Spicy. Pungent. Fragrant. Rich. Subtle. Complex. When it comes to laksa, no single adjective will cut it. It’s the tropical Malay Peninsula in a bowl of soup noodles, as much a fusion of cultures as it is of ingredients. And while it’s certainly a dish worthy of deconstruction, the whole is definitely a lot more than the sum of its parts.
There are several theories regarding the origins of laksa. Perhaps the answer lies with the Chinese explorer Zheng He, whose armada navigated the South China Sea during the Ming dynasty. (He was, despite his name, from a Muslim family, as were many captains in his fleet — which might explain why some etymologists believe ‘laksa’ comes from an ancient Persian word for noodles.)
Chinese people had settled in various outposts in modern-day Malaysia, such as Malacca, long before Zheng He’s first expedition in the early 1400s. But it was after this that the number of migrant traders from the mainland increased. These men married into the local populations and together they formed mixed-race communities called the Peranakans (or Straits Chinese). The menfolk brought the customs of China with them; the women, or ‘Nyonyas’ as they were called, created a culinary hybrid in which native and imported food cultures mingled — in this case, they gave the newly introduced Chinese noodle soup a twist with local flavourings.
Peranakan cuisine, which became known as Nyonya cuisine as a nod to the female cooks, developed many identities across the Malay Peninsula; Malaccan cooks have different recipes from those in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Penang, Sarawak, Kelantan or Johor. Laksa is one of those dishes that both unites and divides these regions. In essence, it’s a spiced-up Chinese one-pot noodle soup. But there are two distinct versions: asam laksa is a tamarind-based fish soup that takes its name from the Malay word for ‘sour’; laksa lemak (meaning ‘fatty’), also known as curry laksa, features coconut milk.
Disagreement as to what laksa should becan divide a neighbourhood. For decades there was tension between hawkers in Singapore’s Katong district as to who made the best one and which was most authentic. Now, that feud has all but fizzled out. Instead, Singaporeans in the know choose between claypot laksa, rich with coconut cream, and a broth simmered over charcoal — the traditional method — to add a hint of smokiness.
Rempah, noodles and gravy
Rempah is shorthand for the curry paste that forms the base of every laksa sub-species. If a recipe had a soul, this would be it. In Southeast Asia, cooks tinker with exotic ingredients such as galangal and raw turmeric — both rhizomes related to ginger — as well as adding personal touches: dried shrimp, candlenuts or lemongrass. For chillies they prefer long, wrinkled dry ones, although fresh ones work too. Sour tamarind is essential to asam laksa, which originated in Penang.
Daun kesum — known variously as Vietnamese coriander, hot mint or laksa leaf — is a key herb for the paste, broth and often the garnish too. According to Mandy Yin of Sambal Shiok laksa bar in London, “It adds a uniquely fresh flavour that elevates the dish.” But while some Chinese supermarkets stock it, it’s not widely available, so the best alternative, Mandy says, is a combination of fresh coriander and fresh mint.
Pressed fermented shrimp paste, or belacan, is thankfully easier to find. When a piece not much bigger than a stock cube is toasted and mixed with the rempah, it delivers an intense umami hit. It also fills the kitchen with a formidable fishy aroma, so turn up the extractor fan to maximum.
Traditionalists claim rempah should be ground using a pestle and mortar, as this best extracts the flavour. That may well be true, but a blender also does the trick. And it’s important to cook it out, long and slow in oil, until it changes from murky red to a bright orange-red. It’s then ready to go, although it tastes even better if it’s left for 24 hours for the flavour to mature.
As a rule of thumb, fish stock is the lubricant of choice for asam laksa, and chicken stock for laksa lemak. However, these lines are often blurred when Nyonya cooks are at home. In Malaysia and Singapore large fresh prawns, mainly farmed, are at hand, and broth made from raw heads and shells gives the dish a bisque-like sweetness. When this is combined with chicken stock, simmered just long enough to extract the gelatinous flavour from the bones, it creates a kind of fusion within what is already a fusion dish.
Gone are the days when old ladies grated coconut to extract the milk — now, it nearly always comes out of a tin. The difference in richness between ‘light’ (73 calories per 100ml) and ‘full-fat’ (120 calories per 100ml) is marked. The variety you choose, and the amount you blend with the stock, will affect texture, taste and appearance.
Nyonya noodles, made from rice flour, are plump and delicate, and worth attempting to make from scratch on a rainy day (try Grace Teo’s recipe at nyonyacooking.com). In appearance they are similar to udon noodles, which are an obvious alternative, as are Vietnamese bun noodles. But there are other options too. In northern Malaysia, for example, rice vermicelli is more popular. In Johor, linked by causeways to Singapore, the preference is for spaghetti, thanks to a sultan who developed a taste for it. Egg noodles work as well — recipes for ‘curry mee’, a popular Chinese adaptation, often call for a mix of rice vermicelli and egg noodles.
Putting it all together
English-speaking Chinese people often describe the soupy part as ‘gravy’. Hawkers dishing up laksa half-fill the bowl with noodles and ladle on enough soup to cover them. The noodles should be bathing, not swimming.
The fun begins with the toppings. Deep-fried tofu puffs are a favourite, usually simmered first so they absorb flavour like a sponge. King prawns, just poached, are standard. The Katong eating houses (and those in Kuala Lumpur) often include cockles. Singapore’s The Original Katong Laksa (also known as Janggut Laksa), a hawker-stall-turned-restaurant dating back to the 1950s, serves it with slipper lobster, once a poor man’s treat but now very rare. Asam laksa includes flaked mackerel; curry mee shredded chicken or cubes of congealed pork blood. Peter Gordon, who introduced Pacific Rim fusion to London, has served smoked duck laksa at London’s The Providores.
Vegetables and, in parts of Malaysia, pineapple bring crunch. Cucumber, green beans and beansprouts provide a cooling freshness to contrast the soup’s kick. More shredded Vietnamese coriander adds the final touch. An optional squeeze of calamansi lime cuts through the coconut milk and rempah.
What’s the best way of eating laksa? Fast-food outlets in Singapore chop up the noodles so they’re easy to eat with a spoon. Purists sniff at this baby-food approach, saying it messes with the taste sensations. The approved method is to tease some noodles onto your chopsticks, wriggle them onto your spoon, then get them into your mouth by any means. The soup left is the follow-up.
As featured in Issue 4 of National Geographic Traveller Food.