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A History of Singapore Katong Laksa. Origins of Janggut, Marine Parade, Roxy, Nyonya, Spoon Laksa

Katong-Nyonya-Laksa

Singapore Katong Laksa is a Singapore food icon that ranks with Singapore chicken rice and chili crab. Katong laksa is a family heirloom turned humble street food dish born of difficult times just after the Second World War in Singapore. It is packed with flavours and aromas that kept Singaporeans hooked for generations and its tastes and smells get lodged in tourists' memories for life.

Katong-Nyonya-Laksa

Singapore Katong laksa is thick fat rice noodles in a bowl of coconut milk and prawn stock blend flavoured with curry spices (known as rempah in Malay). The full bodied curry tastes sweet with umami savouriness and underlying gentle spiciness. Toppings consist just of shelled prawns, short strips of fish cake and blood cockles (see hum in Hokkien Chinese). 

In a spoon are savoury spicy sambal chili (dried prawn and chili paste) and aromatic laksa leaves (daun kesum or Vietnamese coriander). These are all tossed and folded into the rich creamy curry and eaten in large gulps with rice noodles, toppings and curry together (I did hint it won't be elegant 😄 ). The rice noodles are cut into short stubby pieces, so there is no need to use chopsticks. Hence, Janggut's laksa is also sometimes referred to as "spoon laksa".




Many variations of laksa are found from Singapore, all throughout the Malayan Peninsula up to the border with Thailand. There are also laksa across the South China Sea in Sarawak. Thailand and Indonesia also have their versions of laksa. But, there is none like Katong laksa which is uniquely Singapore.

Singapore-Hawkers
Street hawkers of old Singapore
Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore

The story of Singapore Katong laksa starts in 1940s Katong. It was hard times just after the Japanese left Singapore in 1945. Ng Juat Swee started hawking his family's heirloom curry laksa around Katong and the nearby beach with two pots slung across his shoulders.

Nyonya
Photo credit: National Archives of Singapore

Ng Juat Swee who came to Singapore from Fujian in China in his teens, married a Katong Nyonya. (Nyonyas are Peranakan ladies and the men are known as Babas. Peranakans are ethnic Chinese settlers who adopted some Malay customs such as in language, clothing and food etc.)

Hard times forced Ng Juat Swee to hawk his wife's family heirloom in the streets - something which Peranakans were loathed to do as they were (and still are) extremely proud of their family heirloom recipes which they guard jealously.

Ng Juat Swee had hair growing out from a mole on his chin, hence people gave him the nickname "Janggut" which is Malay for "the bearded one". Ng Juat Swee's laksa became known as Janggut laksa. It was also known as Katong laksa as it was the only laksa sold in Katong then.

49-East-Coast-Road
Photo credit: eresources.nlb.gov.sg

In 1950, Ng Juat Swee together with brother Ng Chwee Seng opened a laksa stall at Hock Tong Hin coffee shop at 49, East Coast Road. (49 East Coast Road is the partially seen building on the left of the picture.) Janggut worked Sundays and Mondays while Ng Chwee Seng, the rest of the week. In 1963, they registered the stall under the name "Marine Parade Laksa".

In 1978, Ng Chwee Seng and son Ng Kok Seng opened their own Katong laksa stall in Bedok (which has closed).

Janggut passed away in 1986 at age 85.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In an interview with Janggut's brother Ng Chwee Seng on Singapore Mediacorp TV, he said that Janggut learnt the Nyonya laksa recipe from a Hainanese man who was selling laksa on foot in Katong in the 1950s. This sounds credible as many Hainanese men worked as domestic helpers in the homes of wealthy Peranakan (and colonial officer) families. That was how the Nyonya laksa recipe "leaked out" into the public domain.

Janggut-Laksa-Original-Katong-Laksa-Marine-Parade-Laksa-Singapore

In 1998, Janggut's niece Ng Sway Hong and nephew Ng Kok Soon opened Janggut laksa at 57, East Coast Road. They moved to Roxy Square in 2000 and set up another outlet in Queensway Shopping Centre in 2005.


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There are several more Janggut Laksa shops now around Singapore e.g. at 331 Upper Paya Road, Chinatown Point, Wisma Atria etc. The laksa curry is now cooked in a central kitchen and they have now have gentrified versions with crayfish, otak otak etc toppings. I go to the older outlets at Roxy Square and Queensway for the humble vintage version out of habit and nostalgia.

There are also other Katong laksa stalls unrelated to Janggut's family.

Roxy-Cinema
Photo credit: National Archives Singapore

In 1952, one of Janggut's disciples / workers Lim Kiok Seng opened his own laksa stall at a side lane beside Roxy cinema. 



