I used to make fun of a friend who had never visited Malaysia, even though he had grown up a hop and skip away in Sembawang. No longer. I had to eat my words recently when I realised that I was totally clueless about the famous Malaysian culinary tradition of lok lok. On the off-chance that some readers are not familiar with lok lok, it refers to Malaysian-style steamboat—picture food on skewers, accompanied by numerous dipping sauces, and eaten at a streetside stall.
In the late two years, at least half a dozen lok lok establishments have sprung up across the island. Yet none can beat Zaolek Lok Lok in terms of price and authenticity, especially when the ambience is considered. Located on the ground floor of the Paya Lebar Kovan Community Club, Zaolek doesn’t pretend to be a full-service restaurant: it is not air-conditioned; the joint is often filled with smoke; most surfaces in this eating place are almost certainly greasy. Not that this is a problem—you go to Zaolek to commune with friends and family over good food; besides, the restaurant’s no-frills nature means you get cheap prices.
For instance, adults get to eat all they can for $24 to $27, depending on the day of the week. But don’t let the low prices deceive you: Zaolek is big on quality. Big, juicy prawns; smoked duck; and fresh, leafy vegetables not only make for visually arresting shots; they also maximise the potential of what a steamboat meal can be capable of. Ditto the restaurant’s six soup bases, including the less conventional bak kut teh and satay ($4 extra).
Be warned that the word has spread: Zaolek Lok Lok is now so crowded on weekends that its owner has to turn away scores of diners. When I was there on a Saturday evening late last month, I counted at least eight large groups that had to settle for another dining option because of the full house.
Part of the charm of having Lok Lok lies in getting to choose from an extensive selection of dipping sauces, and Zaolek doesn’t flinch by offering up nine condiments for diners to mix and match. These include:
- Thai Green Chilli Sauce,
- Chilli Crab Sauce,
- Fresh Hainanese Chilli,
- Dark Soy Chilli & Garlic,
- Sweet Bean Paste
But sauces are definitely not Zaolek’s calling card, because any good hotpot place offers a similar array of condiments. Instead, Zaolek shines because it offers diners three different cooking styles:
Diners can boil, barbecue, or deep-fry their skewers. The restaurant’s two dedicated grill and frying stations make light work of customers’ orders—I observed that customers’ orders for deep-fried or barbecued skewers were usually dispatched to their tables no more than 10 minutes after they were submitted.
When I was there that evening, a regular customer waved me over and treated me to a few skewers, purchased a la carte. He was excited that I had come to write about the joint. “Make sure to let everyone know how good this place is,” he beamed at me. Between swigs of beer and deep-fried okra, I grinned. I didn’t need any more persuasion to do so. Just remember to reserve seats in advance. You will need to.
Thank you Zaolek Lok Lok for the invitation.
Zaolek Lok Lok Singapore
Paya Lebar Kovan CC, 207 Hougang Street 21, 530207
Reservations: 6282 4005
5:30–11:30PM Daily (Closed on Tuesdays)