The Roti Bakar Express

29 February 2016

When in Kluang, it’s a must to stop at its train station to toast to the originals who made the humble breakfast of roti bakar and kopi a quintessential Malaysian experience.

"Aiyo, you know what is really nice now ah. The roti bakar at the Kluang station. You know ah which one?"

Before he could get his answer, the train rolled into Paloh and the Malay chap made a sprint to the canteen for a pack of cigarettes.  He was on his way to a family wedding in Kluang and spent the entire time in the canteen coach, away from all the other "noisy people".
 
Peeeeeet. The express trains only make a short stop, if at all, at the small stations. He barely makes it back into the coach, slipping the new pack into the breast pocket of his jacket before issuing a warning, "Aiyo that one ah, 10 ringgit also I will pay la. Don't play play." 

Peninsular Express (21)

Having left KL Sentral at an ungodly 4.23am, the train is scheduled to arrive in Kluang at 9.56am, just in time for breakfast. The metal beast lunges towards Gemas at more than 120km/h on the shiny new double track. The officer on duty, in a brilliant white uniform and a list of passengers in hand, examines the tickets of every passenger. He smiled knowingly before declaring, "The tracks are new so it's really smooth. The driver is really enjoying it! But wait until you get to Gemas." 

And so, the train slithered through the darkness, the sky now slowly turning blue. Under the magenta-yellow glow of sunrise, it gently glides into Gemas, the historic railway junction connecting the northern, eastern and southern sector. The original station is still asleep a short distance away, with a section of its tracks and a few decommissioned coaches for company. 

The shrill of a whistle shatters the silence. The locomotive leaves the double track behind and continues south to Johor Bahru on the original single track, slowing down as it chugs through unfamiliar small towns, jungles, estates and rivers. The steel handle of the coach is cold and wet with morning dew, gently brushing against passing foliage. 

The old cement signages, with bold hand painted letters, glides in and out of view; Segamat, Labis, Paloh, Bekok, Chamek and finally Kluang, at exactly 9:56am. One of the busier stations along the Southern line, the platform is already packed with eager passengers, well-wishers and a long line of customers hungry for their dose of coffee and roti bakar. 

Kluang Rail Coffee

10am is peak breakfast hour and the place is packed. A father props his son up on his lap to get a better view of the passing train. First timers struggle to understand the system, and the regulars make their orders with a smile.

Barnabas Lim, or Barney, helps his cousin Jack Lim in the family business, along with operating his own restaurants in Kluang town. Stealing time from the family, he sits down for breakfast with tales of passion, hard work and nostalgia to share.

"It's been running since 1938. Now its going on to its 78th year. My grandfather, Lim Luan Hee came from China in the 1920s. He worked for his relatives, got cheated. He was about to go back to China, when he heard that the railway station canteen was for rent. Somewhere in April 1938, he came down, leaving his family behind in Tampin. With just a cati of coffee powder, sugar, a few cans of milk, some tea dust, he started his business here." 

And it has been a family business ever since, with more ups than downs over the years, attracting curious tastebuds from all over the country. 
    
"The last time we came here was more than 20 years ago. It wasn't like this at all, there was barely anyone around. On my way here, we had to wait for the train (the railway line cuts across the main road into town), and when we arrived, we still had to wait to get a table. But it's really worthwhile," said Mr & Mrs Simon Chai, architects from Singapore who dropped by the canteen on their way to church. With his kopi, roti bakar and nasi lemak, he glanced at his watch before deciding that it was okay to skip the morning service.

The roti bakar, or ban bulat as how you would order it, is a sandwich of melting butter and homemade kaya, gently burnt over glowing charcoal embers. The nasi lemak is no more than a few spoonsful, comfortably priced at RM0.80 for those who only want a taste while saving space for lunch. 

"Some customers have been coming here for three, four generations. And that's really the joy of running a place like this: serving good food and making people happy, that's my real passion,” said Barney as he got up to greet regulars.

