Night Safari Mystica Quest

Meet the enchanted forest folk in your Mystica journey
at the Night Safari this holiday season!
The year-end holidays are here again and visitors to the Singapore Night Safari can enjoy Mystica, its signature event, and be dazzled by an enchanting ensemble of wild, mystical characters in their Mystica journey through the park.  Every Friday and Saturday night between Nov 21 and Dec 20, 200 lucky visitors who complete the Mystica Quest at the Night Safari, will be rewarded with glittery gifts.  Besides the thrill of sighting nocturnal animals in their natural habitat, you can look forward to lots of family fun when the night wilderness comes alive!

Take a selfie with the Ravishing Raven
Your Mystica Quest begins when you meet the mysterious and magical Island Keeper at the Entrance Plaza who will encourage you to start your journey in navigating challenges and solving puzzles.  In your journey to each of the four stations, you will meet curious creatures who will guide you along to complete simple tasks and earn coloured wrist gems.  Wear each gem on your wrist as you collect them and at the end of your quest, the first 200 visitors can claim their gifts when they present all four wrist gems at the Redemption Counter.

Meet the handsome Asiatic lions at the Night Safari
Get ready to come face-to-face with whimsical denizens of the forest like the Jumparoo with his springy dance steps, the scintillating Slithery Snake with her shimmery moves and the most divine of the Mystica inhabitants, the Ravishing Raven.  

This dark angel, who wears roaring red boots, will have you under his mystical spell in no time at all so seize the opportunity to snap a selfie with the Ravishing Raven and let the stationmaster upload it onto the screen for real-time viewing.  This is how easy it is for you to earn your first Blue Sapphire wrist gem!

Say hello the the happy Forrest Fairies at the East Lodge
Station to claim your Green Emerald wrist gem!
If you have never seen a Malayan tapir before, then you should spot it at Night Safari, the first park for nocturnal animals that is focused on captive breeding of threatened animal species.  In the last few years, some endangered species like the Malayan tapir, Malayan tigers, Asian elephants, Asian lions, fishing cats, red dholes, anoas, markhors and bantengs, have been successfully bred here.  A comfortable tram ride will take you pass the various animal habitats or you can enjoy the walking trails to view the animals but just don’t miss the impressive sight of Night Safari’s iconic bull elephant, Chawang!

Visitors trying to solve the zebra puzzle to earn their
White Pearl wrist gem
Look out for Trail Guardians like the Forest Faries at the East Lodge Station and a pair of z-amazing dancing zebras who will invite you to solve a zebra puzzle.  

Then take a trek into the tropical rainforest to discover the treasures of Naracoorte Cave and help them keep the treasures safe.  While you enjoy your Mystica journey, keep an eye on the show times to catch the excitement in the Creatures of the Night Show, held in the amphitheatre.

Malaysians are invited to take part in a simple online contest for a chance to win a pair of free tickets each to Mystica at Night Safari.  Just answer True or False: “Mystica happens at Singapore’s Night Safari from November 21 to December 20.”  The contest closes on Dec 1 so email your True or False answer to email: corpcomms.szg@wrs.com.sg with your full name, IC number, email address and telephone number.

A section of the audience at the
Creatures of the Night show
Winners will be notified by email by Dec 2 and tickets can be collected at Night Safari’s Reception Desk from 5.30pm on Dec 3 to 20.  Free tickets are valid from Dec 3 to 20 while Mystica activities are held on Friday and Saturday: Nov 21, 22, 28, 29, and Dec 5, 6, 12, 13, 19 and 20 only. 


Located in Mandai, Singapore Night Safari (www.nightsafari.com.sg) the world’s first wildlife park for nocturnal animals is a 12-time winner of the Best Attraction category, awarded by the Singapore Tourism Board.  Entrance fees S$39 (adult) and S$25 (child 3 – 12 years).  More information on Wildlife Reserve Singapore parks can be found on website: www.wrs.com.sg

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 27 Nov 2014

Ampang Yong Tau Foo in JB

A serving of mixed vegetables and tofu in soup at
Ampang Yong Tau Foo restaurant, Taman Kempas Utama
Nelson Loong, 58, was brought up near Ampang in Kuala Lumpur and Ampang yong tau foo or beancurd stuffed with fishcake, has been his favourite food ever since he tasted it as a child.  In the early 1990s when Loong moved to live and work in Johor Baru, he always yearned for a taste of his favourite Ampang yong tau foo.  So each time he was back in KL, he must have his fill of yong tau foo before coming back to JB.
              
Loong clearly remembers that he was on holiday in New Zealand when he longed for a taste of yong tau foo and wondered to himself – “if only I can bring Ampang yong tau foo to JB” – and on his return, he went to meet with the people who run Ampang yong tau foo in KL.  This resulted in his business partnership with Ampang yong tau foo and they opened their outlet at Taman Johor Jaya in 1993.  This worked out well for Loong and other fans of Ampang yong tau foo in JB who no longer needed to go to Ampang for their regular fix of quality stuffed beancurd meals. 

