James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

You Can’t Eat Fish Balls All Day If You Don’t Start in the Morning

You Can’t Eat Fish Balls All Day If You Don’t Start in the Morning

Fish ball noodles in Johor Bahru

“So Chris, you eat spicy?” my cousin Yu Ling asks my husband at 7 a.m., the minute he emerges from the guest room with his eyes still half-closed.

“You eat fish balls?”

Chris stands a while before nodding slowly. Now he’s finally awake. But he isn’t perturbed by the question. As a German married to a Malaysian, he knows that being asked about your food preferences first thing is just as polite as a “good morning.”

“Okay, then we go to eat the famous fish balls,” concludes Yu Ling. “Hurry up! The place will be packed soon!”

Really? So early? On a Sunday? In Germany, nothing moves on a Sunday before 11 a.m.

We’ve just spent last night at my uncle’s place in Johor Bahru. From here, it’ll only take us 30 minutes to the border between Malaysia and Singapore. We are bound for Singapore that morning and Yu Ling is intent in getting us all fed before we cross the half-mile causeway by bus.

When we get there, Lai Kee Restaurant is already buzzing with activity: patrons loitering around waiting to be seated; servers briskly weaving through tight spaces, dumping sloshing bowls of fish ball noodles in front of hungry patrons; someone at the front, moving at warp speed between chopping up fish cakes, pinching condiments, blending sauces, dunking in fresh egg or rice noodles into the pork broth to cook.

Yu Ling was right; despite the early hour, there aren’t any tables left.
Lai Kee Fish Ball Noodles is a household name among local residents. The fading mustard color of the restaurant’s sign is physical proof that the restaurant has been around for two decades. People grew up eating this stuff.

The crowd is fast-moving. No one is leisurely chewing the fish balls as though at a lazy weekend brunch. Within five minutes, we are seated not too far away from where the noodles are being cooked. A man quickly appears with a notepad, asking for our orders. “With chili?” he asks, looking at Chris, when Yu Ling tells him to bring us a bowl of fish ball noodles with soup, two bowls of dry versions of the dish and a separate plate of crispy-fried fish cake as appetizer.

“Yes, spicy.”

As we wait, Yu Ling chastises us for not making it back for Chinese New Year. If we’d visited in January instead of mid-February, we’d have the opportunity to eat like there’s no tomorrow, and for free. For Malaysians, it’s always about the food: not economy, not religion, not politics. Food makes us all equal. To eat is to be human. Thankfully, Chris understands this fundamental fact about us: we live to eat, instead of eat to live.

The steaming bowls of wonder come 45 minutes later. With chopsticks, we deftly pick up a mouthful. The taste of dense and springy handmade fish balls complemented with a serving of savory egg noodles, slick with lard, soy sauce, and fiery chili sauce is indeed a natural wonder. The cooked slices of pork that comes with it also add another dimension of flavor. Definitely worth the wait.

“Good?” Yu Ling asks. My mouth is too full to answer.

“The balls are awesome,” Chris splutters. The tips of his ears have gone read. “But damn, the noodles are spicy!”

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