Singapore Laksa Story
Mum pulls me to one side and tells me:
“In Singapore, there are only two types of Laksa. Sungei Rd Laksa and Katong Laksa. The rest is all bullshit one.”
So that ended my formal laksa education.
I must admit I’ve never warmed to laksa (叻沙) that much, it is just soo very lemak (Malay: rich) because of the coconut milk. I’d feel so full halfway through the bowl. The few bowls that I’ve had in Melbourne were okay, but somehow I kept thinking they weren’t bowls of laksa, they tasted more like noodles in chicken curry. By the time I visited Singapore, I had a burning curiosity to find out exactly what’s the difference between each country’s laksa, my lemakaversion notwithstanding.
Sungei Road Trishaw Laksa
Hong Li Mini Café
HDB Hub, 480 Toa Payoh Lorong 6
#01-516, Singapore 310520
Dad and mum brought me here to start off my laksa investigation project. This hole-in-the-wall cafe serves laksa, mee siam and nasi lemak. We shared a bowl of laksa and plate of mee siam here, and then tromped down the road to share a plate of excellent rojak. All in a day’s work. I love it how my folks know exactly where to go for each dish I want to eat.
When the bowl of laksa arrived, I smiled with excitement. It looked beautiful. This would be my first bowl of Singapore laksa after so many years away. Look at how petite the bowl is! It would take 2-3 of these bowls to make up one serving of laksa in Melbourne. For me, that’s perfect. I like my servings small, that way I can snack on other yummies.
Let’s have a closer look at the ingredients. Sitting idly on the surface, we’ve got artistry in a bowl. Fish cakes, ground laksa leaves, sambal chilli paste, bean sprouts, see hum (blood cockles) and thick bee hoon (rice noodles). The hawker here takes pride in the presentation of his food. You almost want to not disturb the ingredients so that the dish remains pretty.<
This bowl really hit the spot. First aromatic mouthful and my eyes lit up. The level of lemakness and spiciness was faultless for me. The coconut gravy did not taste like a standard curry. There’s a different mix of strong, pungent and fragrant spices in it. A flavour mix that makes my mind immediately associate this as a genuine bowl of laksa, rather than curry noodles. Shiok!
One thing I noticed about Singapore laksa is how they have dispensed with the chopsticks. The thick bee hoon (rice noodles) is cut into short segments so that you can easily scoop everything up with the small spoon. There’s no messing around with long noodles slipping everywhere, and you are forced to have both noodles and lots of gravy with each mouthful.
I really like the laksa here because the gravy is on the thinner side, so you can finish the bowl without becoming jerlak (Malay: sick of eating it). I think it is a feat that the gravy can be on the soupier side and yet be able to keep the flavour and pungency of the laksa intact. If I am not wrong, the gravy is seafood-based, and it is augmented by the penetrating taste of ground hae bee (dried shrimp).
It appears this Toa Payoh stall is a branch of the original Sungei Rd Trishaw Laksa. The parent stall is in Jalan Berseh. In my opinion, you can probably trust this Toa Payoh branch. I give it my thumbs up!
View Singapore Food Trail in a larger map
Sungei Road Laksa
Blk 27 Jalan Berseh
#01-100 (inside Jin Shui Kopitiam)
A year later, I visited the parent stall in Jaln Berseh, where the broth is cooked over hot coals…
Both laksas tastes just as good, in fact, I think I prefer the one in Toa Payoh better.
View Singapore Food Trail in a larger map
A brief word about see hum (blood cockles). Not all of us can stomach this mollusc, especially if it’s served blood-red raw like in this bowl. So some of us would tell the hawker to serve us a bowl of “laksa, mai hum” (laksa, don’t want cockles).
In 2006, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was addressing the country with his National Day Rally Speech. Somewhere along the way, he spoke candidly about hawker food, and he accidentally said “mee siam mai hum” (mee siam, don’t want cockles). The entire country roared with laughter at this statement, because mee siam is a dish that never ever contains cockles. It was later clarified that our PM meant to say “laksa mai hum“. Ha ha!!
328 Katong Laksa
51 East Coast Road
Ask any Singaporean about where to find good laksa and they’d probably say “you must try the Katong laksa! It is the one and only!”. (OMG I love Singlish). So I knew I had to try out Katong laksa as well in order to complete my laksa enquiry. But this proved challenging, as there are many many stalls all over the country proclaiming they’re from the original stall in Katong. On my last week in Singapore, Benji took me on a food tour around East Coast area, and I finally got to try a bowl of non-fake Katong Laksa.
This stall’s so popular that they bought over the neighbouring shop so that they could have more tables to seat customers. The walls and pillars are also plastered with newspaper clippings and photos to illustrate how genuinely chut mia (famous) the stall is.
You can see how Katong Laksa has literally turned into a brand name. I vaguely remember people talking about it only in the late 1990′s. Around then, I started noticing bowls of laksa with short noodles that’s eaten just with a spoon. So maybe Katong Laksa could also be synonymous with chopstick-free laksa? On that note, Sungei Road Laksa might possibly be a tangential variant of Katong Laksa, since it’s also chopstick-free.
I opted to sit outside even though it was a warm afternoon. The indoor seating was kinda tacky, and it felt almost tourist-gimmicky and it was noisy too. The ambience outside felt more kopitiam-ish, which I prefer.
Benji told me we must have the otak-otak (banana leaf-wrapped fish mousse) here along with the laksa. He was correct. Very delicious, complete with fish pieces inside the otak.
Cooked cockles (see hum)
So what’s different in this bowl of laksa? Well for starters, the cockles were inside the gravy, so they’re quite cooked. I prefer eating cockles raw, see hum tastes better when just slightly cooked only. The laksas here contained prawn pieces and I believe there was more hae bee (dried prawn) in the gravy. And finally, the coconut-gravy was much thicker than Sungei Rd’s. Taste-wise, this bowl tasted a tad too lemak for my liking. I heard that evaporated milk is added to make the gravy thicker. That’s a bit scary…!
To my Melbourne readers who’ve eaten laksa, you can see how different laksa is across the Pacific Ocean. I know I am only talking about Singapore laksas, there are many variants in Malaysia, including Penang’s Assam Laksa. I also know that laksa lemak in Penang uses egg noodles instead of thick rice noodles. There is also such a thing as chicken laksa. Each country and region is fiercely proud of their version of laksa.
But as far as my Singaporean palate is concerned, I can condense the differences between Singapore and Melbourne’s Laksas into a few core ingredients. I’m not even nit-picking about the type of noodles here. Core components that are not commonly found in a bowl of Melbourne laksa include: level of spiciness, seafood-based gravy, laksa leaves, see hum (blood cockles) and ground hae bee (dried shrimp).
To be honest, Laksa King should read this post, their laksas really taste like egg noodles in chicken curry. I’ll now let Singlishboo speak eloquently here: Like that how to be King??~!? Not to say it’s bad. It just doesn’t taste like laksa to me, but a humongous population of Australians love it all the same, so it has been tweaked to suit the Australian palate.
On a final note, I recently found out that laksa leaves is the same thing as Vietnamese mint! I am toying with the idea of making homemade laksa, Sungei Road Trishaw version. Can anyone point me in the direction of a good recipe?
Update: Since my Singapore visit, I have held a laksa party in Melbourne, with attempts at making homemade laksa paste. Read about that harrowing experience here.