Nelson Loong [Left] and his wife, Fancy, with some
of the food items served in their restaurant
When the outlet at Taman Johor Jaya was closed, Loong gave serious thought to filling this vacuum again for fans of Ampang yong tau foo in JB and decided to open a new outlet.  He understands the business and the skills involved for the individually hand-stuffed tofu and vegetables and started to find reliable local sources for fresh ingredients.  

It took a while to set up the operations but it was all worth the wait because Loong and his wife, Fancy, recently opened their Ampang Yong Tau Foo restaurant at Taman Kempas Utama.


A choice of deep-fried dumplings and crispy beancurd skin


“We follow the original Ampang yong tau foo recipe and tweaked it to enhance the natural flavour of fresh mackerel fish,” said Loong as he discussed the main ingredients that go into the tofu and vegetable stuffing.  

The menu follows the same tradition of steamed and deep-fried items with servings either in soup or with white rice.  “Our food is made strictly without preservatives, artificial flavouring or pork products,” he added.



A platter of stuffed tofu and vegetables

He said the purity in the ingredients and soup base is a healthier choice, suitable for all ages and can be eaten either as a main meal or just for a snack.  For the customers’ convenience, stuffed items like soft and fried tofu, ladies fingers, brinjals, bitter gourd, whole red chillies and dumplings can be selected separately or ordered in a standard set.  

This flexibility in choice and the natural ingredients used are probably why regulars come to dine almost 3 to 4 times a week!



Soft white stuffed tofu with a side of dip sauce
“The natural sweetness in our clear soup is from a recipe that uses ingredients like fish, turnip and soya beans,” said Fancy who personally supervises the kitchen team in their basement kitchen.  

She is pleased that customers of all ages can enjoy the soft and fried items in their restaurant.  In fact, she observed that some elderly people who like the crispy deep-fried items will soak them in the soup before they chew into the softened food!

Loong and his wife are thrilled that fans of Ampang yong tau foo can now have their regular fix of comfort food at a nearby location which is distinguished by wall murals on the side of the building.  

Fancy Loong showing off a wall mural at the side
of the building
Buoyed up by the enthusiastic response from regulars, Loong is upbeat about the future of his Ampang yong tau foo and has an ultimate aim to establish this brand internationally.  With his secret recipe and sheer hard work, Loong hopes that someday soon we may even enjoy this comfort food while we are travelling abroad!

Ampang Yong Tau Foo is located at No. 2, Jalan Kempas Utama 3/1, Taman Kempas Utama, 81300 Johor Baru.  Opening hours: 10.30am to 3pm and 6pm to 9pm daily and closed on alternate Wednesday.  Tel: 607 – 550 0237.  No pork products are used.


A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 26 Nov 2014

Christmas spirit at IWA Bazaar

The IWA Recipe Book with recipes from around the world
With the annual charity fund-raising Christmas Bazaar in mind, members of the International Women’s Association (IWA) Johor Baru held cooking classes earlier this year to share recipes from their home countries.  This was not just for food and fellowship but also to select recipes to compile into a recipe book that will be published for sale at the Christmas Bazaar. 
                       
“We are very proud of our IWA Recipe book which is filled with more than 60 recipes from 20 different cuisines,” said IWA President, Caroline Davis, who explained that the recipes were garnered from the members’ countries of origin.  Simply entitled, “Recipe Book – Recipes from around the world,” about 100 copies were sold at RM30 each.  “Besides the shoppers, our own members have also bought extra copies to take home to present as Christmas gifts,” she added. 

Useful handicrafts for sale at the Christmas Bazaar
On Nov 15, the IWA kept their tradition of holding the annual Christmas Bazaar with the support of KSL Hotel & Resorts.  From 10am to 4pm their hotel lobby was lined by stalls with a variety of products ranging from freshly baked cakes and cookies, handicrafts, jewellery, household items, wines and interesting knick-knacks, set up by members from nations like Belgium, Finland, Germany, India, Korea, Netherlands, England, Scotland, the United States, Singapore and Malaysia.
  
Johor Area Rehabilitation Organization (JARO), promoted their products created in rattan, paper and beautiful batik fabric by the physically disabled trained in various handicraft skills in the basketry, book-binding and tailoring sections of their sheltered workshop.

Shoppers buying freshly-made festive cakes and cookies
“All funds raised by JARO in the sale of their products goes back to them while 10% of the sales of items from the other stalls in the bazaar will be contributed to IWA’s charity fund,” said Davis, who hails from Kentucky, US.  The funds from this bazaar and other fund-raising events will be contributed in material goods to various charities like JARO, Care Haven for less fortunate children and HOPE animal shelter. 

