To many, East Coast Road in Singapore’s Katong neighborhood 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 – food wars, 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 & Confectionary
, lovingly known as “
Red House” Bakery
(75 E. Coast Rd.). For over 80 years it was famous for its Swiss rolls, curry puffs and Singapore’s first multi-tiered Westerns style wedding cake. Closed since 2003, whether it will be restored or removed 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 the Nonya style laksa. Often referred to as “
” it is the laksa standard in these parts, characterized by a heavy fish and coconut-based curry gravy, sliced fish cake, fresh prawns and short-cut noodles, eliminating the need for chopsticks to supplement a spoon.
Sample this style of Singapore’s most popular soup by turning left and crossing over Ceylon Road to
Famous 49 Katong Laksa
(49 E. Coast Rd.). Old schoolers will avoid the modern addition of raw cockles, opting for the original rich spicy flavor garnished only by a dollop of chili paste and minced laksa (screwpine) leaves.
Famous 49's classic Katong Laksa
At Famous 49 you can’t go wrong –
but not so fast
– because just across the street is another player from the laksa wars:
328 “Famous” Katong Laksa
see image at top of post
). Many argue that this is the best, and certainly the most popular. You have to try it, too, to compare to the others and become a battle-hardened
But you're still not done, because just across the road, inside Roxy Square, is
Marine Parade Laksa
The Original Katong Laksa
” (01-64 Roxy Square) – once run at the site of the present Famous 49 by laksa master “
” (so named due to 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 détente. If you ask me, they are all crazy-good, especially if no evaporated milk shortcuts have been taken like in some inferior laksa joints around Singapore. Today each vendor here has a loyal following of customers who won’t go anywhere else. So now
be the judge....
It is only fair to say that Janggut's is actually the
original Katong laksa leader.
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 enter a cool, peaceful respite, replete with ornate carvings and art.
Back at East Coast Road make a left, heading in the direction you came. Continue to
Kim Choo Kueh Chang
(109 E. Coast Road), an eclectic store specializing in Peranakan treats like Nonya kueh (sweet soft rice cakes of vivid greens, pinks and yellows), Nonya rice dumplings and pastries.
(113 E. Coast Road) where you’ll browse authentic Peranakan arts and crafts, learn the art of Peranakan beading and even take nonya-style cooking classes. This restored Peranakan store/museum/artists gallery was once Tay Buan Guan shop – a 1920’s shophouse turned popular department store.
At the corner, cross Joo Chiat Road then cross East Coast Road and continue left to block 150. Down the side street is a row of
conserved terrace houses
in pastel colors (150 E. Coast Rd.). It’s hard to believe that these attractive single story bungalows were once waterfront homes. They were built above ground to protect against high tides, marking the location of where sea met land in old Singapore.
Continue toward Still Road, past the towering arched roof of
Church of the Holy Family
(200 E. Coast Rd.) until you reach the second
328 Katong Laksa
(216 E. Coast Rd.) where, if you didn’t already, you should have yet another helping of this magnificent Straits Chinese staple to further compare the noticeable differences in taste and texture between the competition. After slurping down a bowl, you are at the turn-around point in your foodwalk (and possibly in your gastronomic fortitude for the day).
A couple of doors back from where you came is the
Katong Antique House
(208 E. Coast Rd.) where you can dig around the many Peranakan artifacts and decorations in this authentically-decorated Straits Chinese storefront.
Then wander to the corner of Chapel Road and the traditional
Chin Mee Chin Confectionary
(204 E. Coast Rd.) where the cream puffs are like pillows and the Peranakan-style coffee is superb. The gentle sweet flavors will ease the lingering burn in your mouth and soak up the laksa splashing around in your stomach. Which means you will be able to eat a little more.
Mary's Corner tao kwa pau
Which is why you should head back down East Coast Road to discover the wonders of
tao kwa pau
; a delicate 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 chili spice for just a mild jump. Beneath the green awning of the
126 Beer Garden Foodcourt
(216 E. Coast Rd.)
(Original) Tao Kwa Pau/Duck Rice
will give an old school example of this popular dish.
The sign is quick to call itself as the “
” since across the street in
Ali Baba Eating House
(125 E. Coast Rd.) sits
Mary’s Corner Tao Kwa Pau
in the former’s original location. Sound familiar? Cross over and try their claim to fame as well. You will be surprised at the differences between the two seemingly identical dishes. For me, Mary's Corner was the best.
Finally, shift your gustatory gears to decadence and sample fine chocolate truffles or other desserts across the street at
Moshie Bakes Brasserie.
New last year their chocolates and pastries are accompanied by a shared-space bakery for fresh breads and a cafe in the back where you can enjoy your sweets or order additional savories. What better way to end a great foodwalk?
By the end of your journey you will see that the face of Katong is shifting, but the culture of it is not. Old shops and food stalls give way to modern ones who conduct business the same way as always – locally. The new I12 Katong Mall appears to gentify the area, but inside it's very food-centric, with a high density of eating establishments including a very fine food court -- modern, yes, but retaining the spirit of this food-focused neighborhood, just like always. So despite the appearance of progress overtaking history, the more things change in Katong the more they remain the same. Which is an important phenomenon in ever-evolving Singapore, where cultural treasures like Katong may be able to withstand the tides of change.