I‘ve been wanting to write my family’s laksa Siglap recipe for over a year now — and not just because it’s one of the fondest food memories I have as a child helping my grandmother in the kitchen. The dish is an example of how Singapore’s culinary sphere is far bigger than we realise — if we only knew where to look.

First, a little bit on its etymology: Its name, laksa Siglap is in Malay rather than Siglap laksa — which while accurate in English, sounds entirely different. Like its name suggests, this is a Malay dish originating in Kampung Siglap, a coastal village where fishermen ply their trade and coconut plantations thrive.

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Kampong Siglap, 1890s. Photo by G.R. Lambert & Co

Today, It’s sold only by a handful of hawker stalls in Geylang Serai, Bedok and Marsiling lane — and even then, I haven’t found a version that does justice to what I had growing up. Sadly Singaporeans are guilty of losing our culinary heritage and this is no different. Unlike its close counterpart, nonya laksa, which is served everywhere and even garlanded with Michelin’s bib gourmands, laksa Siglap is slow dancing into history.

The two are bound to draw a comparison even though they’re extremely different. For starters, there’s no tofu, fishcake nor fat juicy prawns that dress a bowl of laksa Siglap. Instead, it’s accompanied only by cucumber, bean sprouts, laksa leaves and a dollop of sambal. But lean in for a taste and the broth would yield flavours and textures that hail from an entirely different culinary DNA altogether.

See also: Nasi ulam: A herbed rice recipe that’s easy, nutritious and delicious

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Ikan parang is the hero of this dish.

The dish is likely a reflection of its coastal Siglap origins. Here, a light fish stock made from ikan parang (wolf herring) and ginger forms the base of the broth. The flesh of the same fish is pounded and added to the soupy mix along with a quintessential Malay ingredient: kerisik, or toasted coconut pounded into a paste. Nonya laksa meanwhile uses candlenuts and turmeric while laksa Siglap gets its firepower from fish curry powder, and a rempah (spice paste) that places a heavier emphasis on lemongrass.

These differences result in flavours that sit on completely different ends of the spectrum. Nonya laksa is creamy and naturally sweet from its use of prawns, while laksa Siglap has a slightly nutty body accentuated by the sourness of asam jawa and asam gelugur (tamarind and dried slices of garcinia cambogia respectively). The broth is also thicker thanks to the pounded fish bits and kerisik.

The noodles too are different; nonya laksa is slurped up with thick bee hoon while laksa Siglap uses a variety known as “laksa cap” (cap is pronounced with a ‘ch’ as in chair) that’s almost impossible to get these days. It’s made of tapioca starch and rice flour with the thickness of udon but the soft, sticky texture of bee tai mak. As a kid, I remember it was available at the wet market but has somehow disappeared.

See also:The easy way to make tempe without a starter

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Asam gelugur (dried slices of garcinia cambogia is added to the broth as a souring agent)

If you’re attempting this recipe, set aside three hours. Thick rice noodles or bee tai mak are both worthy substitutes for laksa cap (recipe for that to come soon).

Those short on time can buy kerisik at larger wet markets though a homemade kerisik beats a commercially made one any day. The recipe calls for a tiny amount but its impact on any dish it touches is far and deep, adding body, colour and a smoky nutty depth that no other ingredient can.

Other touch points that take time include deboning the ikan parang. It’s an extremely boney fish but its sweet flesh is irreplaceable. Spare no effort in removing the bones lest you wish to choke the people you’re feeding.

If these steps don’t deter you, here’s the recipe. And by the end of it, you’ll probably realise why it took me a year to find the energy to document and photograph the entire process.