With the stalls gaily decorated in Christmas colours to sell a host of specially designed handmade products that are suitable for gifts, the bazaar was filled with a spirit of goodwill as shoppers browsed around to find unique Christmas gifts.  Many members volunteered to bake and made special sweets, particularly those from Korea, Italy, Finland, US, Japan, Hungary and Spain.  In fact, one of the most popular stalls was the one for homemade cakes and cookies.

Quality handicrafts will make unique Christmas gifts!
“I liked very much that our members could show off their unique products and gave us many good ideas for Christmas presents,” said IWA Vice-President, Anna Magyar who was just a volunteer last year but this year as one of the organizers, she was more involved with the preparation.  “I really felt the Christmas spirit at the bazaar!” declared Magyar, who comes from Hungary. 

While IWA is helping expatriate women adjust to living in a foreign country, it is also a non-profit charity organisation established in May 1999 to organise fund-raising social events to contribute towards healthcare, education and other social needs in Johor Baru.  

Wine and spirits were sold from this stall
Festive cakes, cookies and sweets were available from this stall
Since its incepation, IWA has raised funds to support various causes including the children’s welfare home in Saleng, the Rotary Dialysis Centre and several Tamil schools in Kulaijaya.


IWA JB invites women from the international community in JB to join them as members.  Membership queries should be sent to email: iwa.johorbahru.m@gmail.com

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 25 Nov 2014

Between heaven and earth

Tunamaya Beach & Spa Resort in Tioman Island
With the soft drone from the Cessna plane in my ears, I’m winging my way to Tioman Island after a comfortable take-off from Sultan Ismail International Airport in Senai.  Strapped to my seat behind the pilot, I turn around to look at my friends in the 8-seater aircraft, who seem equally excited about being on the inaugural charter flight to Tunamaya Beach & Spa Resort.  Before we boarded, the resort staff seeing us off on the tarmac presented each of us with a pretty garland of orchids and we are happily wearing them like tourists off to a fantasy holiday.
                          
Happy "tourists" wearing orchid garlands in the flight!
It is almost like a scene out of Fantasy Island, a ‘70s television series where people fly to a mysterious island to live out their fantasies but this is no fantasy because we are on our way to experience an All-Inclusive luxury package at Tunamaya.  I look out of the cabin window to see cotton puffs of clouds as we climb higher and my thoughts drift to a vision of Ricardo Montalban as Mr Roarke, dressed in his white suit and how he speaks with a distinct Spanish accent.  I remember at the beginning of every episode, his sidekick, Tattoo, will run up the bell tower to ring a bell to announce the arrival of guests and shout, “The plane! The plane!”
                                         
The shadow of our aircraft gliding swiftly along...
When the clouds part, I spot the South China Sea below and feel the aircraft’s gentle descent as we approach the cluster of islands in the Mersing Marine Park.  With the sun behind us, I’m following the shadow of our aircraft as it glides swiftly against the lush canopy of greenery on Tioman Island.  I’m reminded of the shadow of a similar moving aircraft in the opening scenes of the 1996 award-winning romantic drama, The English Patient, where Ralph Fiennes as Count Laszlo Almasy, is flying away with the body of his dead lover, Katharine Clifton, played by Kristin Scott Thomas.  The shadow soon disappears as our aircraft makes a gradual descent and we land smoothly at Kampung Tekek Airport after a 45-minute flight from Johor Baru. 

Warm Welcome

Arrival at Kampung Tekek Airport, Tioman
The wonder of arriving at an island resort continues as I disembark from the aircraft to see Tunamaya staff, wearing green shirts, helping to ferry our luggage to the nearby jetty.  Instead of a Mr Roarke, resort manager Paul Cheah, welcomes us and echoes the words of Tattoo, “The plane! The plane!” with a laugh and leads us on a short walk from the airport to the jetty.  He tells us that we are the privileged few to experience the Tunamaya Air chartered flight that will be officially launched from Dec 20 to offer up to four charter flights per day to Tioman Island from Senai in Johor and Subang Skypark Terminal, Kuala Lumpur.

From the sky we go to the sea and the tide is high as we board the resort’s boat for a 30-minute cruise to the southern tip of the island where Tunamaya is situated.  The overhead sun is creating myriads of water prisms that sparkle like shiny diamonds on the sea surface as balmy breezes whip around us.  Paul is regaling us with traditional folklore, pointing to how the profile of Tioman Island resembles the outline of a dormant dragon with its green scales jutting out as rainforests, its gray claws in granite boulders and its horns are the twin peaks that form a majestic backdrop for Tunamaya.  Intrigued by the romance of local legends, my eyes search for the first sight of the resort which is guarded by twin peaks and built on the site where some location scenes for the 1958  Rogers & Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, was filmed.

