Get to Know Singapore in One Deliciously Complex Dish

The island’s rich culinary diversity reaches a flavor pitch in laksa, the iconic soup.

Overhead view of yellow bowl of soup with chopsticks and spoon on blue oval tray

At Depot Road Zhen Shan Mei Claypot Laksa, a hawker stall, Singapore’s seafood noodle soup was originally cooked and served in the same earthenware pot.

Photo by Ériver Hijano

It’s lunchtime in the food-crazy island nation of Singapore, and I’m at a food court in the Katong district, breaking a double sweat. It’s not just the tropical heat, but also the aromatic steam billowing from my bowl of curry laksa, a Singaporean (and Malaysian) concoction of noodles and seafood in a flavorful coconut-milk broth. My first messy spoonful of “gravy” with slippery bee hoon (rice noodles), fish cakes, and briny cockles and shrimp seems almost mellow—an equatorial answer to New England chowder. Then comes the heat of the chili, the funky umami oomph of dried shrimp, and the fragrant mini-explosions of blue ginger and lemongrass in the hand-pounded spice paste called rempeh. To finish, the minty flavor of laksa leaves, aka Vietnamese coriander.

Indoor view of upscale National Kitchen restaurant, with tiled floors and dark wood ceiling, plus several diners seated at tables

Travelers can try laksa in a variety of settings, including the upscale National Kitchen by Violet Oon.

Photo by Ériver Hijano

“Ah, laksa, laksa,” I murmur before addressing the chili-coconut splatter on my new linen dress. “You’re richer than all the pastas of Emilia-Romagna, more complex than a Oaxacan mole.”

I first encountered laksa right here in Katong more than two decades ago, while researching a cookbook on Southeast Asian cooking. It was love at first spoonful. Prepared in Singapore and neighboring Malaysia, laksa is the culinary calling card of Peranakans, the descendants of 16th-century male traders from southern China who settled in the Malay Archipelago and married local Malay women. Babas (a term for Peranakan males) introduced their wives (called nyonya) to the foods of their native China: stir-fries, noodle soups, and the like. Nyonya resourcefully added the tropical flavors of their homeland—coconut, lemongrass, ginger, chili sambal—to create the creolized masterpiece. With apologies to more iconic foods such as chili crab and Hainanese chicken rice, it is laksa, as the fragrant metaphor for Singapore’s heady diversity, that deserves the title of national dish.

My visit in 2018 coincides with a revival of Peranakan heritage throughout Singapore. Different versions of laksa, both haute and hawker, thrive all over the island. At her opulent bistro inside the striking National Gallery, local culinary grande dame Violet Oon serves a dry laksa, with a thick, reduced gravy. At his modern Wild Rocket restaurant, young chef Willin Low once famously deconstructed the dish into fettuccine with laksa-leaf pesto (it’s no longer on the menu). And at Depot Road Zhen Shan Mei Laksa, one can savor a Michelin-approved version made by brusque aunties and uncles (affectionate Singlish for “elders”). The laksa there is mild.

Bright interior of humble (but famous) 328 Katong Laksa

The humble (but famous) 328 Katong Laksa

Photo by Ériver Hijano

Ultimately, all laksa trails lead to the Katong district, where I’m dining with Edmond Wong, a self-appointed guardian of Peranakan culture. Wong, who runs a travel agency and a shop selling traditional sweets called Kim Choo Kueh Chang, is introducing me to the version served at the Original Katong Laksa stall.

“Katong laksa is a style of nyonya laksa that’s eaten with just the spoon,” he explains, “because the bee hoon noodles are pre-cut.” The Katong neighborhood, he explains further, with its profusion of restored Chinese shophouses painted pink, buttercream, and pistachio, is the epicenter of Peranakan memories. He sums it up tidily: “Like Peranakan culture, like its food, like Singapore itself, laksa is the ultimate fusion.” Then he runs off to lead a heritage tour, and I blot a new stain on my dress and dash across the street to 328 Katong Laksa, a rival upstart. Here the dish, fiery and brash, reflects 328’s owner, a crimson-haired chef named Lucy Lim. She and her son Ryan Koh became island celebs after beating British chef Gordon Ramsay at a laksa challenge a few years ago. Poor Gordon, I think, taking a careful slurp of silky noodles, shrimp so fresh they pop in my mouth, and chili-spiked gravy. The lad didn’t stand a chance.

