How to eat like a king in Johor
Not generally known as a gastronomic mecca, Johor is often overlooked in favour of its more popular northern cousins Penang and Ipoh when it comes to popular pigging out destinations. More's the pity, that, because Johor is—as any Johorean will readily attest—in fact a treasure trove of sensational food. All you have to do, dear readers, is to know where to look in this southern town. If you're en route to Singapore, and only have a limited time, that's a few hours you'll have in your possession to unearth some great eats, starting with breakfast, and it is to Taman Pelangi where hungry locals congregate for their requisite fix of yau char kwai, tau foo fa, and salacious tidbits of the goings on in their neighbourhood. You will be well rewarded to locate the chee cheong fun stall (alleyway market (mornings) and open-air carpark (evenings) at Jalan Sri Pelangi, Taman Pelangi, 016-7002008) that is manned by Ee Yang Hong and his wife who are, with more than two decades of trading under their belts, veritable veterans. Their Hong Kong-style chee cheong fun is made to order, and each plate yields silken smooth rolls that are ridiculously moreish. Unlike the Penang-style chee cheong fun which I've only recently learned to love and which to any novice can appear to be nothing more than a sickly sweet morass of sauce to which the pungent stickiness of hae ko is infinite insult to gustatory injury, the flavours here are propitiously more nuanced. With a choice of pork, prawn or both proteins as fillings, the rice-rolls are then lightly doused with a soy-based sauce and aromatic chilli paste, before being crowned with a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds. Any local will tell you the secret to the dish is the sauce, so feel free to be thick skinned and ask for more.
Lunch spells one thing for many Johoreans and that's Johor-style bak kut teh. While the Johor interpretation also contains pork ribs in a nourishing broth that's replete with such ingredients as star anise, cloves, peppercorns, and garlic, Johorean bah kut teh isn't quite as herby—which suits me just fine—and a particularly exemplary version of this dish can be found at Hwa Mei (146, Jalan Lumba Kuda, Bukit Chagar, 8.30am-2pm, closed Mon, 012-700-1776). Proprietor Johnny Zhu and his wife are third generation bah kut teh purveyors, and kettles over charcoal heaters provide an unending supply of hot water to diners. If you have a predilection for an unctuous, gelatinous flavour palette, the braised pork belly and pig skin will more than satisfy.
If you're still in Johor come dinnertime, Tapai Tang (128, Jalan Chengai, Taman Melodies, 10am to 4am, 07-333-3662) should be your meal destination of choice. Established in 1998 by Lee Kee Peng, who embarked on a lifelong coffee shop career in Teluk Intan when other children his age (11) were still playing with their friends, Lee's provenance provides a clue to the presence of salted baked chicken—a traditional Ipoh delicacy—on his menu. Spice- and Chinese herb-rubbed kampung chickens are wrapped in parchment paper and baked in a shell of rock salt, and the resulting meat is a masterclass in restrained perfection. Do however save room for the other signature dish: wat tan hor. Flash fried and imbued with more than its god-given allocation of wok hei, the noodles are bathed in a voluptuous yolk-centric gravy, and I promise you that one plate will most certainly not suffice. Johor, you've just been added to my list of gastronomic must-visits.
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