Boarding the resort's boat for our cruise to Tunamaya
As we climb onto the jetty, a strolling guitarist is serenading a welcome but my eyes are riveted on the spectacular sight of the mystical twin peaks that soar above the resort’s private beach.  I can see why the movie-makers borrowed this view for location filming of blockbuster movies like South Pacific.  I spot the swimming pool to the left of the jetty and a sandy beach to the right with rocky outcrops in the receding tide.  As I accept a fresh coconut from serving staff, I decide to ignore the silky sand that has slipped into my shoes, but just sit back to sip my coconut juice and soak in the calm ambience, glad to have arrived in such a hassle-free journey – and gained more time to relax!

Chilling Out

Luxurious therapy room at Sarang Spa
Eager to surrender myself to the therapeutic touch of trained therapists, I make my appointment with Sarang Spa at the check-in and ahead of time, I walk up the hillock to the spa so there’s time to spare for a look around.  While the therapist is getting my hot ginger tea, I peek into several therapy rooms to see single and double luxurious rooms with verandah doors wide open to welcome vistas of the tropical rainforest.  The spa’s rustic beauty, mesmerizing music and the healing touch of the therapist work well to release the knots in my tired body and I’m reluctant to leave even when my session is over!

Infinity pool that overlooks the South China Sea
I remember drawing the curtains to shut out the glare in my villa and feeling sheer bliss when I open my eyes again, refreshed and ready for a dip.  The tide is out so I head to the swimming pool to do a few laps.  I’m glad I slapped on generous layers of sun block because the setting sun seems to be throwing bright beams my way.  With thick towels to cushion the deck chair, I find the most comfortable spot under the open umbrella to read the next few chapters in my thriller novel.

The stream that divides the beautiful landscaped garden
at Tunamaya Beach & Spa Resort


It didn’t take me long to discover why the resort has the tagline, “…between heaven and earth…”   Rows of wooden Rainforest Villas and Beach Villas are divided by a landscaped linear garden with matured trees and a stream which is teeming with fish.  Bathed in bright sunshine, it looks picture-postcard pretty as butterflies flit and bees buzz around the greenery.  

I can feel myself unwinding with the taste of briny air and the panoramic view of the South China Sea, dotted by distant ships sailing on the horizon.  I close my eyes, listening to the symphony of insects singing lustily in harmony with the rhythmic waves against the shore and I slowly drift away to a place somewhere between heaven and earth!  

Playing Hard

Warming exercises led by our escort, Ben [turquoise t-shirt]
This is the life – lazing around and indulging in delightful desserts and fresh seafood – but my friends and I agree to get active and we arrange with the resort recreational team to explore the nearby site.  Before starting our nature walk through the rainforest, Ben our escort, leads us in a few stretching exercises to limber up.  Along the upward path, he is pointing out various flora and fauna and we pause long enough to catch our breath before we press on in the 1-hour trek through undulating terrain.  I must admit that the experience is quite challenging but it’s all worthwhile when we reach the summit and sign into a log book to record our achievement.

Going snorkeling from the resort's jetty
Soaking in sweat and with limbs aching, we are back at Ombak Bar for drinks and the well informed bartender, who is creating my mocktail is telling me the list of fruity ingredients that go into the tall refreshing drink called “Heaven and Earth.”  After this brief break, it’s time for a cool dip and we head back to change into swimming togs before picking up snorkeling equipment from the resort’s dive centre.  The tide is high as we plunge into crystal clear water from the jetty to see schools of colourful fish, pretty live corals and some sea cucumbers.  From the sea we head to the poolside shower for a quick rinse before jumping into the pool with a splash!

A guest singer [Right] belting out a pop song
for our entertainment!
Our meals are served at Pawana Restaurant which also has a private dining room and an open terrace by the beach.  With the verandah doors thrown wide open and whirring fans above, we are more than happy to dine indoors from a buffet spread for breakfast and dinner and order from an ala carte menu for all-day meals.  At dinner, we dig into a range of freshly grilled seafood, shamelessly using our fingers to enjoy every morsel and indulge to our fill until we tell the barbecue chef to please stop serving up.  With live music entertainment and the occasional volunteer belting out a popular song, we chat late into the night enjoying the pleasure of good food and great company, cocooned in the charming ambience that’s uniquely Tunamaya.


Hotel

Tunamaya Beach & Spa Resort
Mukut, Tioman Island
Rompin, Pahang
Tel: 607 – 798 8108/798 8110
Fax: 607 – 798 8109
Reservations: rsvn@tunamayaresort.com 
Website: tunamayaresort.com

Getting There

Uninterrupted views of the South China Sea
A smooth and comfortable 45-minute flight from Sultan Ismail International Airport, Johor Baru or a 90-minute flight from Subang Skypark Terminal, Kuala Lumpur to Kg Tekek Airport, Tioman Island and a 30-minute cruise to the resort by the resort’s own boat

Tunamaya Air charter flights start from Dec 20 with daily flights on Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Sunday from Senai and Subang.  The All-Inclusive luxury 3-Day 2-Nights and 4-Day 3-Nights Packages includes return flights, accommodation Tunamaya Beach & Spa Resort, all meals at Pawana Restaurant, free-flow of non-alcoholic beverages at Ombak Bar and spa treatment at Sarang Spa. 