Overhead view of fancy white bowl of laksa with several shrimp at National Kitchen

Laksa at Violet Oon’s restaurant

Photo by Ériver Hijano

Where to try laksa in Singapore

1. The Original Katong Laksa

Descendants of a legendary laksa street peddler nicknamed Janggut serve a creamy-complex version at this stall in the bland Roxy Square mall, as well as at three other branches.
50 East Coast Road, Roxy Square, +65 9622-1045

2. National Kitchen by Violet Oon Singapore

At her gorgeous restaurant inside the National Gallery, chef Violet Oon serves a variety of refined takes on Singapore classics, including chili crab and laksa, which she garnishes with prawns and tau pok (fried tofu cakes).
1 St. Andrew’s Road #02-01, National Gallery

Hawker laksa at Depot Road Zhen Shan Mei, with two men eating at outdoor table next to red corrugated door

Hawker laksa at Depot Road Zhen Shan Mei

Photo by Ériver Hijano

3. Depot Road Zhen Shan Mei Laksa

Although this Bib Gourmand–winning stall in the lesser-known Alexandra Village hawker center no longer cooks and serves its laksa in clay pots (blame breakage!), it still delivers an exemplary version. The rich creamy gravy based on freshly made coconut milk is bolstered with chili, blue ginger, turmeric, shrimp paste, and lemongrass. Each bowl gets loaded with slithery bee hoon noodles, cockles, and extras like chicken, plump fish cake, small shrimp, and the spongy fried bean curd cakes called tau pok. Come early to avoid lunchtime crush.
120 Bukit Merah Lane 1, #01-75, Alexandra Village Food Centre, +65 9088-9203

4. 328 Katong Laksa

Chef-owner Lucy Lim is a local legend (she and her son beat Gordon Ramsay in a laksa challenge in 2013). Her version comes with pre-cut noodles and a healthy dollop of chili paste (if you’re spice-averse, ask for your bowl without it).
51-53 East Coast Road, +65 9732-8163

5. Penang Kitchen

For a rendition with completely different seasonings popular in the Malaysian island of Penang, try the assam (sour) laksa at this cheerful mini-chain with two locations. The fat, slippery lai fun rice noodles nestle in a gutsy broth flavored with pungent belacan (fermented shrimp paste) and tart tamarind instead of the usual Singapore-style curried coconut milk. The array of garnishes runs the gamut from shaved cucumber to mint to flaked sardines to refreshing diced pineapple to cut through the richness. The original is on Coronation Road not far from Singapore’s Botanic Gardens, while a smartly designed newer offshoot is conveniently situated in the Far East Plaza Mall in the Orchard Road shopping belt.
Two locations, Coronation Road and Far East Plaza

6. Sungei Road Laksa

This beloved humble stalwart distinguishes itself in this laksa-mad town by preparing its broth over charcoal. Operating since 1956, it’s located inside a coffee shop and is still run by the family of the original owner. It serves its perfectly minimalist laksa topped with nothing but fish cakes and briny-sweet cockles. The mild delicate broth comes alive with dollops of spicy sambal and a minty garnish of julienned laksa leaves. The noodles are pre-cut and the laksa is served with only a spoon—no chopsticks needed.
27 Jalan Berseh, #01-100 +65 9690 8184

This story was originally published in July 2018 and was updated in March 2024 with new information.

Anya von Bremzen is a three-time James Beard Award–winning author and a contributing writer at AFAR. Anya has published seven acclaimed cookbooks and a memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. Her new book, National Dish, was published in June 2023.
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