Nestled in a narrow shoplot along Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, in the heritage quarter of Johor Bahru, there’s a bakery that makes arguably the most celebrated banana cake in the city. To many, this undisputed champion of must-eats is compulsory when visiting the city, but what exactly makes people go bananas over this seemingly simple cake?

One of Johor’s oldest bakeries, Hiap Joo Bakery was fired up by a Hainanese man named Lim Joo Ban back in 1919. The bakery, with its humble façade, is still found in its original location, and like many establishments in Johor, the business has been devotedly handed down through generations.

Upon entering, it’s impossible to miss their pièce de résistance, a century-old wood-fired oven that takes up nearly half the shop. One of only two bakeries in the city that still uses a traditional wood-fired oven, Hiap Joo Bakery originally supplied loaf breads and baguettes to the hospital and jail, which took an average of four hours to make.

It was only when Lim Joo Ban’s grandson James took over that the approach changed from breads to buns and banana cakes to save time. Today, they draw people from around the world who are willing to wait in line just for a taste of their special confections.

Prepared and baked fresh daily, the painstaking process is anything but a piece of cake. Using a traditional wood-fired oven requires time, effort and experience, so it comes as no surprise that this form of baking is now extremely rare.

The timing of each step of the process, as well as the temperature in the oven, is extremely important to ensure quality and consistency. The oven takes at least several hours to heat up and without the aid of a temperature gauge. As such the process is based pure intuition and experience.

Because it requires so much precision, there’s virtually no room for mistakes. The bakery is run like a well-oiled machine, systematically churning out trays of buns and banana cakes baked to perfection. Their attention to detail even goes so far as to hand-slice their banana cakes to the exact same size, every single time.

Now, the unique quality of anything baked in a wood-fired oven lies in the steam that builds up in the cavern, as this moist environment promotes the development of a delightful crust. This is something truly noticeable when it comes to Hiap Joo Bakery’s produce.

Lim Joo Ban’s son Lim Meng Chin (middle), with his sons James (right) and Joseph (left).
Lim Joo Ban’s son Lim Meng Chin (middle), with his sons James (right) and Joseph (left).
Hiap Joo Bakery is one of only two bakeries in the city that still uses a traditional wood-fired oven.
Hiap Joo Bakery is one of only two bakeries in the city that still uses a traditional wood-fired oven.
Staff stuff and churn out trays of buns arranged in rows, ready for baking.
Staff stuff and churn out trays of buns arranged in rows, ready for baking.
Long-standing customers return time and again for their fix of baked goods.
Long-standing customers return time and again for their fix of baked goods.

The banana cakes, true to form, are light and fluffy, moist yet bouncy, subtly sweet and delectably fragrant, with hints of a faintly smoky flavour and a beautiful golden crust. No artificial flavourings, sweeteners or preservatives are used, so they’re best eaten within a day.

More nostalgic than their traditional buns and cake is the feeling one gets from Hiap Joo. Having been around for so long, they’ve become something of an icon in Johor Bahru’s community.

Relationships with long-standing customers have been lovingly built and you’ll even notice a symbiosis with the kopitiam across the street, where locals have their breakfast whilst waiting for Hiap Joo’s release of freshly baked goods. These are often brought home to be shared and enjoyed together with family.

Though the cost of running the bakery continues to rise, they’ve tried their best to keep prices low for their customers. At the same time, their passion to keep this age-old tradition going has built them a strong rapport.

From just four workers, they now have about 20 staff to help meet demand. However, one of their biggest struggles is finding younger generations to work for them since many flock to Singapore. Nevertheless, their longest serving employee, Aunty Tham Ah Kuan, has been with them for more than 15 years.

“I’m alone in my old age now. Making cake and helping the bakery is the only thing I know how to do, and I love it. We have fun and laugh together, we’re like a family, and that’s why I stick around.”

When prompted, she divulged, “I’m alone in my old age now. Making cake and helping the bakery is the only thing I know how to do, and I love it. We have fun and laugh together, we’re like a family, and that’s why I stick around.”

Family, passion and love – it’s easy to see the recipe of success of this prominent bakery and their never-ending crowds of returning customers.