The Open-air Food Centre in Johor Bahru – a grimy but authentic dining experience

Johor Bahru is a hidden food gem, it has great places to eat as long as you can get to them and don’t mind the grimy experience.

We wanted to get to them, but we didn’t have a care.

What we did have this time around was unexpected good fortune. This is the story of third time lucky, we got to try food at the open-air food court after three tries.

Its not that there was any special, highly recommended dining spots at this open air food centre; it was that there was a taste of nostalgia with local Johoreans to be found there. This was an experience, grimy but authentic, as authentic as you could get. And its not something that is always easy to find as a tourist. Singaporeans and Malaysians are crazy serious about food, and because of that its easy to find recommendations of restaurants and cafes on websites and blogs.

With Singaporeans and day tourists drawn to the restaurants and eateries all over the state, the average Johorean is simply priced out of the market when it comes to dining. Just as it is not possible for the average Singaporean to eat at cafes everyday without running down their wallet, it is also not possible for Johoreans to try cafes and restaurants everyday especially not when the high cost is compounded by cafes and restaurants that charge prices pegged for the city dwellers down south (in Singapore).

Eating in Johor Bahru the Singaporean way was hence turning out to be a drain on the wallet, so it was a pleasant surprise that there we managed to find not one but two open aired food centres. The food centre concept is the same in both countries, it is where a collection of hawkers set up shop to sell their food to people. Unlike the Singaporean instance though, the food centres here tend to be private run individuals (food centres in Singapore are usually the government or a large company). Without the public service element, how does a food centre work?

A property owner, usually the one who owns a drinks stall would rent out the space to others for decent rent, who would then sell food. Its starts with a trickle. First a few stalls would set up, and locals would turn up because the price is affordable.

Then Darwinian survival of the fittest strikes. Food is essentially a substitute item, and competition draws improvements. The longer the food centre stands for the more established it gets, popular stalls thrive and they drive more traffic to the food centre. Unpopular stalls close and new ones hawkers take their place, rental space becomes more expensive since demand to set up a stall there increases. By the invisible hand of economics (specifically, the economics of agglomeration), demand to set up hawker stalls increases, and their business start to pick up too. Space permitting, more area for stalls opens up and before you know it, a full-scale hawker centre is in operation.

Through it all, only one stall avoids the Darwinian struggle – the drinks stall. The property owner is the one who laughs all the way to the bank. Why? Because regardless of what you order, you would probably get a drink, and since the property owner runs the drinks stall (and will not dumbly open a second drinks stall in the same food centre) they get money regardless of the food you buy.

There were many stalls in this private food centre, selling a whole range of food items. This was a Chinese food court, I wasn’t too sure if it was halal. This place was different because it was near where we stayed, unlike Jalan Meldrum which is also grimy and interesting this was outside the city convenient and considerably safer to dine at (the JB city district doesn’t have a very good reputation for safety especially after dark).

What drew us was a tom yum soup made of coconut water – not coconut milk, coconut water so the soup has a natural sweetness to it. The first time we saw the food centre it rained, the second time it rained. On the third day, our final night in Johor, we tried again. The sky was grey and threatening to pour, screw it we thought to ourselves, we have to go try it.

We were third time lucky.

No sooner had we found our seats did we disburse to order food from the various stalls. We ordered a seafood Tom Yum Soup and added Char Kuay Teow, Claypot Frog Porridge, and Sarawakian Kolo Noodles. We sat out in the open, the granite floor was wet from the rain, the surroundings of the stalls slightly wet from used liquids thrown out onto the side. It was grimy, but grimy is sometimes where the best food is found.

The Tom Yum Soup was really really spicy. It didn’t look like much especially since it looked so watery, but the hint of heatness was in the amount of oil and chilli at the sides of the coconut husk. It was spicy but shiok.

Char kuay teow is a a flat rice noodle dish stir fried with eggs, beansporuts some seafood and mixed with dark soy sauce, it doesn’t look like much but it tastes amazing. It was first made by Chinese labourers who arrived on Malayan (Singapore and Malaysia) shores, they had to make very little go very far so they used noodles and soya sauce, easily available products to make the dish. The carbohydrates would fill them up and give them the strength to work, the easy availability of the products meant that it wasn’t too hard to make. This kuay teow wasn’t the best I had (these are two of the best ones that I have had), but it as authentic and good.

Frog porridge, or farm chicken in mandarin, is another popular dish in southern chinese culture. These frogs are usually reared in large farms and then in most cases sacrificed just before service to ensure the freshest quality possible and then served with a large claypot of smooth porridge. The frog that we had was tender and braised with spring onions, dried chilies and dark sauce. Frog meat is mostly tasteless, but its texture is what makes it exciting – it is more chewy and muscular giving it a nice bite. The strong sauces and chilies spice flavour the otherwise plain meat.

The final dish we had was Sarawakian Kolo Mee. Despite looking like instant noodles, kolo mee is a hand made product. It looked the most simple of all the dishes, but if I were to rate a favourite this was it. It was full of texture and rich in flavour. Each noodle strand coated with a sweet sauce and shallots adding an additional layer of fragrance.

We had come for the nostalgia and stayed for the taste. Open air food centres like these are the most authentic dining experience you can get in Johor Bahru, make sure you hunt for one near you and give it a try if you are in JB!


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