THE cafe is quiet except for the clanking of utensils and the intermittent whirr of the blender whenever a customer places an order for a smoothie. There’s not even any music emanating from a discreetly placed stereo, unlike in most cafes. The peaceful ambiance is perfect, especially for those wanting to contemplate the meaning of life in a cosy setting.
What’s even more delightful is the lovely smell of herbs wafting in the air from a modest “garden corner” at one end of the cafe, near the full-length window.
As I make my way towards a chiller filled with a range of delectable cakes, I’m stopped by a friendly-looking gentleman clad in a simple collared T-shirt over a pair of casual pants.
“Are you from NST?” he queries. I nod and he offers his hand in a gentle handshake. The affable stranger is Teo Peng Chai, owner of JQK (Juniors, Queen and King) F&B, where I’m planning to have my dinner this evening.
This simple little eatery in Taman Dahlia, Batu Pahat, Johor, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in sleepy Batu Pahat, is housed in Tanjung Square, a new shop lot painted riotously in red and white.
Its location, slightly on the outskirts, provides welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the town. The cafe is on the first floor so you must climb a flight of stairs to reach it. Meanwhile, a small sign by the entrance informs customers to take off their shoes before entering the premises, as one would when entering someone’s home.
“I chose to have the cafe upstairs because it provides privacy and people can enjoy their food in peace. Imagine if we had it downstairs where people can walk in and out easily. I don’t feel comfortable with that. And it’s safer upstairs too,” explains Teo, smiling.
Leading me towards the oversized window at the other end of the cafe where the hanging pots of strawberries and a multitude of small herbaceous plants are, Teo shares that all the plants are organically cultivated by him. Enthusiastically, he proceeds to explain the benefits of each herb in his possession and even plucks some out for me to try. The peppermint leaf leaves a fresh minty note on my tongue while another magically helps relieve my slightly congested nose.
Not having a green finger myself, I’m duly awed.
“It’s not that complicated to plant them,” says Teo, chuckling. “All you need is a little patience and the willingness to work hard.” Fingering one of the potted herbs, Teo shares that he doesn’t use any pesticide and spends time to manually weed his garden patches. It’s time consuming but he’s happy to do it as he can get healthier crops.
His eyes dancing, Teo confides that he also uses worm castings or worm poop to fertilise the plants. Noticing my look of bewilderment, he swiftly enlightens that worm casting is the best natural fertiliser as it contains more nutrients than other manure. It’s the byproduct of compost worms and scientifically, has been proven to lock in heavy metals. “Best of all, it has no smell!” he exclaims.
Using this natural fertiliser has enabled him to recondition his soil so that it can be used to plant other crops. It’s the most sustainable way of gardening, says this former educator. The process is slow, he confesses, but at least it is sustainable and most importantly, what he produces is healthier for consumption.
Worm castings, explains Teo, are rich in nutrients and a single teaspoon can provide enough organic plant nutrients to feed a 15cm potted plant for more than two months. “It’s a slow releasing fertiliser and inexpensive to produce. It allows me to maintain lower prices for the meals I cook here,” he elaborates.
SIMPLE AND HOME COOKED
In addition to having green fingers, the soft-spoken Teo is also a fantastic cook.
“I love cooking and I cook all the meals here and at home,” he confides, sheepishly. The cafe has only been open for three months but the reviews have been encouraging. What makes it different is its singular set meal, which changes daily.
“What goes on the menu for the day is highly dependent on what’s available in my garden,” shares Teo, adding: “So customers won’t know what they’ll get until they come over.” This element of surprise makes for a delightful change from the usual cafe proceedings.
On the menu today is a blue pea infused rice with curry chicken and stir-fried pumpkin. This pretty-as-a-picture dish, served in brown clay crockery akin to those plates you use for potted plants, is a simple affair by most standards but tastes absolutely divine. The rustic charm certainly makes for Instagram-worthy pictures.
The curry isn’t spicy as Teo reveals that his son, who handles the smoothie side of the cafe, doesn’t like spicy food.“What and how I cook here is exactly what and how I cook for my family at home,” he confides. “I normally get my family to taste the food first. If they don’t like it, I make sure it doesn’t get on the menu.”
Served with the simple meal is a warm bowl of peanut soup that Teo tells me has been boiled with lemongrass. It’s also vegetarian-friendly as there’s no meat in the broth. It is slightly savoury and reminiscent of my mum’s cooking and I slurp it down with much enthusiasm.
One of the items that fascinates me is the pot of hot blue pea and peppermint tea concoction that Teo’s wife serves after my meal. The bluish purplish drink is minty and refreshing. “Blue pea has no taste. It only gives off a beautiful colour. That’s why I added peppermint to it,” explains Teo. Blue pea, he adds, has many health benefits. “It can help to strengthen your eyesight. That’s why I use a lot of it in my cooking.”
The 57-year-old is proud of the fact that everything in the cafe is homemade, from the cakes, right down to the wonderful selection of breads offered for starters. “My sister-in-law makes the cakes, while my wife bakes the breads using homemade yeast extracted from local grapes that we grow in our garden,” reveals Teo.
Before I take my leave, the father of two shares with me his noble aspiration — that this concept of “garden to kitchen”, which he has adopted for his cafe will encourage people not only to eat healthier but also be more conscious about what they put on their plates.
“With the economy being so unstable, planting your own vegetables may be a good thing. You’ll definitely save some money!” says Teo, chuckling.
The cafe and Teo’s concept has definitely made a lasting impression on me and I’ll gladly pop by again whenever I find myself back in my sleepy hometown. Who knows what I’ll get on my plate next time I come to dine. Don’t you just love surprises?
WHERE: JQK F&B, 4A, Jalan Tanjong Utama, Tanjung Square, Batu Pahat, Johor