Memories of JB's first food court

At the end of the Second World War, around 1945, the first Chinese food court in Johor Baru was set up at Jalan Ungku Puan, on a plot of land adjacent to Sungai Segget.

View of JB's first Chinese food court at the corner of
Jalan Ungku Puan and Jalan Wong Ah Fook
Emerging from the recent ravages of war, the humble structure for the food court was just a simple, makeshift shelter.

The Teochew fondly called this place, pasak-kia which simply means ‘small market’ and here was where we once tasted some of the best street food in JB.

The food court had permanent stalls that bordered a U-shaped layout with tables and stools for customers to sit down for meals, while mobile stalls that served drinks and snacks, would arrive in the evening and parked along the road in front.

Aerial view of food court, which has a "U" shaped layout
lined by food stalls with an open space in the centre
for tables set up for alfresco dining
It was just too warm to do business under the zinc roofs during the day so the food court only came alive after 5pm for customers to dine-in or for takeaways.

It’s ideal location offered easy access to the after-office and dinner crowd and business would go on till late to meet customers’ habit of eating early with a hot supper before bed.

JB incidentally, has the distinction of being once known as Little Swatow because most of Johor’s Teochew population originated from Swatow, a Teochew district of Kwantung Province in China.  So food with Teochew origins, was popular at the pasak-kia.

One Teochew staple must be their muay or plain rice porridge, eaten with a variety of dishes that have contrastingly stronger salty, sour or spicy flavours.  Unlike Cantonese rice porridge which is a smooth gruel, Teochew rice porridge is virtually a watered-down version of boiled rice with grains of fluffy rice in the broth.

A popular stall, situated deep inside the pasak-kia, served Teochew muay with a range of dishes and condiments like chopped vegetables, braised peanuts, salted egg, salted fish and salted vegetables, steamed whole fish, egg omelet with chai poh preserved vegetables and humble but tasty taucheo (fermented soy beans) sauce.

This is a light meal which connoisseurs may enjoy bowl after bowl of muay with a few tasty condiments or they may indulge in more pricey dishes like ngoh hiang (five spice) rolls and braised duck or pork.

Another Teochew favourite at the pasak-kia was Teochew-style stir-fried flat rice noodles, better known as char kway teow.

Fans of this fragrant Teochew dish would fondly recall the liberal amounts of cockles and bean-sprouts among the ingredients stir-fried into the noodles that has a distinct taste of sweet dark sauce.

In those days when wood-fired stoves were used, the hawker would kindle his fire and flames would dramatically leap into the wok to give the dish a delicious wok-hei aroma!

Or-luak, the Teochew name for oyster omelet, was another popular item here.  The long queue for this delicacy was also probably because the hawker had a special skill in frying the omelets with little oil without charring while keeping the oysters plump and juicy.

Mobile stalls parked along Jalan Ungku Puan, in front
of the pasak-kia during evening business hours
At that time, each oyster seemed to be uniformly big and the omelet was fried with more egg in the batter than flour thickening.  Die-heard fans would declare that the hawker was so generous with the oysters that they could taste the oysters with every bite!

While Teochew cuisine may have been the bulk of food sold here, another popular stall was the Hainanese chicken rice served by a lady who always looked neat and wore an apron over her traditional sam-foo outfit.  

The two types of chicken she served – original steamed and roasted in dark soy sauce – were smooth and delicious, especially when dipped in her ginger-garlic chillie sauce. And her fragrant chicken rice was so tasty that it could even be eaten on its own!

Hainanese beef noodles was another hot favourite and the tantalizing aroma from its constantly brewing herbal beef broth, was simply irresistible.  Connoisseurs would select their choices of beef slices with tripe and tendons to savour in steaming soup.

They may choose rice noodles in beef soup or rice noodles topped with thick sauce and condiments like chopped salted vegetables and roasted peanuts, with a side of soup.

Most diners would enjoy refreshing sugarcane juice, pressed from sticks of fresh sugarcane through a noisy juice-extractor on the hawker’s mobile stall. 

Another popular drink was fresh soyabean, served either warm or chilled.  Bowls of smooth soyabean, served warm and flavoured with a generous scoop of syrup, were popular desserts. 

Regulars at the pasak-kia would distinctly remember the unique feature of dining here because when the tide was low, the secrets of Sungai Segget were revealed.

At that time, boats no longer plied this waterway but everyone who lived or did business next to the river, used it as a convenient dump.  So while regulations for proper waste disposal were not yet developed and enforced, hawkers would dump all manner of refuse into the river. 

The food court was situated next to Sungai Segget
which flowed parallel with Jalan Wong Ah Fook
This in turn attracted all manner of vermin.  With the changing tide and the rapid decaying process in our tropical weather, the river inevitably turned into an open sewer.

So when the tide was low, diners at this popular food court would be assailed by pungent wafts of a vile pong.

But diners, familiar with this hazard, staunchly accepted the river’s stench as part of the dining experience here. 

They must have found the food prepared by first or second generation immigrants so authentic and tasty that it was worth the temporary discomfort.  With the passing of the original hawkers, the nostalgic taste of the food once served at our city's first food court, is now only a memory. 

But if it’s any consolation to street food connoisseurs, the recipes handed down to family members, continue to be served at different locations in the city after the pasak-kia was demolished in 1986. 

Since 2004, some of the next generation hawkers have been serving familiar favourites at a back lane near Jalan Meldrum while others continue doing business at various food centres including the Cedar Point food court in Taman Century and the Taman Sri Tebrau hawker centre. 

Note: Archive photos are courtesy of the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association

A version of this was published in the October 2016 issue of The Iskandarian 

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10/11/2016

    Yes, I remember well the food stalls, with their delicious offerings :)

    Of course, as you mentioned, the vermin and the Sungai Segget scents were part and parcel of the unique pasak-kia dining experience. Ahh ... memories of days and meals long-gone.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Mark

    ReplyDelete