This article was first published in The Business Times on July 11, 2015.
The little town right smack in the middle of Johor offers enough delicious morsels to set your tastebuds tingling.
In life, there are some things you don't really think about doing. Like skydiving; opening a bank account in Greece; telling otters to stop eating koi; and going to Kluang.
Just by doing a quick survey of the people around you, it's pretty clear that Kluang has a reputation for not having a reputation. It's like the quiet kid in the house who does his own thing while his blingy sister Johor Bahru shows off her fancy Iskandar digs, second brother Muar flaunts muscular durians and mangosteens and first cousin Mersing reels you in with his catch of lobsters and garoupa.
But get into a conversation with Kluang and a picture emerges of a thriving little town in Johor that's barely two hours from Singapore (minus any Causeway jams) with enough good food to make it a convenient alternative to the tourist-infested coffeeshops of Malacca, Kuala Lumpur or Penang.
Of course, when it was first suggested we go to Kluang - by bus - there was some resistance. Why? Never heard of the place.
"The bus goes via Legoland", was a suggested sweetener.
"But they've got really good beef noodles. Not in Legoland. Kluang."
With tendon and beef balls?
"As many as you want. And if you make friends with the lady boss, she might save you some choice cuts of tenderloin sliced shabu-thin and omasum - they call it the third stomach which looks a bit like tripe".
Okay... So long as we don't get off at Legoland.
And so, inspired by the geeky TV host on Asian Food Channel who spent every week combing the corners of Malaysia for tasty morsels, we too learned to stop worrying and embrace our inner Axian. The following, then, is just the start of our own Kluang food adventure.
Jalan Langsat, Kampung Masjid Lama 86000 Kluang, Johor
Tel: +60 19-778-1880
Our first stop after being deposited at the diesel fume factory that doubles as a bus terminus is a welcome respite - clean, airy coffeeshop with bright red signage that first-timers can't miss. Foreign workers work fast and furious at their cooking station - doling out bowls of noodles in their signature beefy broth with a pleasant herbal accent, piled with everything from beef slices, tender tripe and other innards you don't expect a cow to have. The beef is as close to free range as you can get - the cows are sourced from local farmers by the friendly lady boss who explains at length about the cow's three-in-one stomach. This is hearty stuff and best of all, the most expensive bowl with the works sets you back by RM11 (S$4).
Kluang Station Coffee
Kluang Railway Station
There are a few branches but it's the original kopitiam at the quaint old-fashioned railway station that adds a charming time-warp feel to its ambience. You sit in a cramped space surrounded by wooden frames and wire mesh like a human chicken coop but with full service. The marble table tops are already laid out with assorted kueh-kueh, otak-otak and nasi lemak for you to help yourself and pay for only the amount you eat. The baby packets of rice and sambal wrapped in banana leaf cost just 80 sen (with a sprinkling of crispy ikan bilis and peanuts) and a karipap (curry puff)is a 40 sen treat.
Kluang coffee is a local institution and here the beans are roasted in butter. And the perfect match for the brew is kaya toast where the latter is still toasted over a charcoal fire.
10 & 12 Jalan Sultanah, Kampung Masjid Lama, 86000 Kluang, Johor
Tel: +60 7-772-3288
One of the stalwart Chinese restaurants in Kluang, Star is nothing to look at but the food makes up for it. Expect satisfying, homespun fare like kampong pak cham kai or white cooked free range chicken with a firmer bite than its lily-white unexercised brethren. Crispy roast duck is conveniently shredded with bits of well seasoned skin, all of which you pack into a steamed bun with cucumber strips and hoisin sauce like a free-style Peking duck. Deep-fried beancurd skin rolls stuffed with bouncy prawn and pork paste, stir-fried sweet potato leaves and crisp fried cod round off the meal. Incidentally, while the restaurant is nothing to look at, the owners also run the Starz Hotel - a clean and comfortable (and probably the newest) three-star place to stay if you need it.
Roast pork stall/butcher
6, Jalan Tan Khim Seck, 86000 Kluang, Johor.
Open after 9pm
There's no name for this place but this no-nonsense butchery leaves nothing to the imagination. Not for vegetarians or the faint-hearted, this is where trucks pull up outside a nondescript shop and unload a stream of fresh pig carcasses to be efficiently sliced and diced and sold to a waiting line of customers. The sight of headless pigs split in half so you can see the ribs, loins and chops in their original positions rather than in neat supermarket packages can be unnerving yet morbidly fascinating. And when you're done gawking and getting in the way of the workers slicing through the meat with the same emotion as us slicing a loaf of bread, you can buy the meat fresh or already roasted as char siew or siew yoke. It's not great, but this close-up view of food in its most basic form is what you're really there for.
Restoran Ikan Asam Pedas
83-85, Jalan Lim Swee Sim, Kluang Baru, 86000 Kluang, Johor
Tel: +60 7772-7624
As far as restaurant names go, you can't get closer to the point than this. Another Kluang institution, this airconditioned coffee shop doesn't disappoint with the freshness of its large red snapper or garoupa heads simmered in a power-packed gravy of spicy tamarind goodness. There are other things to order that are good to decent, including spicy petai, steamed clams and home-made otak.
Kedai Kopi PKH
43-45 Jalan Mersing,86000 Kluang, Johor
A must-visit breakfast spot, this coffee shop is best known for its home made fish balls paired with stuffed bean curd puffs yong tau foo style. Your choice of noodles is tossed in fragrant onion oil and a special blended thick dark sauce that's almost addictive, and the bouncy fish balls are all fish paste and no fillers. There's also an unusual chee cheong fun stall that sells the familiar rice roll sheets in a thick tee cheo sauce that's lighter in colour than we're used to, and with interesting options such as yam cake, beancurd skin and even sausages.
Tiong Huat Confectionery
28-30 Jalan Cantik, 86000 Kluang, Johor
This 37-year-old family owned bakery churns out hand made tau sa piah made right on the premises. There's the usual sweet variety and a sweet-savoury version filled with mashed green beans cooked with fried shallots and encased in the familiar round pastry. If you get to peek in the back of the shop you'll see the workers measuring out the paste and shaping them before they're turned into golden ingots of flakiness.
Air Tahu Ah Wah/Mrs Bean
15A Jalan Sentol 1, Haji Manan, 86000 Kluang, Johor
Tel: +60 012-737-9984
When you're so used to the silky soft texture of Rochor beancurd that you've forgotten what the bean itself actually tastes like, a bowl of smooth tau huay at this unassuming shop will set your tastebuds straight. Mrs Bean is one of the top suppliers in town so wherever you're eating it, it's most likely it came from this family-run (as it is with most businesses in Kluang) maker. Don't forget to try the yu tiao as well.
It isn't all a gorge-fest in Kluang, either. In case you didn't realise, the organic vegetables you buy at the supermarket from Zenxin come from Kluang, and the farm is geared up for visitors with its own restaurant and things for kids to do. Aw Pottery is a Kluang stalwart too - check out the giant ceramic vase that announces your arrival to town.
More than anything, the appeal of Kluang lies in the laidback charm of a small town where people are warm, friendly and welcoming - and who genuinely want to share what they have with you.