Passing down through his son Lim Eng Hong and later his grandson Mike Lim Swee Hong. Mike ran the Roxy laksa stall for 37 years in East Coast Lagoon Food Centre from 1979 and moved to Timbre (a "hipster" food court) in Nov 2016. Roxy laksa at Timbre closed just over a year later in 2018 and there are no plans at the moment to revive the precious heritage stall 😥

History-Singapore-Katong-Laksa

In 1955, one of Janggut's relatives approached him for help. He had lost all his money including his provision shop in Joo Chiat to horse racing and needed help to start life afresh. Janggut, the fine generous gentleman, taught him his Katong Laksa recipe.

Today, we can still have this laksa at 307 Changi Road run by George, the second generation owner. Old time fans of George's laksa said the laksa tasted the same since the 1950s. One of the last artisanal Katong laksa left in Singapore, this is also my favourite rendition of Janggut's legacy.


51-East-Coast-Road
Photo credit: eresources.nlb.gov.sg

The most famous Katong laksa today is arguably 328 Katong Laksa. Mdm Nancy Lim (her other name is Lucy) used to work for Ng Chwee Seng at 49, East Coast Road. Nancy took over the stall when Ng Chwee Seng left 49, East Coast Road when the landlord increased the rent. Eventually, the landlord increased the rent on Nancy as well in 1998, so she set up your own laksa stall at 51, East Coast Road right across the street (Ceylon Road).

328-Katong-Laksa-Singapore

Nancy's 328 Laksa was picked for a cook off with Gordon Ramsay in 2013 which she won, causing her fame to skyrocket. 328 Laksa also snagged a Bib Gourmand award in the 2017 edition of the Singapore Michelin guide, sealing her place in Singapore Katong laksa. 

328-Katong-Laksa-Singapore

There are several 328 laksa franchises now and the curry is mass produced in a central kitchen. I still like the taste of 328 laksa but will only have it at the historic 51, East Coast Road outlet as it has the best ambiance and nostalgic feel for me (except when it is packed with bus loads of tourists).


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By the 1990s, the recipe for Katong laksa has become widely known and the dish is widely emulated. The basic recipe became public domain information. It soon appeared all over Singapore in hotels and more laksa stalls unrelated to Janggut's family. Authentic Nyonya laksa, a jewel of Janggut's family kitchen, is now available and accessible to everyone in Singapore.

Katong-Laksa

Khoon's laksa in Sembawang Food Centre is one of many stalls across Singapore unrelated to Janggut. Ah Khoon learnt the recipe from a hotel chef and opened his stall 20 years ago. He has his own following for his rendition of Katong laksa.



Where to taste Singapore Katong laksa

328-Katong-Laksa-Singapore

Restaurant name: 328 Katong Laksa 加东叻沙
Address: 51/53 East Coast Road, Singapore
GPS: 1.305060,103.903241
Hours: 8:00am to 10:00pm




Janggut-Laksa-Original-Katong-Laksa-Marine-Parade-Laksa-Singapore

Restaurant name: Janggut Laksa
Address: Queensway Shopping Centre #01-59 Singapore 149053
GPS1.287494, 103.803848
Hours: 10:00am to 9:00pm
Tel: 9669 6010 / 9622 1045




Janggut-Laksa-Roxy-Square

Restaurant nameThe Original Katong Laksa
Address: 50 East Coast Rd, Roxy Square, Singapore 428769 (stall at ground level food court)
GPS1°18'16.9"N 103°54'13.4"E 🌐 1.304700, 103.903707
Tel9622 1045
Hours: 9:00am - 5:00pm



Khoon's-Katong-Laksa-Sembawang-Hill-Food-Centre

Restaurant name: Khoon's Katong Laksa & Seafood Soup
Address: Sembawang Hill Food Centre, 590 Upper Thomson Rd, #01-26, Singapore 574419
GPS1°22'21.4"N 103°49'44.1"E 🌐 1.372610, 103.828909
Tel: 9143 9985 | 9665 8339
Hours: 10:00am - 7:00pm (Monday off)

 


Katong-Laksa-George-Changi-Road-Singapore

Restaurant name: Katong Laksa
Address: 307 Changi Road, Singapore
GPS1°19'05.5"N 103°54'27.7"E 🌐 1.318197, 103.907694
Tel9023-7360
Hours: 8:00am - 3:00pm (alternate Tues off)

 


References:

The Wong List
The Straits Times
The Straits Times
My Joo Chiat Story
Chowhound

Date: 27 Jan 2020

1 comment:

  1. I think the date of registration of the name "Marine Parade Laksa" is wrong. It should be later than 1963. The land on which Marine Parade stands today was reclaimed starting 1966 and the HDB flats didn't come up until early 1970's, so no Marine Parade at that time.

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