PENGERANG, Johor: The butter-fried lobster at Sungai Rengit’s Super Lobster Restaurant lived up to its billing.
The lobster was served in a crispy batter, which tasted like savoury cotton candy.
Just 15 minutes before it was served, the creature was pulling itself to the bottom of a glass tank, ferociously fighting off a hoop net held by the restaurant’s owner Mr Louis Tan.
“Don’t worry, we have more than enough lobsters for our customers,” said the 34-year-old.
“Sometimes we have so many that we have to freeze them until Chinese New Year, or sell them to other seafood restaurants in Johor Bahru,” added the man dubbed the “lobster towkay” in the sleepy fishing village.
Sungai Rengit – a coastal town located a 20-minute drive from tourist hotspot Desaru - is renowned for its fresh seafood. Those staying at resorts in the area will often make a side trip to the town to enjoy the cuisine.
The town's lobster catch is distributed to dozens of seafood restaurants in the state.
More Singaporeans are stopping by the town for meals when they visit Desaru or Johor Bahru. “Out of 10 customers, maybe seven are Singaporeans,” said Mr Tan.
“Many of them drive from Johor Bahru but there are some who drop by during their weekend cycling trips. They will take the ferry to Tanjung Belungkor and cycle up to Sungai Rengit for a seafood lunch, and head back,” he added.
The ferry terminal at Tanjung Belungkor is 35km from Sungai Rengit town, and it has ferry services to Singapore's Changi Point.
For many Singaporeans who do indulge in lobster meals in Sungai Rengit, the price is a big draw. Fresh lobster at Super Lobster Restaurant costs up to RM210 (S$70) per kilogram, lower than the average price of S$90 per kilogram in Singapore.
Popular dishes at restaurants in the area include live lobster cooked with butter, salted egg and black pepper. The dishes are typically served with plain rice and other seafood like fish, prawn or crab.
For visitors like Mr Vincent Lo, an avid cyclist who visits Sungai Rengit around four times a year to eat lobster, the journey is worth it.
“It’s a good reward after a long (bicycle) ride from the ferry terminal. Lobster is generally expensive, but eating it here is at least cheaper,” said the retiree who lives in Punggol.
LOBSTERS ATTRACTED TO SUNGAI RENGIT AREA
Sungai Rengit has earned its reputation because of its rocky shorelines, which attracts spiny lobsters between March and August each year.
But the weather also plays a big part, the warm tropical weather in the area for most of the year makes it suitable for lobster fishing.
According to Mr Yusri Mohd Latiff, a fisherman who lives in Kampung Sungai Rengit, catching lobster is no easy feat. But when the conditions are right, it can be a risk that pays off.
“Bad weather prevents us from going out to sea, yes. But when it is sunny, and we have a good day out, it is good for us," said Mr Yusri.
"Sometimes we have so many lobsters that the challenge is to sell them all to seafood restaurants so that they don't die," he added.
On one occasion, Mr Tan paid RM300,000 (US$71,683) for lobsters from his suppliers. "There were so many that I was contacting restaurant owners in JB to sell them off to. It was tricky because we had to store them carefully so that they don't die," he recalled.
CATERING TO CUSTOMER PREFERENCES
Besides lobster, Mr Tan noted that other seafood that are freshly caught in the town – such as threadfins, groupers and mud crabs are also popular. For crab, restaurants like Super Lobster offer chilli crab cooked Singapore style.
The live mud crabs are served with a savoury, sweet and spicy sauce blended with egg, and the dish is served with fried buns.
Meanwhile for threadfin, Mr Tan said the most popular method of cooking is to steam the fish and serve it in smooth slices.
"This is not necessarily the way most Malaysians eat it, but we have to adapt to our customers' preferences," he said. "This area is popular for Singaporeans, so we offer dishes that they like," Mr Tan added.