Accommodation

Cluster of 54 well-appointed Rainforest and Beachfront Villas with balconies

Main Attraction

Hassle-free direct trip to and from the resort in an all-inclusive package stay

First Impression

Laid-back charm

Overall Service

Friendly and attentive

F&B Outlets

Pawana Restaurant, Ombak Bar and poolside kiosk

Facilities

Swimming pools, Sarang Spa, Dive Centre for diving and snorkeling activities, nature walks; Boat transfers, local tours, convenience shop, laundry, internet room and free Wifi in the lobby

Places Within Walking Distance

Private beach with panoramic views of the South China Sea


From Perhentian to Tioman

Twin peaks guards Tunamaya Beach & Spa Resort
Tunamaya Beach & Spa Resort has a sister property in Tuna Bay Island Resort on the south-west coast of Pulau Perhentian Besar.  When the owners were looking to invest in another property, they flew around Tioman Island and when they spotted the twin peaks, they found their site!  It looked so mystical in the moving clouds that they decided to use the word, “Maya” and coined the resort’s name, Tunamaya.

Applying their experience from Tuna Bay, they built Tunamaya two years ago at the site where some location scenes for the 1958 Rogers & Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, was filmed.  The resort is designed around the terrain to preserve the natural habitats in the rainforest and the nature walk was built by forest rangers.  The resort’s water supply is drawn from a natural spring and treated before it is ready to drink.  Aware that well-heeled visitors expect a level of comfort, the well-appointed air-conditioned villas are equipped with quality amenities like bathrobes, slippers, daily complimentary drinking water (from the natural spring!), electric safe, hair dryer, cable TV channels and umbrellas.  

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 20 November 2014

Traders' Weekend Brunch

Sou Chef, Lee Keen Suan, with a section of the
Weekend Brunch buffet at the Lobby Lounge


As more visitors are coming to Nusajaya to enjoy the themepark attractions and professionals are also there to consult at various business developments, many are choosing to stay with Traders Hotel, Puteri Harbour.  

After serious work and play, most guests prefer a late start on weekends and very often they rise after the breakfast hours and miss out on the sumptuous spread.  Now Executive Chef Alan Wong and his culinary team have successfully turned the disappointment of guests who prefer late starts in the weekend, into sheer joy.

Scrambled Eggs topped with Lump Fish Caviar



On Saturday and Sunday, Weekend Brunch is served at the Lobby Lounge from 11.30am all the way to 3pm so that guests can savour a leisurely meal of a hearty late breakfast that spills over to lunch.  In-house guests are particularly pleased with this dining option as it compliments their pursuit of pleasure and restful retreat here.  This dining option in the comfort of the lounge adds to their weekend fun as they are only steps away from the swimming pool and their rooms.

“I want guests to enjoy quality rather than quantity,” said Wong as he introduced the elegant buffet with a choice of high-value ingredients in the salads and appetizers, pastries and desserts as well as Japanese sushi and maki rolls, fresh fruits and even a cheese board with a selection of quality cheeses to savour with crackers.  

Pastry Chef, Zuwairi Shuaib, with some of
his favourite desserts
Working closely with Sou Chef, Lee Keen Suan, to serve the freshest quality ingredients in the spread, Wong assures guests that the buffet menu will change regularly.  Besides helping themselves from the buffet, a menu of main course items is provided for guests to place their order so that their choices will be served freshly made.

“I recommend our choice of either Poached Eggs with Hollandaise Sauce or Scrambled Eggs topped with Lump Fish Caviar,” said Wong who understands that eggs are a breakfast staple.  On top of enjoying the food varieties in the buffet spread, each guest is also welcome to pick an item from the menu that will be prepared and served warm from the kitchen.  While items on this menu will be changed regularly, guests can pick from meat selections like Lamb Chop with mashed potato and grilled tomato or Beef Tenderloin with mashed potato, carrots and natural jus, and fish choices of Grilled Sea Bass Fillet or Grilled Salmon with lemon on mash, fennel and balsamic reduction sauce.

A choice of cheese and crackers to savour
 with Prosecco sparkling white wine
The salad and appetizer spread includes the chef’s creations of Seared Angus Beef Sirloin Steak Salad with caramelized onion, feta cheese and grilled asparagus, Blackened Chicken with berry compote and greens, King Salmon on gravlax with capers and dill herbs, Beetroot Carpaccio with goat’s cheese and other antipasti.  

