Do you have any advice for budding hawkers? Zhang Ji
Lin laughs at this question, then pauses to consider it seriously. “Keep yourself grounded,” he says. Very aptly, staying grounded is a theme that runs through Zhang’s life. Zhang made the decision to inherit Depot Road Zhen Shan Mei Claypot Laksa 13 years ago from his aunt when her children didn’t want it, because he felt that it would be a shame to let this local delicacy, and his aunt’s legacy fade away.
Manoeuvring the claypots that the laksa are cooked in also requires a certain sense of groundedness. Zhang handles these claypots nimbly, but it is no secret that they are heavy—care is taken to wash these fragile vessels, but inevitably, some break every month. This inconvenience has not prevented Zhang from cooking his laksa in claypots. “Claypots retain the flavours and fragrance of the laksa, and helps to keep the laksa warm. That way, the noodles absorb the soup because of this heat retention”. And it’s true—the laksa becomes tastier the further down the bowl we go, with the rice noodles seemingly soaked with broth.
When a customer places an order, Zhang blasts each laksa-filled claypot over high heat for three to four minutes. With only three stoves in his store, it’s no wonder that there’s always a queue for his laksas. Of course, a broth that uses fresh coconut milk, freshly-pounded turmeric, and that final touch of spooning a spiced coconut cream (akin to a reduced version of his broth) over the top of the dish has certainly helped win fans over the years. “I’d also tell young hawkers to take things one step at a time”, says Zhang. Despite having a desire to expand the business, but no family member keen on joining the trade, Zhang steadily paces on, serving up the legacy of his family’s laksa, one claypot at a time.