Discovering ingredients behind Sarawak laksa

LAKSA is a dish that has a different meaning depending on where you come from.

Although by definition laksa is a spicy noodle soup, various states in Malaysia have their own spin on this dish, each offering a different culinary experience.

Sarawak laksa became world famous when the late Anthony Bourdain claimed that this “breakfast of the gods” is “one of the foods served in heaven” and featured it twice in his shows --- for Travel Channel’s No Reservations and CNN’s Parts Unknown.

I discovered when preparing it that Sarawak’s laksa is distinctive not so much for the combination of herbs and spices in the broth.

The biggest difference is how it is thickened not just with coconut milk but with roasted ground sesame seeds and peanuts.

Many ingredients are needed to make the perfect Sarawak laksa. — Photos: YAP CHEE HONG/The StarMany ingredients are needed to make the perfect Sarawak laksa. — Photos: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

This recipe, one of the simpler made-from-scratch Sarawak laksa recipes, was previously published in Flavours magazine, and is stored in the archives.

However, even many true-blood Sarawakians are opting for ready-made spice paste because of the many components required before cooking the dish.

Do not be intimidated by the number of ingredients though.

Some of the roasting and toasting of ingredients can be done ahead of time, and even the broth can be prepared a day before if coconut milk is added just before serving.

While laksa from other states are served with either laksa noodles (Penang, Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang), wheat noodles with or without rice vermicelli (Perak, Selangor and Melaka), or spaghetti (Johor), Sarawak laksa uses only rice vermicelli.

Sarawak laksa has been described by Bourdain as ‘breakfast of the gods’.Sarawak laksa has been described by Bourdain as ‘breakfast of the gods’.

A Sarawak laksa stall at a Chinese coffeeshop in Petaling Jaya uses Sarawak mee kolo noodles and I learned from my colleague Tina Loh from Kuching that this is not the norm.

She advised that laksa in Kuching is only served with chicken.

Combined with prawns, these two meats provide proteins to enrich the broth and garnish the dish.

Some recipes also include sliced fish cake as a topping, which you may add if desired.

One topping missing from this recipe, though, is julienne omelette.

Loh says the egg is a crucial ingredient and remembers from having helped her mum cook the dish at home.

I decided to include it too.

Although Loh also insisted on belacan in the sambal condiment, this recipe listed only dried shrimps.

I felt that it was essentially the same basic ingredient but in different form, as everyone was wowed by its taste despite the absence of belacan.

You may add belacan if you wish.

I know that although it may not be viewed as authentic by many Sarawakians, I hope this recipe makes a good tribute to their state dish. Happy Gawai to all.

Sarawak laksa


10 red chillies

2 bulbs red onions

1 clove garlic

50g dried shrimps

8 tbsp cooking oil

Spice paste

150g small onions

125g garlic

150g galangal

30g red chillies

4 stalks lemongrass, white part only

10 dried chillies, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes

30g candlenuts

20g cumin seeds

55g coriander seeds

3 pods star anise, dry toasted and ground

4 buds cloves, dry toasted and ground

1 nutmeg kernel, pounded

5 pods cardamoms, seeds only


1kg fresh prawns

500g chicken breast or pork

2 litres cold water


12 tbsp palm oil

75g sesame seeds, toasted and ground

150g peanuts, toasted and ground

1 tbsp curry powder

2 tsp salt to taste

2 tbsp sugar

1½ litres chicken and prawn stock

2 cups coconut milk


00g rice vermicelli, scalded

5-6 calamansi limes, halved

1 bunch coriander

200g beansprouts, scalded

1 cucumber, shredded

2 eggs, made into an omelette and julienne-cut shredded chicken meat or pork poached prawns sambal


To make the stock, remove the prawn heads and shells. Marinate the flesh with sugar for 30 minutes. Place the prawn heads and shells in a stock pot, add water and bring to a boil.

Simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes. Strain the broth through a wire sieve and discard the heads and shells.

Bring the stock to a boil and add prawns, poach for five minutes until cooked.

Then cool down completely before splitting each prawn into two halves.

Bring the stock back to a boil and add meat.

If using chicken, poach for 10 to 15 minutes over medium heat until fully cooked, then remove from the heat to cool down before shredding.

If using pork, poach for 20 to 30 minutes over medium heat until tender, then remove from the heat to cool down before shredding.

To make the sambal, blend all ingredients with a little oil in an electric mill into a fine paste.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and saute the sambal paste until fragrant and oil separates. Set aside.

To make the spice paste, blend all the ingredients with a little oil into a fine paste.

Heat the oil in a frying pan and saute the spice paste until fragrant, then add sesame seeds, peanuts, curry powder and seasonings.

To make the laksa broth, place the spice paste in a large saucepan and add stock and coconut milk. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat, adding more stock if necessary, to adjust its consistency.

To serve, divide the vermicelli among bowls and ladle the broth over it, then garnish and serve piping hot with sambal.

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Laksa , Sarawak laksa , Sarawak , Gawai Dayak


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