Bernice was back!


When cousin Bernice came back to visit her parents in Kuala Lumpur she planned it in secret and successfully sprung a surprise on them.
                                           
We were back at Loh Ban Thye department store again!
Later when she told me that she was coming to see us in Johor Baru, I reminded her not to try to spring any surprises lest she be surprised if mum and I were not in!

She took my advice and even sought my help to make their hotel reservations here. Then I was told to ‘block off those dates’ so that we could spend some time together.

I was more than ready to show her our warm Johor hospitality because Bernice was an excellent host when my siblings and I stayed with her family in Wimbledon during our stopover in the UK last year.

Besides coming to be with us again, Bernice also had a list of local food that she deeply desired to taste again.

Bernice [Left] with her parents and proof of
her successful shopping trip at Ban Thye!
Having stayed abroad for long periods, I can relate to her longing for that familiar taste of comfort food which she grew up with in JB, especially now that she lives abroad.

To let me plan the route for their two-day-one-night eating spree, she even sent the must-have-while-in-JB list of food, to me in advance (using WhatsApp!)

So from the moment they – Bernice and her parents, along with Aunty Sylvia – arrived in JB, they were off to an eating marathon!

Top of her must-eat list is a Johor delicacy, kway chap – A Teochew dish of flat rice noodles in dark herbal soup eaten with a variety of side dishes including braised eggs, braised pork and innards.

Then there are snacks like JB-style rojak and Air Batu Campur (ABC) drizzled in melted cocoa from our regular stall and pisang goreng or fried bananas enjoyed with a spicy dark sauce dip.

Ho Seng Kee noodle cafe at Level 6, JB City Square
Two types of noodles in her choice were traditional Teochew mee-pok-tah or dry-tossed flat noodles along with lobak, a variety of ngoh-hiang or fried minced-yam-meat rolls and pink-coloured fish balls; the other was Cantonese kon-lo-mee or dry-tossed noodles prepared using handmade noodles unique to Mee Ho Seng Kee.

I’m not surprised at her request to savour these food items because they are typically Johor and nothing served elsewhere, ever came close to the original here.

In between eating her choices of food, we did a bit of exercise – to walk off the calories – and accomplish two other objectives:

Handmade Ho Seng Kee noodles in the "original" toss recipe!
One is to shop for cotton singlets – made with holey fabric – which their grandmother first bought from JB’s own brand department store, Loh Ban Thye, that Bernice’s two sons liked to wear.

On this trip, Bernice wanted to buy more singlets in larger sizes as her boys are growing quite rapidly.

The other is to explore JB’s heritage quarter and drop by to visit the Chiew family who still runs the Shanghai Dhoby or traditional Chinese laundry at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.

In 2015, while I was working on my story about the Chiew family and their laundry, Bernice and her former classmate, Karen Chiew, had met for their lunar new year reunion dinner in London, where they both live.

Cousin Bernice and I at Jalan Trus
They were friends since Standard Two when they went to school together in Kluang, Johor. In the course of their conversation, Bernice discovered that Karen’s grandfather used to run the Shanghai Dhoby shop in JB!

When Bernice shared her exciting discovery with me, I was happy to tell her that I met the Chiew family members in JB for my story about their family’s laundry business.

In fact, this Laundry Legacy story is featured under the Portraits section of my book, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage.

On that warm but wet afternoon, our first food stop must be for rojak and ice-kacang at our regular stall in the Taman Pelangi food court.

Bernice’s strategy was to enjoy the rojak and grilled stuffed tofu first and then order the iced drinks later.

In our tropical heat, the ice would have melted quite quickly so it was best to order them later and ensure that the ice remained as ice!

Teochew mee-pok-tah,
at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
The wet weather certainly did nothing to deter our plans to get pisang goreng and other fried items as takeaways to savour with spicy dark sauce dip, in the typically Johor way.

Later it was dinner at Mee Ho Seng Kee, a traditional noodle brand now opened as a café on Level Six of Johor Baru City Square.

While this café offers a menu of add-on items along with their signature dry-tossed noodles, for die-hard fans like us, only the satisfying taste of the “original” will do.

For late night supper, it was kway chap from a popular outlet at Taman Pelangi.

The next morning I took our visitors on a heritage walk that started at Loh Ban Thye department store, situated at the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Ungku Puan. Bernice managed to find those cotton singlets favoured by her boys!

At Jalan Trus, we made a brief stopover at Sin Keng Wah Kedai Tilam to say “Hello!” to the proprietors, Ah Soon and his son who are still making cotton-stuffed mattresses, pillows and bolsters, the traditional way.

A selection of lobak items
It was good to revisit this familiar street where we are acquainted with many of the local traditional, family-run businesses.

While it was lovely to see how some old buildings and businesses are carefully preserved, it was also sad to see some buildings left in a sad state of disrepair.

We could not help stopping to reminisce, admire and take some shots before heading to Jalan Tan Hiok Nee for Bernice’s choice of chopped lobak items and mee-pok-tah.

We aimed to avoid the lunch crowd but the tiny shop was still crowded with a mid-morning brunch group who (just like us!) probably wanted to beat the lunch crowd!

Bernice with Aunty Sylvia near the
traditional bakery, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee
In the sweltering heat and humidity, and with perspiration dripping, we enjoyed yet another noodle meal with great satisfaction.

From one end of Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, we walked to its opposite end while browsing around the shops, and watched the long queue lined up in front of the old bakery before dropping in at the Shanghai Dhoby, laundry.

Finally, while my aunts and mum sat down for a coffee at a nearby café, I took a brisk walk via Jalan Duke to collect my car from the adjacent carpark and picked them up.

The hotel had graciously extended their check-out time so I dropped the visitors back on time to check-out and leave comfortably for the next leg of their visit.

That night I received a photo and message from Bernice showing off their Hainanese beef noodles meal in Kluang – a stopover for familiar food in the town where they used to live – before heading back to Kuala Lumpur.

Mum [Right] with her sisters, Aunty Polly [2nd from Right], Aunty Sylvia [2nd from Left],
Bernice [Centre] and her dad, Uncle Steven [Left] visiting JB's heritage quarter.
It was indeed a veritable food trail, not just for Bernice to enjoy but for us too. Thanks for your visit, Ber. You were our excuse for revisiting our favourite local specialties!

Let’s plan for the next cousins meet-up (and makan) soon!