EVERYONE appreciates a good meal. It gets even better when you can see how it's grown, harvested and cooked. Follow PEGGY LOH as she takes off on the Johor Agro Food Trail.
JUST a few steps into the dark and damp narrow corridor are tall shelves stacked tightly with neat rows of pod-like grow bags. Packed with highly enriched soil, each of these hold a pale-looking plant.
In the dimly-lit room, I see dust motes dancing in spears of sunlight and can't help feeling a bit like Sigourney Weaver in the film Aliens, surrounded by pods in a gloomy cave.
In the distance, I hear the buzz of excited voices. From three buses, some 130 people emerge, all armed with great appetites to start the Johor Agro food trail from Johor Baru to Batu Pahat.
I quickly emerge from the greenhouse to join Baby Liew and Alice Sung, the coordinators responsible for bringing in this enthusiastic group from across the Causeway.
I am joining them on a one-day tour of the mushroom farm in Kempas Lama and to Yong Peng to visit a noodle factory and for local food products.
After a light lunch of sweet potato congee, we head to Sri Medan to sample telur pindang, a uniquely Johor tradition before going to observe how bird's nests are harvested and packed. Finally, we're going to a rubber and oil palm smallholding for kampung cooking and fresh fruit.
Naturally low in calories, free of sodium, fats and cholesterol, oyster mushrooms are organically cultivated in Azmi Buang's Mushroom Biotech farm in Kampung Sinaran Baru, Kempas.
Two years ago, Azmi opened his mushroom farm to visitors and he successfully showed how these nutritious oyster mushrooms can be enjoyed in our modern diet - in soups, stirfried in different recipes or deepfried in a light batter.
We start our day with a typical Malaysian breakfast of nasi lemak served with a spicy egg sambal, crispy ikan bilis, crunchy peanuts, fried chicken and the specialty of the day, a generous helping of fried mushrooms.
At the Ecolite Biotech Manufacturing plant in Jalan Yong Peng in Sri Medan, we go for an informative walk through a corridor that replicates a swiftlet farmhouse complete with sound effects. This is to help us understand how Ecolite adopts good manufacturing practices in harvesting bird's nests.
One side of the corridor has glass panel walls that allow visitors to observe the staff preparing and packing bird's nests in a safe and hygienically clean environment. Those interested in the products can sample and buy them in the showroom.
Those who have never seen telur pindang before are always fascinated and eager to shell the eggs and sample them. The tasty hard-boiled eggs are cooked for at least three days with various herbs and spices that turn the shell a dark brown colour, the egg white to a light brown hue and, when split in half, the yolk shines with a golden glow.
Telur pindang is usually presented to guests as bunga telur on special occasions like Malay weddings and, because of its elaborate preparation, unique appearance and taste, guests often refuse to leave until they receive these exotic eggs! For over 50 years, the Tang family has been making wheat and rice noodles at Yong Peng Mee Hock Chew, a traditional noodle factory located just off the main road through Yong Peng.
While visitors are busy making their selections of freshly-made Hock Chew noodles and yee mee in the front hall, workers in the back room demonstrate the traditional way to knead flour.
Seated astride a thick pole anchored to the wall, they bounce a mound of dough to flatten it evenly.
Properly kneaded, the dough is then passed through rollers before they are cut into broad or fine noodles and then cooked and packed for sale.
In Kampung Sri Wangi near Yong Peng, we enjoy a buffet of kampung dishes made with fresh produce like sweet potatoes, tapioca, herbs, vegetables and fruit grown in the rubber and oil palm small-holding.
Some of us are thrilled at the opportunity to taste traditional local delicacies like fried slices of sweet potatoes, steamed chunks of tapioca topped with spicy sambal, kuih keria (sweet potato doughnuts), cone shaped kuih koci (glutinous rice flour cakes stuffed with grated coconut in brown sugar), and pengat labu (a dessert of pumpkin in coconut milk sweetened with gula melaka).
We also get refreshing pineapple juice to drink and slices of fresh jackfruit on ice while huge piles of red and yellow rambutan are also quickly polished off.
Under shady oil palms, there are pineapples, sweet potatoes, tapioca, mangosteen and rambutan for sale but the crowd seems to gravitate toward the durians. The kampung variety is an instant hit with connoisseurs who make a beeline for the gorgeous King of Fruits and wasted no time in eating their fill.
Only when they finish do they take a look at the other types of fruits. At the end of our satisfying gastronomical trip on this fascinating Johor food trail, we all leave with full stomachs and bags of local products.
Surrounded by a rich agro hinterland, Batu Pahat is 126 kms from Johor Baru city and is also known as Bandar Penggaram or simply, "BP".
Located conveniently close to the North-South Highway, Yong Peng is an ideal rest stop not only to stretch your muscles but also to exercise your mouth with a range of Hock Chew food specialties.
Local attractions in and around Yong Peng, Muar and Batu Pahat are favourite destinations for Johor Agro Tours and fun and fascinating tours can be tailored to specific requirements.
To arrange your own Agro experience in Johor, just contact the tour coordinator at 012-381 0913 or 019-783 3382.