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.
“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 current visit 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 Claypot Laksa, one can savor a Michelin-approved version made by brusque aunties and uncles (affectionate Singlish for “elders”). The laksa there is mild and served in the clay pot in which the soup was cooked.
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.
Where to savor 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
3. Depot Road Zhen Shan Mei Claypot Laksa
Rich, thick laksa cooked in a clay pot draws locals to this lesser-known hawker center. The has earned Michelin Bib Gourmand status.
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