NOT quite Italian, not quite Peranakan, that strange hybrid called laksa pesto pasta has been appearing on more menus here.
All the eateries say they came up with the dish on their own, but the dish probably first appeared on the menu of PS Cafe in 1999 when it opened inside the fashion boutique Project Shop in Paragon.
Today, there are at least three other versions of this pasta, and it has become so popular that eateries offering it dare not take it off their menus for fear of upsetting fans.
The dish is essentially an Asian take on the Italian herb sauce called pesto, made with crushed basil, pine nuts and garlic, smoothed out with olive oil and given a hint of richness with parmesan cheese.
But pungent, aromatic laksa leaves, an important garnish for Peranakan laksa, are used as the main ingredient of laksa pesto sauce.
PS Cafe's aromatic laksa pesto pasta is the product of a creative collaboration between owners Philip Chin, 47, and Peter Teo, 44, both of whom are trained as fashion designers rather than as cooks.
'We're both foodies, we love to eat and we cook, but we're not gourmet chefs,' says Mr Chin.
So in formulating the cafe's menu, the duo stuck to the simple mantra of using ingredients in an innovative way.
Mr Chin says: 'We were looking to serve pesto pasta in an interesting way and we love laksa, especially the herb flavour of laksa leaf, so we came upon the idea for the dish.'
Their sauce is a blend of laksa leaves, sunflower seeds and pine nuts in olive oil and the dish comes with fishcake chunks and longbean sambal.
Other eateries offering variations of laksa pesto pasta say they were unaware of PS Cafe's version when they came up with the dish.
Mr Lee Kay Bee, 45, general manager of newly opened Persimmon in the Link Hotel at Tiong Bahru, says he started selling the dish at his former restaurant, Pacific Breeze, in Robertson Quay in 2001.
The self-taught cook says the idea came from a regular customer who is an avid cook.
'He told me about the laksa pesto pasta he cooked at home and suggested I try the tasty dish,' says Mr Lee. 'He said the idea of using laksa leaf in the pesto came about because he had a laksa leaf plant in his garden.'
His neighbours at Robertson Quay, Ms Sharon Lim and Ms Helena Lim, who own Epicurious cafe, were such big fans of his cuisine and laksa pesto pasta that they roped him in to run their second eatery, Persimmon, and added the dish to the menu.
Persimmon's version consists of only laksa leaves and olive oil. The sauce is tossed through linguine, some cream and topped with bamboo clams, little neck clams and scallops.
While chilli is not added to the sauce, Mr Lee says it is available on the side upon request 'because the mention of laksa is often associated with something hot and spicy'.
For chef Willin Low, 35, of Wild Rocket at Mount Emily, the dish came about as a creative challenge.
He says: 'The restaurant used to be the cafeteria of Hangout Hotel and laksa was a popular item on its menu. The landlord urged me to continue serving laksa but the dish in its original form wouldn't fit well with the other items on my menu.
'So I experimented with the dish and eventually came up with laksa pesto pasta.'
His version, introduced in 2005, has a pesto sauce made of laksa leaves, sunflower seeds, pine nuts, fresh chilli and olive oil. The dish is served with tiger prawns and quail eggs.
The fusion dish was also on the lunch menu at Halia in the Botanic Gardens in 2005. Its pesto sauce consisted of laksa leaves, cashew nut, peanut oil and garlic. The linguine pasta, served with little neck clams, also had blue ginger rempah tossed into it.
According to a restaurant spokesman, the dish was generally well-received but it was taken off the menu to make way for new offerings.
There is even a laksa pasta at Tea Cosy in the Eclectic Attic boutique in Plaza Singapura.
Its version is closer to real laksa. Fusilli pasta and prawns sit in a red creamy laksa lemak gravy made from laksa paste.
Tea Cosy owner Martin Tan, 31, says the dish was introduced in 2006 and has been one of the top sellers at the cafe.
And whether it is laksa pesto pasta or laksa pasta, diners here are warmly embracing the fusion dish.
Legal recruiter Surene Virabhak, 38, a regular Wild Rocket customer who orders the dish every time she visits, says: 'This fusion dish captures the essence of pesto pasta while adding a familiar local flavour to it.'
For marketing manager Florence Chua, 29, who likes Tea Cosy's laksa pasta, the dish is an 'interesting interpretation of a popular local dish'.
Italian chefs here do not see the fusion dish as a culinary travesty either.
Chef Michelangelo Sanelli, 55, of Italian restaurant Michelangelo's in Chip Bee Gardens, serves laksa risotto and linguine rendang at his eatery and sees no problem with laksa pesto pasta.
He says: 'Everybody has his own idea of what he likes and as long as he is happy, it's okay.'
Chef Roberto Galetti, 37, of Garibaldi in Purvis Street, has tasted the laksa pesto pasta at Wild Rocket and says: 'The dish is not an authentic Italian dish and one cannot pass it off as the original, but it tastes very nice.
'Some customers want traditional food and others want to try something unique so there's room for every type of pasta.'
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Mar 2, 2008.
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