Visitors to Jalan Tan Hiok Nee at Johor Baru’s heritage quarter, simply fall in love with the charm of Hiap Joo Bakery & Biscuit Factory, a business run by a family of traditional bakers.
|Lim Meng Chin serving customers at Hiap Joo|
When Hainanese baker, Lim Joo Ban, started this bakery using a wood-fired wall oven back in 1919, he baked loaves and a range of filled sweet and savoury buns as well as banana cakes.
Old-timers may recall how Lim would sit on a rattan chair outside his narrow shop front in the evening to cool off after toiling in the bakery.
Before the era of bread factories, this was the preferred bakery of bread-lovers in Johor Baru and many did not mind driving all the way downtown to pick up a loaf or two.
In those days when traffic was still smooth even in the heart of town, regulars could do a drive-through to buy their choice of breads from Hiap Joo Bakery.
They would call out their bread order to the friendly baker, usually seated on his rattan chair outside and he would send the bread and collect his payment – all done through the car’s open window!
|Facade of Hiap Joo at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee|
Lim passed the legacy of this traditional bakery to his son, Lim Meng Chin, who picked up the skills in baking using a wood-fired oven by working alongside his father.
In the same way, Meng Chin’s son, Lim Toh Shian, better known as James, worked with his father to master the unique skills in baking a range of products using this traditional oven.
Now, the second and third generation Lims operate the business with very few changes since the days of grandfather Lim.
The façade and the shopfloor of this quaint little bakery remains virtually unchanged since its early days. You may even spot the rattan chair that grandfather Lim used to sit on when he cooled off in front of this bakery.
A closer look at the wall oven reveals that there is no mechanism like a thermostat for the bakers to accurately guage the temperature. When asked how they knew if the temperature was just right, the bakers say that it’s a matter of applying their experience!
|Lim Toh Shian, James, working at the wood-fired oven|
A peek through the open window shows a cavernous oven heated by smoldering wooden sticks inserted through small wall openings, with glowing embers that line the oven’s inner walls. It’s fascinating how the bakers have honed their skills to gauge the temperature without the aid of technology.
Dough was mostly kneaded by hand with minimal automation but with the invention of better mixers, James found that the use of a modern mixer yielded softer breads and cakes.
Now the next generation Lims continue to bake sweet and savoury-filled buns and light banana cake using the same recipes with slight modifications to the method of preparation.
|Packing freshly-baked banana cake|
With increasing demand, it’s become necessary to use some automation in the preparation process. A steady supply of recycled wood from old pallets for fuel, keeps the wood-fired oven going.
A random survey of customer preferences indicated that while the range of filled buns remain popular, their freshly baked banana cakes are still a hot favourite.
And to keep customers happy, Hiap Joo even adjusted their baking schedule to meet the increasing demand for their breads and cakes. Breads should come out of the oven by 11am while they strive to keep banana cakes available throughout the day.
Sometimes the crowd at Hiap Joo can be overwhelming so don’t be surprised to see a long queue waiting for the next batch to come out of the oven.
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Patience certainly pays off as the team in Hiap Joo, made up mostly of family members, have a well-oiled system of receiving freshly baked trays straight out of the oven, cutting and filling hygienically packed boxes with the piping hot cakes for waiting customers.
Sometimes customers arrive when stocks have just run out. While it may be disappointing to hear the bakers saying, “Sudah habis!” fans of Hiap Joo are a good-natured lot who know how to deal with it.
They may come back later or on another day because they know that the faithful old oven will be baking a fresh batch again, just as it did since 1919.
Hiap Joo Bakery is at No. 13, Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Johor Baru. Open daily 7.30am to 5.30pm, and closed on Sunday.
A version of this was published in the August 2016 edition of Xplore Johor, a publication of Tourism Johor