Johor folk who have moved to live elsewhere often crave for the familiar taste of Johorean cuisine. Some get so desperate that they attempt to replicate these dishes in their kitchens only to wind up with less than satisfactory results.
So whenever these folks are back home, they’re armed with a customary “eat-list”, with all their favourite haunts in order to satisfy their cravings. The perennial favourites often rank at the top of list – Laksa Johor, Kacang Pool and Nasi Beriani – all of which share a common trait of drawn influences from other cultures before being infused with local ingredients and cooking methods, making them uniquely Johorean.
While I have much pleasure in eating Laksa Johor, I soon learnt that there are no short-cuts in creating the rich gravy, made with a blend of aromatic spices and fresh fish meat. The right recipe makes all the difference in an authentic serving of Laksa Johor.
Recipes may vary but the iconic dish is made with spaghetti served with rich gravy, topped with raw ingredients like cucumber curls, onion slivers, bean sprouts, chopped fragrant basil leaves or daun selasih and a sprinkle of crunchy persevered turnip or chai poh. For an extra kick a few drops of freshly squeezed calamansi lime and a dollop of spicy sambal belacan are often added.
It is said that Johoreans sometimes eat the dish with their hands as opposed to using cutlery. However, the true distinguishing factor is that Laksa Johor is made with spaghetti as opposed to rice vermicelli or noodles. The reason for that I am told that it was once palace food, served only at special ceremonies.
Legend has it that when Sultan Abu Bakar visited Italy, he liked spaghetti bolognaise so much that when he returned to Johor, he requested his chef to modify the recipe and top the spaghetti with spicy fish gravy. Today, this Johor delicacy is available all-year round in hotel restaurants, cafés and food courts. It’s a staple favourite on the menu at Sedap Corner, Restoran Bumbu Asli, de’Kayu Manis café, Restoran Mak Teh and Hailam Café as well as other outlets in and around Johor Bahru.
Kacang Pool may be described as the Johor version of chili con carne, a broad bean and minced beef stew savoured with chunks of toasted bread. The stew is often accompanied with a sunny-side-up egg, chopped fresh onions, fresh green chillies and a squeeze of fresh lime.
When I met Haji Makpol Kairon, owner of Kacang Pool Haji, he revealed how the dish got its name. In 2009, while in Mecca, Haji Makpol discovered an uncanny connection with Kacang Pool as it shared the same sounding ‘pol’ word in his name. Created with broad beans or foul beans – the word ‘foul’ pronounced ‘fool’ in the Middle East – is translated into Malay as Kacang Pol.
He said he was intrigued by the long queues of people waiting to buy a popular vegetarian dish called foul medames in that region. Out of curiosity, he joined the queue only to be disappointed as it did not taste as good as he had anticipated.
When he returned to Johor Bahru, Haji Makpol – an experienced cook with a food catering business – tried to replicate that popular dish with his own modified recipe using beef and lamb stew. Friends in his neighbourhood mosque became his food-tasters and on his seventh try, he found the right recipe.
Kacang Pool Haji is available at several outlets in Johor Baru and at Kompleks Niaga Benteng, Peserai, Batu Pahat. The largest outlet is at 12, Jalan Dato Jaffar, Larkin Gardens (7am to 12am) and you can also savour the dish at Larkin Food Court next to the Larkin fire station (7am till late), Plaza Larkin Food Court near Larkin Sentral (7.30am to 6.30pm) and Plaza Angsana food court (10am to 10pm).
For a long time I was baffled by variations of the word for the flavoured, fragrant rice dish – Baryani, Bariani, Beriani, Biryani or Briyani – which has its origins among Muslims in the Indian sub-continent. The recipe for this rice-based dish is believed to have been brought to Peninsular Malaysia by Iranian traders.
Prepared from long-grain rice, usually basmati rice, with a wide variety of spices and condiments such as ghee, nutmeg, cumin, pepper, cinnamon, coriander, mint leaves, ginger, onions and garlic, Beriani Rice is so tasty that it can be eaten just on its own.
In Malaysia, non-vegetarian Beriani is popularly served with meat as the main ingredient, usually beef, lamb or chicken and sometimes, even fish and large prawns like scampi or udang galah. The rice set usually comes with a side of dhal curry and achar or pickled fruit and vegetables and hard-boiled eggs.
With its origin in Johor, mainly Muar and Batu Pahat, Beriani Gam is an improvised version of this popular rice dish. The Gam version is prepared by layering the Beriani rice with marinated meat and cooking them in the same pot. These results in a more fragrant pot of Beriani rice, as it’s naturally infused with spice and natural meat flavours.
With the wide number of Beriani outlets in Batu Pahat, diners are spoilt for choice. However locals often make a beeline for the dish at Restoran BP Bariani Power and Nasi Baryani Mohd Shah.
Situated in a double shoplot in a residential area, the menu at Restoran BP Bariani Power includes Beriani Gam and regular Beriani served with chicken, beef or lamb or ayam masak merah. Acar buah or fruit pickles and telur pindang or herbal eggs, are popular add-ons. While pickled vegetables and dahl gravy comes with the rice set, a side of chillie sauce is provided for an added zing.
At the Benteng food court, the sign at the Nasi Baryani Mohd Shah stall lists chicken and mutton as the two meat choices. This is a no-frills, self-serve outlet with an ever present queue, which is naturally longer during peak dining hours. However service is quick for both dine-in and takeaway.
Restoran BP Bariani Power is at 18, Jalan Tukas 2, Taman Soga, Batu Pahat, Monday closed.
Nasi Baryani Mohd Shah is at Stall No. 14, Kompleks Niaga Benteng, Peserai, Batu Pahat; Friday closed.