Besides a range of elegantly cut fresh fruits, Pastry Chef, Zuwairi Shuaib, is having fun in creating an array of favourite desserts to sweeten the start of the day.  Guests will find his creations in mousses, creams, flans, tarts, cakes and crumbles, simply irresistible!

The Weekend Brunch is served from 11.30am to 3pm on Saturday and Sunday, at RM65++ per adult and RM210++ with free-flow of Prosecco, Italian sparkling white wine, every weekend till end Dec 2014.  The Lobby Lounge is on level 1 of Traders Hotel Puteri Harbour in Nusajaya.  Reservations are recommended.  Tel: 607 – 560 8888 or email: restaurantreservations.thph@tradershotels.com

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 18 Nov 2014

Brussels for mussels and more

Facade of Brussels Beer Cafe at the Little Red Cube
Nick and his wife June asked me to dine with them at Brussels Beer Café.  It’s been a while since we met and I’m looking forward to seeing them again.  Their choice of restaurant rings a bell because I remember passing it on the promenade or lower ground floor of the Little Red Cube.  Then I discover that since it opened for business 10 months ago, Brussels Beer Café has become a favourite spot for regulars to chill out with friends over good food and a wide range of beers!

Brussels Beer Café is an established brand in the North so fans will be delighted to know that this is the chain’s first outlet in Johor Baru (with plans to open more!) in an ideal spot that overlooks the marina at Puteri Harbour.  

Half-portion of crispy pork knuckle with a side of brown sauce
Even though it’s a short drive from the city to Nusajaya, the lovely view and ambiance by night all works well to create a feeling like we are in some exotic holiday destination.  Maybe it’s because of the mixed group seated around us, with fast-emptying glasses and plates, who clearly agree that this is just the spot to relax and retreat from the pressures of city life.

Nick and June are looking well and as we catch up on what’s happening, Nick introduces me to his friends, Dave Lim and Hubert Lim (no relation!) the gentlemen who run Brussels Beer Café.  Talking is making us thirsty so Dave recommends a choice of beers from their 32 types of bottled and on-tap beers.  

Bitterballen, a savoury Dutch appetizer at Brussels Beer Cafe
The Hoegaarden White brew is a familiar favourite but Dave insists that the Hoegaarden Rosee comes highly recommended.  Just one gulp of the frothy pint and I can attest to its popularity because it’s lower alcohol content (about 3%) and refreshing, sweet fruity raspberry taste, is really rather nice.

Then we are studying the menu to select our meals to share because I’m ever ready to have a taste of more varieties of food.  We must of course, have the Brussels’ style pork knuckle with a side of brown sauce.  Our half portion of crispy roasted pork knuckle is nicely chopped up and served mixed with sautéed potatoes and mushrooms – and tastes so good on its own that I did not need any dip sauce.  The crackling is super crisp and a perfect foil for the juicy meat and the tender taste of potatoes and mushrooms. 

Mussels Provencale in a pot with a side of bread slices
We pick a popular appetizer – Bitterballen, a savoury Dutch meat-based snack.  This serving of crispy breaded balls are made with a blend of mince pork and cheese and served with a mustard dip. 

Brussels is also the place for mussels.  Fans can enjoy their favourite mussels prepared in various flavours with white wine or beer, served either in half or whole portions.  We decide on a pot of mussels prepared in the Provencale style – cooked with bacon, sundried tomatoes, mixed herbs and wine – served with a side of bread or fries.  These plump Dutch mussels taste fresh and juicy as we shamelessly dig in with our fingers to savour the tasty gravy to the very last drop!

A serving of Brussels' foot-long sausage
For sausage fans, the Brussels’ Foot-long Sausage is a must-try.  As its name describes, it is a foot-long sausage garnished with lashings of mustard and garlic aioli sauce, served on a toasted baguette with a side of salad and frites – the French way of saying French fries.  Dave says these sausages are very popular with regulars who often enjoy an entire sausage individually, as a main course meal! 

He told us an interesting experience where a large group of diners placed orders for foot-long sausages all around and wanted them served together.  This posed quite a challenge as multiple servings of the same item require advance preparation but the kitchen somehow managed it.  And now to avoid disappointment and to lessen the stress in the kitchen, Dave recommends advance orders especially for larger groups of diners.

Chunks of roast pork in the Roast Pork Aglio Olio pasta
Then we are sampling the braised Pork Belly which June kindly sliced up for us.  The meat is fragrant with Fransizkanar sauce, a delicious flavour that complements the side of sautéed vegetables and Belgian stoemp.  This stoemp is the richer Brussels version of mashed potatoes mixed with root vegetables like carrots and onions, bacon, herbs and spices.  I must say that I more than like this dish and made a mental note to order it again when I’m next at Brussels Beer Café.

