It must have taken a healthy dash of chutzpah and two generous pinches of egotism to call a few hairs growing out of a mole on your chin a Janggut!
Out of curiousity, I asked my Malay friends what a janggut was, and they told me that it is supposed to be a beard! You know, the type that Osama Bin Laden grows. Now, we Chinamen, especially those of Southern decent just can’t grow a mohair rug on our faces, so I guess some men might want to brag about the silky six inches of silver filaments which they can pill roll between their thumb and finger while chuckling over a cup of tea. But the only reason the darn thing is there is because while they bother to shave off the rest of the hair on their face, they seem to keep a few on the mole itself as if its a proxy for how long their beard could have grown.
Yet, Janggut laksa is so named because the hawker who first invented Katong Laksa had precisely this style of mole hair. He started peddling his laksa along East Coast Road with a pushcart on weekends at the time when East Coast Road was still next to the sea. In 1963 and his brother finally settled down in 49 East Coast Road and started Marine Parade Laksa. He was the master from whom the other Katong Laksa decended from.
Marine Parade Laksa will forever hold a special place in my temporal lobes because it was there that I lost my Laksa virginity when my then girlfriend, Rockett Girl first introduced me to Katong Laksa. When I was young, I never liked to eat spicy food, so I don’t actually remember eating any laksa prior to meeting Rockett Girl. I was so jolted by that first mouthful Laksa gravy that it really was a moment of metamorphosis for my cacooned foodie psyche. Discovering how great Laksa was opened the doors to all the other chillified foods which have up till then been held at arms length. I was like a brand new Trekkie who have just discovered that there are so many episodes of Star Trek left to watch!
Unfortunately, Marine Parade Laksa closed in 1978 due to an increase in rental and the stall was taken over by the current owner of 328 Laksa. They went into a two year hiatus before re-emerging in Far East Square. But by then they had lost momentum. Today, Marine Parade Laksa has rebranded itself as Janggut Laksa and rightly states that they are the original Katong Laksa, which paradoxically has its main stall located in Queensway Shopping Centre. They do have another stall at the ground level food court in Roxy Square and another one in Bedok, but they have never recaptured the magic of the original stall.
It seems like such a waste that Janggut should be serving their legendary recipe in a Kiosk at Queensway Shopping Centre that could easily be passed off as just another Laksa stall. But when I closed my eyes and imagine that I was seated at the original coffeeshop, that first spoonful of laksa gravy did actually trigger off a recollection of a familiar symphony of flavours which have been stored in the deep recesses of my subconscious. Yes, this was the flavour I remember from years back. It was an Anton Ego moment. It was a little muted to be honest, like listening to an opera over the telephone, by certainly the gravy hints of the magic that was Marine Parade Laksa.
Mdm Ng, daughter of the legendary Janggut
Mdm Ng explains to me that there are several factors preventing them from reaching the gold standard which they achieved in the good old days. Firstly they can’t use a charcoal fire anymore to cook the gravy and secondly, rising food costs and the price elastic character of consumers mean that they have to cut down on the amount of ingredients like dried shrimps and Ti Poh (solefish). Still, they are trying hard to create a bowl of Laksa worthy of old Janggut and despite all the challenges, are able to produce one which crosses the Oommph threshold, but just barely. 4.5/5. Imagine what they can do if I gave them a budget of $5 a bowl?
The thing that first attracted me to this stall is that fact that their gravy has got that umami punch even though it is not spicy. Even though they are a shadow of what they were in the past, I daresay that this is one of the best bowls of Laksa being served anywhere in Singapore today.
Click here to read part I of the Katong Laksa Story
Postscript: 4 Mar 2011
I just finished filming a segment for Good Morning Singapore at their stall in Bedok yesterday and was amazed that they still have the old Marine Parade Laksa signboard there. In addition, the laksa gravy there is cooked by the sister-in-law of Janggut and I felt it really captured the old taste of Marine Parade Laksa!
Video added on 5 Sep 2016