Where: Blk 120 Bukit Merah Lane 1 #01-75
Operating hours: 9am – 3.30pm, closed on Sunday
Stall owner: Zhang Li Jin
HOT UNTIL THE LAST DROP
Loved for its ability to keep food bubbling even after it has been taken off the stove, claypots are the perfect receptacle for dishes that are best savoured hot. Case in point: laksa, the ingenious idea belongs to Zhang Ji Lin's aunt who started Depot Road Zhen Shan Mei Claypot Laksa back in 1995.
The stall rapidly gained popularity as the crowds loved her laksa's rich flavour. But as health issues took its toll combined with the impending relocation of the hawker centre, she was all ready to give up her business.
“My aunt is a great cook and I have always loved her laksa. I didn’t want to see the business go just like that," says Zhang, the current stall owner. Then only 27 years of age, Zhang sprang into action and started to learn the ropes from scratch. He has been running the business since.
“Even though the weather in Singapore is warm, laksa is still best savoured hot," says Zhang. "To be able to enjoy the dish piping hot until the last mouthful is just perfect, and that would not have been possible if the laksa is served in a normal receptacle.”
Zhang also mentions that not long after his aunt set up shop, other hawkers also started using claypots – such as for bak kut teh and mee sua soups. It would seem that she had started a trend. Yet there are pros and cons to using the claypot.
While it made his laksa unique, it also added the extra step of heating up the claypot for each portion he serves. Breakage – and injuries – also occurs during preparation, washing, or even while the cleaners are collecting the used utensils. As a matter of fact, he indents for new claypots on a monthly basis.
Zhang starts preparations at about 5 to 6am every morning in order to serve out the first bowls at around 9am.
A good bowl of laksa is contingent on the gravy, and Zhang’s is carefully prepared with a mix of ingredients such as chilli padi, blue ginger, turmeric, belachan, shrimp paste and lemongrass slow cooked for over two hours. Frying the ingredients is also a critical step: the heat needs to be powerful in order to draw out the ingredients' aroma, in turn making the laksa extra fragrant.
But coconut milk is arguably the soul of the laksa gravy. Here, freshness and quantity are key and Zhang uses a generous amount of freshly-squeezed coconut milk, for extra richness. This also gives the gravy a thick texture, allowing it to cling onto every rice noodle strand – so that each mouthful delivers a full taste of the gravy.
Depot Road Zhen Shan Mei Claypot Laksa is well-known by many – and is often featured in local food programs even before gaining the recognition of the Michelin guide. However, Zhang shares that he has been alone in his journey as a hawker for the last 11 years. While none in his family intends to join the trade, he feels that the business has potential and hopes to seek a business partner to expand operations.