From its humble beginnings a century ago, the kopitiam offering of toast, half-boiled eggs, nasi lemak and kopi has remained largely unchanged. If it's not broken, don't fix it. But if the words of a quiet genius (Bill Watterson of Calvin & Hobbes), "Repetition is the death of magic", is to be taken to heart then changing it just a little bit might turn out to be a blessing.

Modern Times

"Most new restaurants go towards fusion, but I really wanted something modern while still appreciating the traditional," Charles Lim describes his newly minted venture, Rail Canteen.

While he studied and worked in Singapore, he used to travel on weekends to Kluang for "makan, makan" before leaving on Sunday. "The kopitiam itself is a very Malaysian thing. As kids we would go and have coffee, pouring it onto the plate to cool it down. We couldn't get that in Singapore." 

With the blessing of the Lim family, Charles set out to bring a slice of Kluang to Kuala Lumpur, and came up with Rail Canteen as a homage to the original. Opening its doors in May 2015 at Sunway Nexis, Kota Damansara, the items on the menu are all familiar, but with added twists to keep up with Malaysia's pampered stomachs. 

"There will always be room for good local food, but it's also nice to offer options. With a bit of imagination, we like to try out new things while staying true to the old ways of doing things. Spaghetti rendang kambing is a favourite and our best seller is the nasi lemak ayam rempah. The mee kari and mee rebus is also popular."

With all the challenges in surviving the ruthless food business, Charles is happiest when he receives compliments from Johoreans working in the city who thank him for bringing Kluang just that much closer to them.

"For me it's comforting to have a slice of Kluang in KL," says Fei, a native of the land-locked town who enjoyed her roti bakar with a quiet nod. "It feels completely different from the (original) station but it fits well in the city. Something authentic from home, but in a modern setting."

Rail Canteen adds itself to the long list of imported delicacies in KL: nasi kandar from Penang, white coffee from Ipoh, nasi ambeng from Johor, Peranakan Chinese cuisine from Malacca, amongst others. As the name of the town slowly turned into a brand synonymous with good comfort food, the wheels of franchising started turning. A second branch was first opened in Kluang and then a third, before Kluang eventually left Kluang for the big city. Mall-hopping residents of Selangor would be familiar with the Kluang Station franchise, the first one having opened in IPC, Bandar Utama and now all over Selangor. The outlets even sport a replica of the old styled cement signage that adorns the KTMB Kluang railway station. 

Barney explains the story behind the expansion of the humble canteen, an inevitable pursuit in the face of commercialisation and ironically, a struggle for authenticity. 

"Kluang Station, the way I would explain is, it's a runaway train. We shared with another member of the family but sometimes KL folks think we are dinosaurs, they know better than us, so they want to do things their way. Maybe they're right in some ways, but eventually they sold it off to a publicly listed company. But that's okay, we have no problem calling ourselves the original Kluang station because we are still operating right here." 

The Real Experience

Any recipe, trade secret, logo or even a name, can be copied, but not the experience. To be seated right next to the window, watching the train roll into the station and its passengers alight … some are greeted by warm hugs from family members and some climb aboard without anyone to look back to; the station master signaling to the driver with a small green flag, the gentle wave of goodbye from a father to a daughter, the light-hearted camaraderie between old friends of all races and creed, the gentle warmth of hot kopi at the lips … that’s the real magic of a visit to the Kluang railway station canteen. The coffee and roti bakar? Very tasty travel souvenirs. 

By Mahen Bala
Photos by Mahen Bala

Addendum: 
There are three trains from Kuala Lumpur to Kluang, all of which terminate in Johor Bahru. The  Ekspress Peninsular (21), Ekspres Rakyat (1) leaves KL at 1:15pm and reaches Kluang at 6:24pm. The more adventurous ones can opt for the 10:15pm train, Senandung Sutera(25), alight in Kluang at 3.57am, sleep at the station (bring a sleeping bag) and wait for the canteen to open at 8am. 

Get a taste of the famous roti bakar:

Kluang Rail Coffee
Address: Stesen Keretapi, 86000 Kluang, Johor
Tel: 019-322 0072 or 012-728 8802

Rail Canteen
Address: D-GF-02 Sunway Nexis, Jalan PJU 5/2, Kota Damansara
Tel: 03-6150 1802

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