Eat Like A JB Local

12 May 2016

The next time you’re in Johor Bahru, chow down at these places where locals swear by.

 In the past few years, accolades for Malaysian food culture has always been on Penang’s sumptuous fares. But a trip to Johor Bahru will show you that JB’s local delights are as interesting and always show a fresh perspective on simple food like satay, lok lok and even the fish head curry. Upon closer look and a chat with some of the establishments below, JB’s offerings give its Northern counterparts a run for their money.

Kacang Pool Haji
A middle-Eastern staple and in the cuisines of the Levant such as in Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen and Sudan, ful medames (as it is called in Arabic) makes an appearance at this Medan Selera in JB. Kacang Pool as it is known locally, is of a similar variant to its Levantine cousins. Kacang Pool Haji adds a twist to the dish with a rich beef mince that complements the fava and broad bean mash. It’s then served with a squeeze of lime, an egg, raw onions and green chillies. Thick toast slathered with margarine is used to dip into the unctuous mixture. Origins of this dish in JB are hazy, but as history would have it, it was probably brought in from traders frequenting the area from the Arab world. A wonderful leftover from those days of exploration, and wholly Johorean, it is definitely a dish worth trying and, later craving.

Techno Lok - Lok
Hungry for supper after a night out? Head down to what is known as Techno/Disco Lok Lok in Taman Pelangi. As the story would have it, the owner and proprietor would dance to techno while cooking the lok lok for his tipsy and hungry customers. Absolutely unique to JB, the lok lok spread could rival a small restaurant. It is nothing like anything you’ve seen before, with its above 130 bpm techno music blaring while you wait for each of these morsels of delight to arrive. The spread is so huge, it takes up over two long plastic tables worth of food, almost sagging under the weight of the fresh produce waiting to be grilled, deep fried or steamed. Select from fresh green vegetables, mushrooms, okra, and seafood like scallops, eel, octopus, shrimp and even salmon! Enjoy the twist of the other more “sophisticated” pieces like bacon covered scallops and bacon covered vegetables, and try not to feng tau while waiting for your food to arrive.

Kedai Tuak Awam Johor Bahru
A humble single storey bungalow, set against an enormous backdrop of construction and high rises, this toddy shop is unassuming despite serving a local Indian/Malaysian favourite. A sign outside its premises is hand-drawn, with the words “Air Nira, Toddy or Coconut Juice” listed on it. Established in 1920, the toddy shop serves customers from all walks of life, with just one delicious offering. The basic wooden furniture, and a counter listing toddy prices and sizes are simple and there isn’t much fanfare to the building itself, despite it having much character. Dinesh who helps his father Subramaniam Kanayar at the shop, explained the three varieties of toddy available. “The first is the normal mixed toddy, which comes from many different coconut trees and is mixed; the second (which is special) is from the juice of just one tree, while the ‘Extra Kick’ version is ‘older’ toddy that has been left to ferment for longer, thus more potent in its juices.” The toddy was warm, but oddly thirst quenching on a hot day. Slightly sweeter than beer, and smelling quite sour, it is definitely an acquired taste. “We sell about 200 to 300 mugs of toddy a day, to mainly Malaysians, but sometimes we get some ang mohs and quite a few Singaporeans,” says Dinesh about their clientele.

Fendi Roti Canai
The highlight of Fendi Roti Canai isn’t just the fluffy, crispy and soft roti, but also its proprietor Pak Fendi, or Affandi Sharif. Effervescent and an extreme foodie, his foray into what is probably the best roti canai in these parts, began with three years of experimentation with his family and friends before he found the perfect formula for his consistently good roti canai. An ex-government servant, Pak Fendi shows a kind of passion that is lacking in many stalls and even restaurants. His customers come from far and wide, and some even make larger orders to freeze and send to relatives as far as Japan. “I sell around 400 pieces of roti a day, maybe. I’ve been doing this now for 25 years, and it took a long time for me to come up with the perfect balance of sweet and salty in the dough. The dhall is made spicy for a contrast to the flaky dough.” A testament to hard work and loving what you do, Pak Fendi’s Roti is incredible. Try the plain Roti Canai and the perfectly cooked Roti Bawang for a hint of sweetness from the onions.

Kam Long Fish Head Curry
Situated just a stone’s throw away from City Square in downtown JB, Kam Long Fish Head Curry is yet another JB favourite that will see long lines by 11am, even on a weekday! Established over 30 years ago, its patrons keep returning for this particular brand of curry, a testament to how good their curry tastes. The restaurant itself is often packed, and humid from all the steam rising inside. Coupled with the close quarters of people slurping away, get ready to sweat. Cooked in a claypot, with the tender and large heads of red snapper, interspersed with hearty portions of broth, tofu skin, okra, cabbage and long beans - it’s the kind of meal you think about for days, and lust after when out of reach. The broth itself is addictive, and can be slurped like a soup, piping hot and appropriately spicy. Eaten with steamed white rice, it is nothing short of fulfilling. The best part? You can top up the curry sauce, if you need more. Go early, or be prepared to wait, or disappointed as the curry sometimes runs out as early as 2.30pm.