For pasta, our choice is Roast Pork Aglio Olio and I’m delighted to observe that the chunks of roast pork are reminiscent of the siew yoke from the traditional Chinese char siew – siew yoke stalls.  It’s really quite an extraordinary experience to enjoy pasta with Chinese style siew yoke!  

Chef Kong presents a platter of Pork Belly
Then Dave introduces us to Executive Chef Kong, the man who ensures that food quality standards are maintained to the Brussels Beer Café requirements.  Food is flying out of the kitchen to be served to eagerly anticipating customers, so Chef Kong has to hurry back to his work station. 

I know Nick and June are enjoying the meal as much as I am because we somehow manage to tuck away our portion of Belgian Classic Liege Salad, Brussels Chicken and Salmon Ala Meuniere.  Another peek in the menu tells me that there is also a range of appetizers and soups, and main course dishes like beef steaks, lamb chops and burgers to enjoy.  Having discovered more reasons to dine here again, I’m so glad Nick and June asked me to dine with them at Brussels.

Then it’s time for dessert and I always have space for dessert.  At first, I think it’s a toss-up among the Crème Brulee, Chocolate Brownie and Tiramisu but when I sample them, I find myself reaching for the Tiramisu again and again.  In the end, I must declare that Brussels’ Tiramisu wins hands down!

Mmm... delicious Tiramisu at Brussels Beer Cafe!
View of Puteri Harbour from Brussels Beer Cafe in Nusajaya, Johor
Brussels Beer Café, a Non-Halal restaurant, has outlets in various malls in Kuala Lumpur like Jaya One, Hap Seng, Ampang, Solaris Mon’t Kiara, Sunway Pyramid, Setia Walk and at Gurney Paragon in Penang.  Its first outlet in JB is in Nusajaya, located at Lot 5, Lower Ground Floor of the Little Red Cube, Persiaran Puteri Selatan in Puteri Harbour.  Reservations are recommended.  Tel: 607 – 5095 626.  Website: www.brusselsbeercafe.com


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Pepper & Gambier Heritage

Ancient seal of the Gambier & Pepper Society that
features Jawi and Chinese characters and the
pepper and gambier motif [Right]
If you are in Johor, you cannot miss seeing the iconic motif of intertwined sprigs of pepper and gambier plants used consistently throughout the state on royal regalia, official crests and as part of the decor on public buildings and lamp-posts along the expressways.  Invitation cards and souvenir programmes for official events and print material from the Johor royal household often carry a similar motif. 

This pepper and gambier motif is used so consistently as a state icon that its significance may inadvertently be lost and many do not know how the cultivation of these crops contributed to Johor’s economic progress.  That’s why the Johor Baru Chinese Heritage Museum embarked on a project to present the historical importance of these two crops in an exhibition on gambier and pepper entitled, Sharing of Hardships, now on till 18 Sept 2015.

Archive photo of gambier cubes drying in the sun [Right] while a supervisor [wearing white top] oversees a worker
at a gambier farm in Johor in the 1800s
Pepper and gambier have earned a place of honour in Johor because their widespread cultivation played a vital role to boost the state’s economy in the 1800’s.  With Europe as a major market, the peak of the gambier trade lasted from the 1830s to 1850s when Johor was the world’s largest producer of gambier.  Before the invention of chemical dyes, the juice from gambier leaves was widely used for leather tanning and cloth dyeing.  This industry put Johor on the world map and brought wealth to the local community. 

Tan Chai Puan sharing his knowledge at the Johor Baru
Chinese Heritage Museum
The introduction of pineapple canning in 1888 resulted in the expansion of the pineapple industry in Johor and the rapid development of the motorcar industry sparked off a very high demand for rubber.  By the early 20th century, gambier was replaced by pineapple and rubber as the most important plantation crops in this region and with the development of chemical industries, the demand for gambier ceased and the plants virtually disappeared.  While we still have pepper plantations here, there are hardly any gambier plants and not many Johoreans know what gambier is or have ever seen a gambier plant.

The History

At the museum I meet Johor cultural activist, Tan Chai Puan, who declared, “This was probably the most beautiful part of Johor’s history.”  He explained the Chinese phrase for the exhibition title, Sharing of Hardships, and described how the pioneers of JB shared bitter and sweet experiences through their hardship in unity as they successfully built the State’s economy literally from the ground up.  From documents he has seen in the Johor Archives, Tan suggested that Johor probably has the longest history of the 1Malaysia-concept because the Chinese and Malay communities in Johor shared a strong relationship since the 1800s.

