In my mind, I wondered if it was worth the hassle of going through the two sets of checkpoints in Singapore and Malaysia heading out, and again coming back in just for a meal. My friend Sylvia, a Singaporean, was giddy telling me of how she spent one Sunday eating lobsters and wedding dress shopping. What they saved in food, they used for the taxi fare back through the border.
So when Tourism Malaysia, invited me last Sunday for a food trip to JB, this curious foodie agreed to join the Singapore contingent. It was the launch of the “Street Food of Fabulous 1 Malaysia.” For the entire month of December, the street outside Taman Sri Tebrau Hawker Centre hosts a street food fair. The mood outside this thirty-year old hawker centre is festive, with many long queues. On this special day, there are clowns, performers and lion dancers for entertainment.
The 1.7 Million population of JB has 41.5% Chinese-Malaysians. Most of the signs were in Chinese. Unable to read Chinese and with the limited English of the vendors, we barely understood each other. A pink steamed snack caught my eye. The owner said it is called “Chai pan” in Chinese, a vegetable cake. This pink one had peanut inside. Expecting it to be sweet, I was surprised to bite into a savory treat. Each piece goes for RM1. He told me they use other vegetables like pumpkin. In a few minutes, he had a boxful of these white steamed glutinous cakes for me to taste. Inside, the translucent skin was filled with finely chopped pumpkin seasoned with a noticeably peppery taste. Eyeing the box, the crowd immediately snatched it away. The owner confided they easily sell 2,000 pieces of these snacks in two hours.
Vegetable Cake with Peanut filling
The pumpkin vegetable cakes: now you see it, now you don't
Nearby a vendor was selling biscuit from Ipoh filled with a honey filling called Matisu (ten pieces for RM5). They had salty and sweet varieties. It was not exactly a cookie or a biscuit, rather a small flaky biscuit.
Biscuits from Ipoh
Kids and their parents queued up at Muachi, where the vendors swift hand movements pulled the sticky glutinous rice dough cut it into bite size pieces and sprinkled the peanut sugar topping. Mesmerized by his routine, I caught it on video. Each container is sold for RM 2.50.
My favorite is the Chicken Wings from Kimdo BBQ. Unlike the usual chicken wings, these wings are broken open. The owner tells me this way the chicken gets crispy. Naturally with more of the wing exposed to the grill, the result is a crisp skin. Going for 1 RM per stick, I easily wiped out three sticks. They also grilled prawns, sotong (squid), gizzard, octopus, long beans, abalone, cuttle fish head, hotdogs, and tofu.
Broken Open Chicken wings- a technique to ensure crispy bbq wings
There are other street food like Rojak (RM 4), a Malay salad with cucumber, pineapple, turnip, deep fried rice dough, bean sprouts, with a dressing made with belacan (fermented shrimp paste), chilis and peanuts. They also have the steam boat cart with every thing imaginable dunked into a boiling pot of broth.
The Rojak Assembly Line
There too is the Apam Balik, a turnover pancake traditionally made with peanuts and sugar. They have innovated and now added corn into the filling. Not for cooks with short attentions spans, this vendor can cleverly keep his eye on several Apam Baliks with no problem. I was told a good Apam should have toasted crisp edges.
Multi-tasking Apam man
While the Tourism officials had spread of banquet food prepared, I would much rather have eaten at the hawker centre. The specialties here include Beggar’s Chicken. The chicken is filled with Chinese herbs, wrapped and covered with clay/mud then baked. One chicken goes for RM18.
Beggars chicken, a specialty here
The satay in JB is also worth trying. Unlike other satays, this one is basted in coconut milk and oil, and brushed with a stalk of lemon grass. While Laksa Johor is unique, for this version uses coconut milk, flaked fish, tamarind juice for sourness, and garnished with mint leaves, cucumber and bean sprouts. The Tourism Minister also encouraged the audience to try the Bak Kut Teh, a typically Hokkien pork rib soup now has beef, mutton and chicken versions for the Muslim diners, as well as variations of Nasi Lemak, a Malay dish of coconut rice with fried fish.
Johor Bahru's special satay
While one evening is not enough to sample all of what JB has to offer, it gave me a good fill of the food and vibe of this Malaysian Capital. For Singaporeans, dining in JB will always be an attraction. After all, human nature seems to function on the premise on the mindset that the grass is greener at the other side of the fence (in this case, the food may be better on the other side of the border).