A lot of travel guidebooks tell you it’s worth stopping at Kluang railway station for a coffee, but they don’t tend to go into the history of this place, which goes back almost 80 years.
We got lucky with a coffee connection made in Kuala Lumpur when we met local lad Ony, who insisted we stop off on our way south towards Johor because he knows the owners of the Station cafe.
This meant we not only got to try the coffee experience in Kluang, but were also shown around by Chiang Lim Jit, one of the family members whose grandfather set up the station café all those years ago.
It’s a fantastic story, involving immigrant workers from Hainan in China, who came to Malaysia mainly to work for the Brits, whose army camp was nearby. The Hainanese had great culinary skills, and part of that involved making the coffee.
It’s intriguing, mind you, to wonder what happened a couple of years after they opened up shop when the Japanese rampaged their way through these parts: did the station café remain open? Did the Japanese even drink coffee? We didn’t get time to ask these questions, so if anybody knowns anything, do let us know…
The coffee they use here used to be grown just two stations up the line, but is now sourced a little further away nearer to Johor. It’s still a quality Liberica bean, though.
This is no ‘third wave’ artisan coffee shop in the modern western sense of the word, however. And we didn’t really get to see exactly how the coffee is prepared: the staff were so in awe of Chiang’s techniques when he turned up, that he was hidden from view as the waiters all huddled around him to watch.
We could see it involved pouring the coffee from a great height, though, or was it just the water being poured over the coffee beans or powder? In any case, the result is what is known as a traditional coffee (as opposed to your espresso or more modern ‘pourover’) and you have the option of black, with sweetened milk or with evaporated milk.
It’s a strong, rich coffee, and it’s very very popular round these parts. The café was full shortly after it reopened for the afternoon at 2.30pm (yes, they close for lunch!), and we were told its regulars include Singapore border officials who think it’s worth hopping on the train up for a cuppa, and the Sultan of Johor, who has been known to arrive driving his own private train to get here.
It’s also hard to know what exactly goes in the rather tasty toasty things they serve up to have with your coffee. There’s a secret family recipe to their kaya, which comes on toast or steamed, but is basically roasted sugar and butter – it is delicious!
There’s talk of developing the railway through here, making it a fast track across Asia and pulling down the railway station building. The family have opened up other coffee shops round Kluang, but we think the original place is a fantastic piece of history they surely have to preserve: the kitchen is still in the same position it was 78 years ago, as is most of the seating area; the only major change since 1938 is that the owners no longer sleep on-site waiting for the first train to pull through in the mornings.
Sadly, because the train departures from Kluang are so few and far between, we had to transfer to the bus for our onward journey south; now that’s something they could do to improve travellers’ access to this wonderful café in Kluang…
We found a fantastic coffee shop in Johor Bahru. My Liberica has a good story of its own, too.
It’s run by four brothers, who each have a different role in the business, one focusing on the coffee plantation where they grow their own Liberica beans, one leading on the roasting side of things, one doing the marketing, and the fourth keeping an overall eye on the business.
The great part of this story was that to start up their coffee business the brothers had to persuade their father to swap part of his palm plantation over to coffee, and if you’ve been to Malaysia you’ll know how hard that must have been, with hectare after hectare of land now covered with palm oil trees as far as the eye can see.
It’s especially exciting because the liberica bean represents a mere 2% of total worldwide coffee production, and it’s certainly not a bean I’d come across before hitting south east Asia.
My Liberica has the feel of a western style artisan coffee shop, with lots of choices of how dark you like the roast, how you like your coffee prepared and which bean or blend you want. They even do the infamous civet luwak, which we’d seen on the road since Vietnam, but avoided trying.
And best of all is the My Liberica philosophy: “It’s OK to enjoy or dislike your coffee how your palate prefers; a coffee can be a matter of compatibility or fate.”
We chose a cappuccino made to perfection on their Marzocco machine, while the barista fiddled around with syphons and flames for someone else that morning. This is the kind of coffee shop we’d return to day after day if we lived in Johor Bahru and we’d love one day to visit their coffee plantation…
It’s not an easy coffee shop to get to, mind you, with no public transport within a mile of the place, so we had to get a taxi to and from the Taman Molek area, but we tried another coffee shop right in the centre of Johor and didn’t like it nearly as much. So if you’re anywhere near Malaysia’s second city, get yourself to My Liberica for a fantastic coffee experience.
Of course, there’s also that new coffee shop opened up by the guy we’d heard about who used to be based in Kuala Lumpur. We managed to miss the soft opening of Atlas Coffee Embassy by a few days, and he was opening up properly a week or so after our visit. But this means the choices for coffee in Johor Bahru are good ones.
We can’t leave Malaysia, though, without a mention for our favourite place for breakfast in Johor Bahru. Hua Mui (on the corner of Jalan Trus and Jalan Dhoby) has been around for decades, but the original owner’s granddaughter is still in charge.
You’ll get a fabulous egg toast with a rich milky cup of tea for next to nothing here, and you’ll feel most welcome as one of the few westerners among a crowd of locals.
The way they prepare the tea reminded us of the Kluang coffee maker, with the kettle held way up high and poured deftly into our cups from about 6 feet up – it’s apparently another Hainanese family doing things the Hainan way.
It’s the usual sweetened milk and it probably isn’t the best quality tea, but it’s a fabulous experience and our top tip of all in Johor Bahru.
We returned there a second time, by which we were recognised and made even more welcome by the staff, before we embarked on the lengthy and arduous border crossing into Singapore by bus, but that’s another story…