Recipe for Laksa Siglap

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Ingredients

Recipe for 1kg of noodles

Kerisik
200 grams of shredded coconut

Broth
3 tablespoons curry powder
1 ikan parang
2 inch piece of ginger (for making the stock)
2 tablespoons of kerisik
3 tablespoons of asam jawa (tamarind) + 100ml of hot water
3 pieces of asam gelugur aka asam keping (garcinia cambogia)
300ml of thick fresh coconut milk (do not use UHT coconut cream)
900ml of water
Salt to taste

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Spice paste for broth

2 medium-sized Bombay onions
4 cloves of garlic
3 stalks of lemongrass
2 inch piece of ginger
2 inch piece of galangal
4 tablespoons of dried shrimp

Sambal
1 cup of dried chillies
1/2 inch of belachan
Salt to taste

Garnish
Beansprouts
Cucumbers
Daun kesum

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Method

First, prepare the kerisik.

Toast shredded coconut in a wok on low heat with no oil. This requires constant stirring and hawk-eyed supervision so it’s evenly cooked and doesn’t burn.

The coconut should smell nutty when it starts turning brown. Take it off the heat once it takes on an almond-like hue and feels dry to the touch.

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The kerisik should reach this texture.

Avoid letting the kerisik rest. While it’s still warm, place it in a mortar and pestle and pound until it turns into a dark brown paste. Cooled toasted coconut will not produce any oil as its fat content would’ve solidified.

Once it turns into a brown paste the consistency of a nut butter, set aside for later.

Note: You can use a food processor for this, especially if you’re used to making nut butter. But note that a food processor will produce a finer paste, which is not something you want for laksa recipes. The beauty is in its slightly gritty texture.

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Ikan parang is the hero of this dish.

Next, prepare the fish and the fish stock.

Clean and gut the fish. Cut off the head, tail and fins and divide the body into segments.

Place all these parts in 900ml of water along with the ginger and allow it to simmer to a boil. The aim here is to produce a light fish broth and the ginger helps to remove any overly fishy smells.

Remove the meaty parts of the fish when cooked while allowing the offcuts to continue simmering. Pound the flesh lightly with a pestle. As you pound, remove the bones. Take your time and be extra judicious.

Once done, set the fish aside.

Note: Experienced cooks may have better luck deboning the fish by filleting it first. This is worth exploring but I’ve instead, done what my grandmother has taught me.

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The tiny bones of the ikan parang.

Now, for the main element: The broth.

Slice the lemongrass into 1/2 inch pieces and quarter the onions. Place these into the blender along with the garlic, ginger, galangal and dried shrimp.

Add some oil to aid the blending.

While the spice paste is in the blender, heat up a pot with some oil, allowing it to come to temperature.

Add the rempah mixture, followed by the curry powder. It should sizzle and the fragrance of the spice mix will fill up your kitchen.

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Fry the rempah until it dries and the oil appears.

Once the rempah is cooked until slightly dry and the oil comes out, add the fish stock and stir.

Add the kerisik.

The souring agents go in at this point. Soak the asam jawa in the 100ml of hot water. Squeeze out the seeds to make sure the tamarind is evenly distributed in the water.

Strain and add the asam jawa solution into the broth, along with the asam gelugur. Allow the broth to reach a gentle boil.

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Next, stir in the pounded fish. At this point, keep stirring to make sure the kerisik and the fish are evenly distributed.

Lower the heat. Take a third of the thick coconut milk and make it thinner by adding one cup of water. Add this into the broth.

Add salt to taste and allow it to simmer.

As the last step, add the remainder of the thick coconut milk. At this point, do not let the broth go into a boil. The heat must be low and the broth must only reach a light simmer, or the coconut milk will split, resulting in a thin broth.

Once done, turn off the heat.

Lastly, work on the sambal. Slice the dried chillies and boil it in water until it rehydrates. Meanwhile, dry toast the belachan on a pan until it turns crumbly.

Transfer the chillies to a mortar and pestle and pound with the salt and toasted belachan. If you’re working with a blender, add a tablespoon of hot water produced from boiling the chilli.

To serve, garnish with blanched bean sprouts, julienned cucumbers, and daun kesum.

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