After Hours 2.0: Food Fetish (15th Sept, 2018)

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The 15th Johor Society of Performing Arts events schedule was very varied, and when I spotted a food event just 10 minutes walk away, I  thought I really should go. We gathered upstairs in the Sedap Corner restaurant (Jalan Abdul Samad) and enjoyed tucking into some Laksa Johor and kuih-muih desserts before the discussion about heritage food and food culture.

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The panel consisted of Tony Boey (Johor Kaki blog), Datin Hamidah Abdul Hamid (co-author of Johor Palate), and Chef Muhammad Zamri Anam, and here are some of the points discussed:

1. What is authenic Johorian food?

This is the food that has been handed down by generations of home cooks, typified by Laksa Johor and a large range of desserts. Chef Muhammad Zamri Anam said that Sedap Corner tried to maintain the traditional recipes using the best quality ingredients, and not taking short cuts. Datin Hamidah Abdul Hamid explained why the noodles in Laksa Johor were spaghetti and not rice noodles. Apparently, Sultan Abu Bakar was rather fond of visiting Italy and enjoyed eating spaghetti. On returning to Johor Bahru, he suggested that his chefs replace the rice noodles with spaghetti. After enjoying the new dish, the Laksa Johor we know of today was born.

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If you want to know more about traditional Johorian food, and how to make it at home, then you need to get a copy of ‘Johor Palate: Tanjung Puteri Recipes’ by Kalson Taib (the chef seated left) and Hamidah Abdul Hamid (the writer seated right). This 272-page recipe book is full of photos and historical information, and is available in Malay and in English and you should be able to find it in the major book stores in Johor. And if you want to impress your Malaysian friends by serving them Laksa Johor, just remember that the spaghetti should be served in an ’S’-shape in the bowl, and the laksa sauce should be thick enough for the dish to be eaten with fingers!

2. Does Johorian food have to remain the same for ever?

I don’t think there was a conclusion to this question. It is rare for food to stay the same for ever, just think of Sultan Abu Bakar’s innovation with Laksa Johor? But what did seem to be important was to maintain the quality of the food. Tony Boey gave a good example of how ‘hand-made’ fishballs sold in Singapore are rarely truely hand-made, i.e., starting from scratch with fresh fish. Bags of pre-made mixtures are sold to hawkers who then turned the mixture in fish balls. 

3. Why should anyone bother to maintain Johorian heritage food?

"Because it is part of our heritage and links us to our past.” This may be true but it was Tony Boey who probably gave the best answer to this question. He told us of a survey done by using data from over 50,000 global travellers. They listed the top destinations for tasting local foods as follows: 1. Ipoh (Malaysia), 2. Kaohshing (Taiwan), 3. Nagoya (Japan), 4. Johor Bahru (Malaysia).  Penang didnt even come in the top ten! So, if Johor Bahru is listed as the 4th in the top destinations for local foods, why isnt our Department of Tourism doing anything to promote it? Why is there no food festival? With more than 50% of travellers looking at cuisine as a determining factor in their travel destination, then we should be taking advantage of that opportunity to encourage more tourists to Johor. For an easy start, one could easily highlight the great local foods to be had in the Ramadan markets. Perhaps even hold a competition to determine who can make the best and most authenic Laksa Johor? 

Again, Tony Boey shared his experience from Singapore to address this question. He pointed out that if any Singaporean restaurant or food product had come 4th in the world list of anything, that award would be heavily promoted in all forms of media. Yet no-one in the room this night knew that Johor Bahru ranked 4th in the list of top travel destinations for local foods. Why wasn’t this information picked up and spread throughout Malaysia?

Datin Hamidah Abdul Hamid said she had been trying to get government departments to serve heritage Johorian food at official banquets with more attention paid to modern styles of plating food to make it look visually attractive. Lets hope she is successful.

4. How can the younger generation be tempted to eat this food?

Aside from one or two younger persons, the average age of the audience at this event was over 40. So the final question raised from the audience was how to get the younger generation interested in this topic? In this age of Social Media, all you need is celebrity endorsement of a product. The younger generation will queue for hours to eat something made trendy by one of their idols. Their loyalty may not last too long though, so any such campaign would need careful planning and updating, but why not give it a try?

After all this talk of food, we were suddenly quite hungry, so a friend we met at this event invited us to join her friends for some supper around the back of Straits View. We ate in the row of food stalls which make up Medan Selera Tepian Tebrau, along Jalan Mohd Amin. We ate from Stall #1 which was called 'Top One BBQ Seafood Ikan Bakar’. We sampled three dishes which all suffered from being visually unattractive but turned out to be very tasty. This time I was organised enough to get the names of the dishes to attach to the photos, so that I could order these again from anywhere else. Interestingly, I could not find these dishes in the Johor Palate recipe book; perhaps they go under a different name?

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This is Sotong Kangkung. The main ingredient is reconstituted dried squid (sotong) which has a very delicate but crunchy texture. The kangkung is the water spinach and it is served in a sweet and spicy peanut sauce.

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This is Tahu Bakar, or roasted tofu. The tofu is wrapped around a filling of beansprouts and other veg, and again it is served with a sweet and spicy peanut sauce. You can ask the waiter to reduce the amount of chilli, in which case it will be replaced by more sugar for flavour balance.

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This is Ikan Bakar which means charcoal-grilled fish. In this case, it was stingray coated with herbs and spices, drenched in lime juice, and cooked on a banana leaf. The fish was delicate juicy, and very tasty indeed.

What an interesting evening of food and talk about food!

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