Old map of Johor showing rivers and kangchu settlements
marked in dots (1849) and squares (1859) with shaded
areas that indicate holdings owned by Tan Hiok Nee in 1874
Back then, gambier plantations in Singapore and the Riau Islands were successfully run by Chinese and Malay farmers.  After being cultivated for 10 to 15 years the land around Kranji and Sembawang in Singapore was exhausted and infertile.  So when Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim invited them to move to Johor to open the land for new plantations, the Chinese were ready to relocate.  Immigrant Chinese with a strong pioneering spirit were attracted to the prospect of huge tracts of land, just waiting for them to clear for cultivation of pepper and gambier under the kangchu or River Lord system.  Under this administration, planters who arrived from Riau and Singapore obtained a permit known as, surat sungai, from the ruler. 

A list of kangchu locations in Johor
in the 1800s
In the kangchu system, the River Lords could collect taxes and govern Chinese communities in their areas along the rivers.  The permit holders were called kangchu’s or River Lords while kang means “river” in Teochew dialect, and a kangkar is the disembarking point, usually its middle or upper reaches along the river. 

Not long after Iskandar Petrie, (JB’s former name) was established in 1855, the Chinese accepted Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim’s permits to establish plantations in Johor and they started to arrive by cargo-carrying barges or tongkang through Sungai Segget or Segget River.  The Teochew clan was the dominant Chinese clan who made Johor their new home and they settled in designated areas to cultivate pepper and gambier plantations in the kangchu system. 

At that time Iskandar Petrie was just a frontier outpost with a few huts occupied by fishermen and charcoal-makers near the river.  It was surrounded by jungle and mangrove forests and a flagpole flying the Johor flag near a police post on a hill represented the presence of a government.  Its capital, Tanjung Puteri, was situated at a coastal site that had the most convenient boat access to Singapore – opposite the end of Bukit Timah Road in Singapore.

I remember seeing some of the sultan’s hunting trophies preserved in the former Royal Abu Bakar Museum, in Istana Gardens, and this gives me an idea of the types and sizes of wild animals that once roamed the dense Johor jungles.  Besides being confronted by wild animals such as elephants and tigers, immigrants lost lives to strange diseases and the harsh environment as they braved physical challenges to clear the jungles and open up land through the rivers into Johor’s interior.  

The Exhibition

Black and White pepper exhibits
I have never seen a gambier plant but dried gambier cubes are displayed in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum along with a gambier plant cutter and a hook used to grab sacks of processed gambier.  This is all I’ve seen but six months ago, the museum initiated a project to find out more about gambier cultivation and processing to set up an interesting and informative exhibition here.  The teams from the museum made two visits to Indonesia where they discovered that farmers are still using traditional methods with very little mechanization in the process to harvest, boil young gambier leaves, press them to extract juice and dry the juice concentrate before it is shaped into a block, cake or cube form.

Gambier is a tropical shrub that can grow up to about 2 meters in height and has oval shaped leaves that can grow up to 8 or 14 cm in length.  In plantations, pepper and gambier plants were usually planted together as these plants share a symbiotic relationship and tend to grow entwined around each other.  The remains of gambier leaves on the ground act as nutrients or fertilizers for pepper plants while protecting the pepper plant roots.  Plantations in Johor sold their gambier to businessmen in Singapore, the main centre for trade in collecting and exporting the gambier produce, until the dawn of the 20th century.  When Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim was succeeded by Sultan Abu Bakar, he continued his father’s legacy in developing Johor into a thriving metropolis. 

Cubes of gambier laid out to dry on trays, the traditional way
Tan, who is also the Administrative Director and Head of the Art Gallery in Southern University College, said that he read archive documents on how Teochew leader, Tan Hiok Nee, was appointed Kapitan Cina by the sultan to collect taxes from gambier planters.  As wealth poured into the state coffers, Chinese planters gave gambier its nickname, gam mi (Mandarin) or “golden honey.”  With pepper and gambier as Johor’s main economy crops, traders formed a Gambier & Pepper Society.  When I look closer at the society’s ancient seal, I see a design with Jawi and Chinese characters and I believe the present day iconic pepper and gambier motif was probably inspired by this original design.

This rare gambier plant is growing at the museum!

The legacy of the cultivation of pepper and gambier and the economic development of Johor is carefully persevered in the JB Chinese Heritage Museum.  Now the Sharing of Hardships exhibition provides more insight into the history of Chinese-Malay relationships that undergirds the strong support between the Johor sultanate and the Chinese community today.  So the next time you pass a lamp-post designed with the pepper and gambier motif or saw it on other Johor emblems, you know how these humble plants earned its place of honour in this state.  And when you visit the museum, don’t miss the chance to see a rare gambier plant cultivated in a jar at the museum’s rear entrance!

Fast Facts

The JB Chinese Heritage Museum at 42, Jalan Ibrahim, Johor Baru, is accessible from two entrances at Jalan Ibrahim (front) and Jalan Tan Hiok Nee (rear).  It is open daily from 9am to 5pm and closed on Monday.  For group tours and enquiries, Tel: 607 – 2249 633, Fax: 607 – 2249 635 or email: heritage_museumjb@jb-tionghua.org.my

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 13 November 2014