons.  As I sink my teeth into this snack of freshly fried fritters with a sweet chili dip sauce, I share her nostalgia as I savour bits of anchovies, yellow onions, carrot and cabbage in each bite.

I do not refuse when I’m offered Rojak Petis (RM4.90) – a Malaysian vegetable salad tossed in rich prawn paste –or Gado-Gado.  

This is an Indonesian salad made with bean-curd cubes, boiled egg slices, long beans, cabbage, tempe (dried soy bean cake), cucumber, bean sprouts and rice cubes, drizzled with peanut sauce and topped with crispy crackers.  Maybe I’m being greedy but I want both.  These salads may be shared or eaten as a meal, and will certainly appeal to diners like me who simply cannot get enough of vegetables.

Popular Picks

Soto Madura with a side of spicy dark sauce
The café serves an All-Day menu with breakfast staples like toast, half-boiled eggs and local favourites including fragrant Nasi Lemak with standard condiments (RM6.90) and with fried chicken (RM10.40).  There is also a range of fried rice and noodles as well as white rice with a choice of gravies.

Popular Johor dishes include Lemak Chili Api in a choice of chicken (RM10.90) or prawns (RM12.90) cooked in a fiery gravy, rich with coconut milk and served with white rice.  Another favourite comfort food is Soto Madura or chicken soup with begerdil (potato and meat patty) in a choice of nasi empit (rice cubes) or rice vermicelli (RM9.90), savoured with a side of spicy dark sauce. 

Dry-tossed Mee Kolo topped with beef char siew
Ramah also learnt to make a mean serving of Mee Kolo (RM9.90) – dry-tossed noodles topped with a choice of chicken or beef char-siew – in a delicious dark sauce.  Served with a garlic-chilli dip and a side of clear soup, this is among the popular choices at Nelly’s. 

While most of the menu are local favourites, there are also Burgers (RM14.50), Spaghetti Bolognese (RM15.50), Lamb Chop (RM19.50) and Grilled or Fried Chicken Chop (RM18.00) in a choice of black pepper or mushroom sauces. 

As I sip my Limau Asam Boi (RM4.50), Nelly tells me that refreshing drinks like 3-layer Sirap Bandung (RM6.00) and 3-layer Tea (RM5.00), are among their best-sellers.  Feeling satisfied with the familiar taste of their family recipes, I’m just glad that I don’t have to wait for Hari Raya to savour their family’s Laksa Johor again!

                                             
WHERE
Nelly’s Café (Halal)
SC2.2 Ground floor Angsana Johor Baru Mall
Pusat Bandar Tampoi
81200 Johor Baru, Johor
Tel: +619 - 7766811
                   
OPENING HOURS
Daily 10am to 10pm

GETTING THERE
Easy access to Angsana Johor Baru Mall from JB city via Jalan Skudai and Jalan Tun Abdul Razak and from the North-South Expressway, Pasir Gudang Highway and Second Link from Singapore

WHAT’S COOKING
Johor Malay food

MUST TRY
Laksa Johor, Lemak Cili Padi, Soto Madura, Rojak and Cekodok

YOU’LL PAY
No service and GST charges

ATMOSPHERE
Sidewalk café in shopping mall

FACILITIES
Disabled-friendly
Child’s high chair
Smoking Area
No Pets
No credit card facilities

THE LOO
Common toilets in the mall                                           

SERVICE
English-speaking staff

OVERALL VERDICT
Go give it a try

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 15 July 2016

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