SINGAPORE - When a hawker stall has only two dishes on its menu, I am willing to bet that at least one is worth eating.
The two items at Min Ji Laksa in Bendemeer Market & Food Centre are laksa and mee rebus.
The laksa ($3, $4 and $5) is so tasty, I do not regret a single mouthful of that calorific bowl of steamy coconut gravy goodness.
I first chanced upon the stall at 3pm on a weekday. When I was informed there was only one bowl of laksa left, I felt like I had struck the lottery.
Never mind that the stall had run out of tau pok (dried bean curd puffs). It had cockles, and I am obsessed with the shellfish. I ordered an extra $1 worth of cockles - they tasted fresh and perfectly succulent.
To replace the tau pok, the stallholder gave me extra fish cake and served that last bowl of laksa piping hot with a generous garnish of chopped laksa leaves.
On another recent visit, I order a bowl with extra ingredients including, of course, cockles. It costs $5.
MIN JI LAKSA
01-31, Blk 29 Bendemeer Road, Bendemeer Market & Food Centre
Open: 7.30am to 3pm daily except for Tuesdays. It will be open on a Tuesday if it falls on a public holiday.
Rating: 3.5 stars
I would gladly pay more. The bowl comes with one and a half boiled eggs, six pieces of tau pok, bouncy-textured fish cake and a generous amount of crunchy beansprouts. The gravy is hearty with the rich savoury flavour of dried prawns and aromatic with coconut milk.
I cannot get over how fresh the ingredients taste. The memory of biting into that crispy tau pok soaked and dripping with gravy makes my heart sigh with contentment.
There are so many cockles that each time I think I have eaten the last of them, I leap with joy inside when I find another one or two nestled among the slippery springy laksa beehoon at the bottom of the bowl.
I suggest you ask for less beehoon so you have more space for the gravy. One egg is more than enough.
For bowls priced $4 and above, you get slivers of tender chicken breast in the laksa. Taste-wise, it does not make a difference to me, but it shows the value for money the stall gives.
Stallholder Tay Swee Eng, 54, is not the original owner. In 2013, a friend introduced her to the owner, who was looking for a partner to handle the cooking as it was too physically taxing for her. Last October, she retired and Madam Tay took over the stall.
The original stallholder had used quail eggs, tau pok, fish cake and cockles, but Madam Tay uses chicken eggs and her own recipe for the gravy and chilli paste.
Her mother, who used to run an economy rice stall and knows how to cook curries, gave her a few pointers on cooking the gravy.
Without any experience in cooking laksa, Madam Tay winged it on her first day of work at the stall. "The laksa turned out decent but it was not fantastic," she recalls in Mandarin, with a slight grimace.
"In the beginning, I did not realise that the longer the gravy boiled, it would become more concentrated and saltier. Some customers complained my laksa was too salty. It was not easy listening to negative feedback from customers and my friends, but that was how I improved."
Over time, she learnt how to balance the taste of the gravy. Every day at the stall, she tastes the laksa at regular intervals, up to 10 times a day, to ensure the taste is consistent. It took her two years of refining her recipe before she got the results she wanted.
"People ask what style of laksa I'm selling? Is it nyonya-style? Is it Chinese-style? I tell them this is a 'no-style' laksa," Madam Tay says, chuckling.
"I just want to cook laksa that captures that feeling of good old-fashioned home-cooked goodness."
She opens the stall at 5am, boiling the stock from chicken bones and chicken breasts and preparing the laska rempah (spice paste) from scratch. Twice a week, she fries the spicy sweet chilli paste.
There is no avoiding the hard work if you want that taste, she says. This extends to details like peeling shallots and garlic cloves for the spice paste.
"Once, when I had been cooking laksa for a few months, I got lazy and mixed in ready-made laksa paste with my own. I did not like the results at all. That entire day, I was very anxious that customers would complain and I would lose my regulars. I learnt my lesson. No short cuts for me."