Tampoi Laksa
Madam Wong is bustling, taking individual orders for her mother’s famous curry laksa. Their push cart sits outside their house, in the housing estate of Tampoi. Established in 1984, Tampoi Laksa is yet another JB favourite that locals recommend highly. The broth is unique, perhaps due to the boiling of anchovies for hours for that subtle and difficult to obtain umami flavour. Other dishes were also surprisingly well done, each dish fresh with taste and full flavoured. The fruit rojak is worth a try, but the fresh boiled siham or cockles were the highlight of the meal. Eaten with a savoury peanut sauce, the cockles had no “fishy” smell, or rubbery flavour as they do when not fresh. These little morsels of delight felt like they had just been picked up from the sea, and served. The simple yet satisfying kangkung with cuttlefish was bouncy and flavourful. Tampoi Laksa is a testament of local food vendors and their pride in their craft; taking a few dishes and doing them really well.

Nasi Ambeng Mat Corner
A piece of unverified food trivia picked up on this foodie journey was that Nasi Ambeng, a feature in Javanese cuisine was used as a method of communicating, in order to take down the Dutch colonialists in Java at the time. As it is eaten with groups of people, communal style it was one of the ways the Javanese could plan their protests, whispering in hushed tones while eating, their clandestine plans unbeknownst to the Dutch. Here at Mat Corner, lunch service moves very fast, and the nasi is served individually. Brisk moving, as many arrive ordering over 30 to 50 packets for takeaways and even sit-down lunches. The composition varies from stall to stall, at Mat Corner though, it comes with rice, chicken or beef rendang, green vegetabes, fried serunding, some tempeh and sambal. All the dishes served are freshly prepared and served on a banana leaf. The only thing missing at Mat Corner was the mee goreng, which is said to be a mark of its “authenticity.”

Restoran Satay Wak Radol
A name synonymous to satay in JB, Wak Radol serves hungry customers all week, with freshly grilled batches of their famous chicken and beef satay. Surprisingly tender, the beef satay was the big hit of the night. Most beef satays in Malaysia tend to be chewy and leathery, due to the quality of the meat, but Wak Radol delivers with soft pillows of beef to be dipped in slightly spicy peanut sauce. The chicken satay is honeyed and charred, with the perfect ratio of fat to meat. Other dishes include usual warung fare like fried rice and noodles. A wonderful surprise was its lontong goreng kampung. Lontong instead of rice is used in the mixture and it makes for a delectable dish.

Eat your heart out:

 Kacang Pool Haji
Address: Gerai 3, Medan Selera Larkin, Susur 5, Jalan Tun Abdul Razak, Johor Baru
Business Hours: 7am – 1am, daily
Halal

KK Lok Lok
Address: Jalan Pingai, Taman Pelangi, 80400 Johor Bahru (near the Maybank in Taman Pelangi)
Tel: 016-704 8553
Business Hours: 10pm – 4.30am, daily (closed on Wednesdays)
Non Halal

Kedai Tuak Awam Johor Bahru
Address: JKR 467 Jalan Sulaiman, Johor Baru
Business Hours: 10am – 5pm, daily
Non Halal

 Fendi Roti Canai
Address: Jalan Persiaran Teratai (at Flat Cempaka 5), Taman Cempaka, Johor Bahru
Tel: 019-784 9600
Business Hours: 6.30am – 12pm, or until the roti runs out (visit his Facebook to avoid disappointment)
Halal

 Kam Long Fish Head Curry
Address: 74, Jalan Wong Ah Fook, 80000 Johor Bahru
Tel: 016-752 8382, 016-796 2228, 016-205 1610
Business Hours: 8am – 5pm, daily
No Pork, No Lard

Tampoi Laksa
Address: 17, Jalan Dato Muthuthambi, Tampoi, Johor Bahru
Business Hours: 5pm – 11pm, daily
Non Halal

Nasi Ambeng Mat Corner
Address: Off Jalan Padi Mahsuri, Bandar Baru Uda, Johor Bahru (near Masjid Uda)
Business Hours: 11.30am – 3pm, daily
Halal

 Restoran Satay Wak Radol
Address: 15 Jalan Setia Tropika 1/28, Taman Setia Tropika Branch
Johor Bahru
Business Hours: 12.30pm – 12.30am, daily
Tel: 017-779 9715

By Michelle Gunaselan
Photos by Vincent Paul Yong

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