Riding pillion on his father’s trusty little Honda as his dad manoeuvred the bike from their home in Toa Payoh Singapore, crossing the Causeway to Sungai Segget in old downtown Johor Bahru, was one of the earliest memories Tony Boey has of his affinity with Malaysian food.
“I remember tagging along on my dad’s regular day trips to Johor Bahru for food. We also loved going to Ayer Hitam to visit the pottery factory there. Another of our favourite haunts was Lido Beach, which faces Singapore across the Johor Straits. We used to watch people dig up clams on the beach and we would buy from them to cook at home,” recalled Boey of his teenage years.
Boey, 57, may be Singaporean but he shares many of the same fond memories of old downtown JB as Johoreans. After his retirement as an air traffic controller six years ago, Boey spends half his time in Johor mainly for the food, influenced by his dad. “Like many Singaporeans, my family has been visiting Johor Bahru since my two children were toddlers. Now that the kids are grown and with leisure time after retirement, we visit Johor more often,” he explained.
However, unlike most Singaporeans who make a quick trip before returning to the little red dot to rejoin the rat race, Boey takes pain to discover little stalls that serve delicious food in kopitiams, side lanes and in villages. With his discoveries, Boey feels the need to share the information with others, and to document these little-known eateries on the world wide web.
“It has been six years since I established ‘Johor Kaki’ food blog and I am still as passionate about sharing as I was in my very first post. My objective is to place every good hawker on the internet, before they are gone. Some of the stalls that I had shared over the years no longer exist, unfortunately,” he added.
As a food authority, especially on Johor food, Boey believes that despite the similarities between Singapore and Johor food due to proximity of the two locations, there are many subtle differences to be uncovered, making every food trip to Johor interesting and intriguing.
Not surprisingly, Boey keeps going back for more. He shared, “Singaporeans are crazy about food. Besides food in our own home country, we enjoy food everywhere we go. Johor is our nearest overseas destination for food.
“In Singapore, we face the issue of our heritage food rapidly disappearing as the new generation is not attracted to serving traditional food as a livelihood. Rising cost of living also makes it difficult to prepare food the old way which often requires a lot of manual work.
“Johor is also facing a similar situation but it is not as acute as Singapore. This is why I like to visit Johor to look for heritage food that is made the traditional way. I like to take pictures, note down interesting things about the hawkers and food to share on my blog. Even in Johor, such heritage food is slowly disappearing and I have made it my mission to document them before they fade away. Luckily, I am guided by many Anak Johor who share the same passion for Johor food.”
In October 2016, Boey with the help of publisher MAGistrate and developer UMLand launched a guide book on Johor Bahru food titled ‘Find Dining with Johor Kaki’. The 150-page, full-colour book was distributed for free as a tribute to celebrate Johor hawkers.
When it comes to food, Boey opined that Malaysia’s biggest advantage is its variety. “All kinds of cuisines can be found in Malaysia, with a delicious local twist. From neighbouring Thailand and Indonesia, to faraway countries of India, China and England, food from all of these countries are combined to bring about the unique dishes in Malaysia. Chicken Chop, Wanton Mee and Nasi Briyani are not the same as those in England, Hong Kong and the Middle East, respectively,” Boey observed.
According to him, there seems to be no end of surprises, with hidden gems in every corner: “Malaysia, as a whole, is blessed with delicious food. Eating is a social event in the country; people sit down to chat and catch up over a meal or even just a drink at all times of the day and night. Eating together is a priceless Malaysian culture.
“I would like to encourage everyone to document their foodie journey, too, as it is very rewarding. It doesn’t cost much – just our time and commitment to give back a little to our hawkers by sharing about them on social media.”
Indeed, running ‘Johor Kaki’ blog has presented Boey with greater opportunities to indulge in all the things that he loves: eating, photography, travelling and making new friends. Pursuing his passion has helped to keep him excited and energised after retirement, admitted Boey, whose personal all-time favourite food is Laksa, all varieties of it. “I would love to explore and taste all the Laksa dishes in our region,” he declared.
Note: An edited version of this article [Savouring Johor’s food scene] was published on 8th July 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.