To many, East Coast Road in Singapore’s Katong neighbourhood is just another bustling strip of old shophouses and new construction. But, in fact, it’s a densely concentrated museum of Peranakan history and architecture, and the battleground for one of the nation’s great wars – the food war, that is.
If you’re driving, park at Katong Village, the old Joo Chiat Police Station. Start your foodwalk at the nearby overpass across East Coast Road, making sure to stop in the middle for a good (and possibly last) look at the former Katong Bakery and Confectionery, also known as the Red House Bakery (75 East Coast Road). For over 80 years it was famous for its Swiss rolls, curry puffs and Singapore’s first multi-tiered Western-style wedding cake. It’s been closed since 2003; whether it will be given a new lease on life remains to be seen.
At the bottom of the overpass you are entering the “laksa war zone,” a historical battleground between three principal food establishments, each claiming to be the original makers of Nonya-style laksa. Often referred to as Katong laksa, and the laksa standard in these parts, it is characterised by a heavy fish and coconut-based curry gravy with short-cut noodles, eliminating the need for chopsticks to supplement your spoon. Sample Singapore’s most popular soup by turning left and crossing over Ceylon Road to Famous 49 Katong Laksa (49 East Coast Road). Old-schoolers will avoid the modern addition of raw cockles; they’ll opt for the original rich spicy flavour garnished only with a dollop of chilli paste and minced laksa (screwpine) leaves.
At Famous 49 you can’t go wrong – but not so fast – because just across the street is another laksa warrior: 328 Famous Katong Laksa. And across the road, inside Roxy Square, is Marine Parade Laksa, also known as The Original Katong Laksa (#01-64 Roxy Square), once run at the site of the present Famous 49 by laksa master Janggut (so named due to the long hairs growing from a mole on his chin). Whose was the original Katong laksa? Whose is best? The debate raged for years, with each establishment insisting theirs was the real McCoy until eventually reaching a détente. Today, each vendor has a loyal following who won’t go anywhere else.
Walk up Ceylon Road to Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple (19 Ceylon Road). This Elephant God temple – one of Singapore’s tallest – dates back to 1875. Passing through the five-tiered tower you’ll experience a cool, peaceful haven, complete with ornate carvings and art.
Back at East Coast Road, make a left, heading in the direction you came from. For the sake of comparison, stop for a small bowl at 328 Laksa (51 East Coast Road) on the corner. Or continue to Kim Choo Kueh Chang (109 East Coast Road), an eclectic store specialising in Peranakan treats like Nonya kueh (sweet soft rice cakes in vivid greens, pinks and yellows), Nonya rice dumplings and pastries.
Next-door is Rumah Bebe (113 East Coast Road), where you can browse authentic Peranakan arts and crafts, learn the art of Peranakan beading and even take Nonya-style cooking classes. This restored Peranakan store, museum and artists’ gallery was once Tay Buan Guan shop – a 1920s shophouse turned popular department store.
At the corner, cross Joo Chiat Road then cross East Coast Road and continue left up to Block 150. Down the side street is a row of conserved terrace houses in pretty colours (150 East Coast Road). It’s hard to believe that these attractive properties were once seafront homes. They were built above ground to protect against high tides, especially during the monsoon rains, and have roomy basements.
Continue toward Still Road, past the towering arched roof of the Church of the Holy Family (200 East Coast Road) until you reach 328 Katong Laksa (216 East Coast Road). If you haven’t already done so, stop to compare the noticeable differences in taste and texture from the competition back at Famous 49 and Marine Parade Laksa. After slurping down a bowlful, you are at the turn-around point in your foodwalk.
A couple of doors back to where you came from is the Katong Antique House (208 East Coast Road); you can dig around the many Peranakan artefacts and decorations behind its authentical Straits Chinese façade. Then wander to the corner of Chapel Road and the traditional Chin Mee Chin Confectionary (204 East Coast Road) where the cream puffs are like pillows and the Peranakan-style coffee is superb.
Heading back down East Coast Road, you can discover the wonders of tao kwa pau: a luscious envelope of bean curd skin stuffed with minced pork, eggs, fishcakes and crunchy vegetables then doused with a rich brown duck sauce and a dollop of chilli. Beneath the green awning of the 126 Beer Garden Foodcourt (216 East Coast Road), (Original) Tao Kwa Pau/Duck Rice serves up an old school example of this popular dish. The sign is quick to call itself the “original”, since across the street in Ali Baba Eating House (125 East Coast Road) sits Mary’s Corner Tao Kwa Pau in the former’s original location. Sound familiar? Cross over and try their claim to fame, too. You will be surprised at the differences between the two seemingly identical dishes.
Finally, shift your gustatory gears and sample fine French food with hawker stall ambience and prices at Saveur (Stall #3; also in Ali Baba Eating House). It opened in June this year, and the two classically trained chefs have brought modern, fine dining to the street. What better way to end your foodwalk than with foie gras with Parmesan foam, or duck rillettes?
By the end of your journey you will see that though Katong’s face is shifting, its culture is not. Old shops and food stalls give way to new ones that conduct business the same way as always – locally. And despite the appearance of progress overtaking history, one gets a feeling that the more things change in Katong, the more they remain the same.
For a full, delicious day of foodwalking, you can connect this walk with the Joo Chiat Foodwalk.