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 told 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 beancurd puffs). It had cockles and I'm obsessed with the shellfish. I ordered an extra $1 worth of cockles - they tasted fresh and 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.
MIN JI LAKSA
01-31, Bendemeer Market & Food Centre, Block 29 Bendemeer Road; 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 and a half Stars
On a recent visit, I ordered a bowl with extra ingredients including, of course, cockles. It cost $5.
The bowl came with 11/2 boiled egg, six pieces of tau pok, bouncy-textured fish cake and a generous amount of crunchy beansprouts. The gravy was hearty, with the rich savoury flavour of dried prawns and aromatic coconut milk.
I cannot get over how fresh the ingredients were. The memory of biting into the tau pok soaked and dripping with gravy makes my heart sigh with contentment.
There were so many cockles that each time I thought I had eaten the last of them, I found 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 is value for money.
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 curry, gave her a few pointers on cooking the gravy.
Madam Tay recalls her first day of work at the stall. "The laksa turned out decent, but it was not fantastic," she says in Mandarin, with a slight grimace.
"In the beginning, I did not know that the longer the gravy boiled, it'd become more concentrated and saltier. Some customers complained that my laksa was too salty. It was not easy listening to negative feedback, but that was how I improved."
Over time, she learnt to balance the taste of the gravy. She tastes the laksa at regular intervals every day, up to 10 times a day, to ensure the taste is consistent. It took her two years of refining her recipe before she achieved the results she wanted.
"People ask, what type of laksa is this... is it Nonya-or Chinese-style? I tell them, this is a 'no-style' laksa," Madam Tay says, chuckling.
She opens the stall at 5am, boiling the stock with chicken bones and chicken breasts and preparing the laksa 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, after 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. That entire day, I was very anxious that customers would complain and I would lose my regulars.
"I've learnt my lesson - no more short cuts."