Laksa Johor made with ikan parang is a rare find. Peggy Loh relishes Nelly Cafe’s popular fare
AT last, there’s a cafe in Johor Baru offering Laksa Johor made with ikan parang or wolf herring (Cantonese: sai toh yue).
Before opening the cafe, Saphia Nazreen Abd Hamid, better known as Nelly, a former banker with a passion for cooking and baking, had a successful home catering business.
In the last five years, Nelly and her husband, Nasser found that her mother’s Laksa Johor was the most in demand. This also increased their confidence to do more and it was just a matter of time before Nelly’s Cafe was opened.
There are no short-cuts to creating the rich gravy that makes all the difference in an authentic Laksa Johor. Nelly’s mother, Ramah Suki, is the chief cook who prepares each batch of gravy from fresh ingredients, including ikan parang.
While other types of laksa are made with rice vermicelli or noodles in curry gravy, Laksa Johor is created with spaghetti. Laksa Johor is associated with the Johor royal family as legend has it that when Sultan Abu Bakar visited Italy, he liked spaghetti bolognese so much that when the sultan returned to Johor, he told his chef to modify the recipe with spicy fish gravy. So Laksa Johor was then served only at special ceremonies and Hari Raya celebrations.
Nelly Cafe’s Laksa Johor in fragrant ikan parang fish gravy (RM12.90) is topped with raw cucumber curls, slivers of onion, bean sprouts, chopped fragrant leaves and a sprinkle of crunchy chai poh or preserved turnip. The spicy gravy is poured over these ingredients and served with a dollop of freshly-made sambal belacan and slices of fresh lime for an added kick!
Cekodok (RM5.90) is a firm family favourite and Nelly’s auty Emma Suki, my ex-class mate, fondly recalls how they enjoyed eating these fried fritters made by her mother on rainy afternoons. As I sink my teeth into this snack with a sweet chili dip sauce, I share her nostalgia as I savour bits of anchovies, yellow onions, carrot and cabbage in each bite.
I do not refuse when I’m offered Rojak Petis (RM4.90) — a local vegetable salad tossed in rich prawn paste — or Gado-Gado. This is an Indonesian salad made with bean-curd cubes, boiled egg slices, long beans, cabbage, tempe (dried soy bean cake), cucumber, bean sprouts and rice cubes, drizzled with peanut sauce and topped with crispy crackers.
Maybe I’m being greedy but I want both. These salads may be shared or eaten as a meal.
The cafe serves an All-Day menu with breakfast staples like toast, half-boiled eggs and local favourites such as Nasi Lemak with standard condiments (RM6.90) or with fried chicken (RM10.40). There is also a range of fried rice and noodles as well as white rice with a choice of gravies.
Popular Johor dishes include Lemak Chili Api with chicken (RM10.90) or prawns (RM12.90) cooked in a fiery gravy, rich with coconut milk and served with white rice. Another favourite comfort food is Soto Madura or chicken soup with begerdil (potato and meat patty) in a choice of nasi impit (rice cubes) or rice vermicelli (RM9.90), savoured with a side of spicy dark sauce.
Ramah also learnt to make a mean serving of Mee Kolo (RM9.90) — dry-tossed noodles topped with a choice of chicken or beef char-siew — in a delicious dark sauce. Served with a garlic-chilli dip and a side of clear soup, this is among the popular dishes.
While most are local favourites, there are also Burgers (RM14.50), Spaghetti Bolognese (RM15.50), Lamb Chop (RM19.50) and Grilled or Fried Chicken Chop (RM18.00) in a choice of black pepper or mushroom sauces.
As I sip my Limau Asam Boi (RM4.50), Nelly tells me that refreshing drinks like three-layer Sirap Bandung (RM6.00) and three-layer Tea (RM5.00), are among their best-sellers. Feeling satisfied with the familiar taste of their family recipes, I’m just glad that I don’t have to wait for Hari Raya to savour their family’s Laksa Johor again!
Nelly’s Cafe (Halal)
WHERE: SC2.2 Ground floor Angsana Johor Baru Mall
Pusat Bandar Tampoi
Johor Baru, Johor
Tel: 019 - 7766 811
OPENING HOURS: Daily 10am to 10pm
GETTING THERE: Easy access to Angsana Johor Baru Mall from JB city via Jalan Skudai and Jalan Tun Abdul Razak and from the North-South Expressway, Pasir Gudang Highway and Second Link from Singapore
WHAT’S COOKING: Johor Malay food
MUST TRY: Laksa Johor, Lemak Cili Padi, Soto Madura, Rojak and Cekodok
YOU’LL PAY: No service and GST charges
ATMOSPHERE: Sidewalk cafe in shopping mall
Child’s high chair
No credit card facilities
THE LOO: Common toilets in the mall
SERVICE English-speaking staff
OVERALL VERDICT: Go give it a try