Curious Cook: Figuring out the laksa puzzle


  • Food News
  • Friday, 18 Oct 2019

Laksa-Singapore-Garden

My daughter’s boyfriend recently came back from Singapore and declared his favourite dish is now laksa. I have a lot of empathy with him as laksa is also a strong favourite of mine and it made me realise that I have not had a laksa for years, living in France.

So it was something of a surprise and relief to hear that laksa restaurants are now sprouting around London, a city which I visit several times a year and where I am currently writing this.

To research the dish, my daughter and I planned visits to several restaurants serving laksa but in the end, we only managed two venues due to work and other issues.

In preparation, I did some investigation into what constitutes a laksa. And there is no straight answer due to the varieties of laksa available. One would have thought all laksa would have something in common, but that is simply not the case (with the exception of bean sprouts).

Varieties

As I grew up in Johor, the first laksa I had encountered was Johor Laksa, an idiosyncratic version seldom found anywhere else. It comprises thick noodles, sardine paste tangy with calamansi limes, cooked in coconut curry gravy with laksa leaves and garnished with fresh salad.

Later I discovered a different laksa in Kuala Lumpur, which actually originated from Ipoh. This is a bowl of rice or wheat noodles drenched in a spicy orange/gold soupy gravy prepared with pulverised dried shrimps, curry paste, sambal (shrimp-based chilli paste), garnished with fish cake slices, fried tofu cuts and/or chicken.

Bloody raw-looking cockles are often an extra addition for just a few cents more. This is more commonly known as curry laksa.

Assam laksa is popular in Penang. Photo: Filepic

And in Penang, there is the fragrant but punchy assam laksa, a rice noodle bowl which uses no coconut milk in a broth based on tamarind, lemongrass, belacan (fermented shrimp paste), fish bones and garnished with ginger flower, bean sprouts, cucumber, shaved onions, raw chillies, mint, prawn paste, chopped fish and laksa leaves.

The Singapore laksa seems to be a sanitised variant of curry laksa from Kuala Lumpur or Ipoh, though it does not offer the option of bloody cockles and may introduce char siew (barbecued pork) or roast pork instead.

Laksa leaf

One would have thought that all laksa would necessarily contain the eponymous laksa leaves. But this is not the case as curry laksa typically do not use them. Nevertheless, the leaf itself is an interesting subject.There are actually two kinds of laksa leaf, which taste similar and are used interchangeably. One is known scientifically as Persicaria odorata and the other is Polygonum minus or Polygonum minor.

The first species is commonly known as Vietnamese coriander in the West, daun laksa (Malaysia), Rau Ram (Vietnam) and Phak Phai (Thailand) where it is the main spice in various kinds of tom yam dishes.

The second species is known as daum kesum and is popular in Malay dishes. Both species are related to knotweed and are from the Polygonaceae family; they are both perennial creepers native to South-East Asia.

The daun kesom is a type of laksa leaf. Photo: Filepic

Both species have high concentrations of aliphatic aldehydes in its oils which contribute to their particular aroma and flavours; eg. decanal and dodecanal.

In total, 69 aroma compounds have been identified in the plant oils by chromatography and mass spectroscopy. These compounds are also claimed to have antimicrobial, antioxidant, immuno-stimulant and anti-carcinogenic properties. Additionally, laksa leaves have a relatively wide spectrum of mineral/vitamin nutrients and the high oxalic acid content is also a digestion aid.

In other countries, Persicaria hydropiper, also known as the water-or marsh-pepper, is sometimes confused for the laksa leaf plant. Wild water-pepper contains compounds which can irritate the skin so the Japanese use cultivars (specially cultivated varieties) of water-pepper to make a garnish for sashimi and also an unusual water-pepper sauce served with grilled fish.

History of laksa

Laksa is acknowledged to be a Peranakan concoction, based on the historical co-mingling of Chinese, Malay and Indonesian influences, with probably a touch of Indian as well.

The origin of the word laksa itself is particularly hazy. One leading theory is that it came from the Persian word, “lakhsha” which translates roughly into “slippery”, and possibly alludes to the noodles in the bowl, according to the Oxford Companion to Food.

Or it may have been a bastardisation of the Cantonese words “ley sah” (or “spicy sand”) which references the texture of the ground dried prawns used in some versions. Or it might have come from the Sanskrit “laksha” which is the word for “many” and may be a reflection of the many ingredients in the dish. The least attractive suggested origin may be the corruption of the Hokkien phrase “lup sup” which basically means “messy” or “dirty”.

From the name history, it is feasible that laksa, or at least curry laksa, may have originated before the use of laksa leaves as an ingredient.

Laksa In London – Part 1

As mentioned, I managed to sample only two restaurants serving laksa in London – I am not sure of the exact number of laksa restaurants now but it is certainly far more than when I was last living there over 20 years ago.

My daughter says more than a dozen venues are selling the dish and it is marketed frequently on social media.

Laksa has becoming increasingly popular in the West, with restaurants like Laksamania in London leading the charge. Photo: Chris Chan

It may be laksa is now the current foodie fad in London. It would not be surprising as fads come and go easily (and often) in large metropolitan cities and the surprise is that laksa is doing so well as it would normally be too spicy for Western tastes.

The first place we ambled to was Laksamania, where my daughter had the Ipoh laksa and I ordered the Singapore laksa.

Both were curry laksa and we were curious about the difference. The restaurant is contemporarily pleasant, with lots of elegant dark wood. The laksa duly arrived and both tasted quite good but were missing the undefined “zing” of a real laksa.

Also, one of the laksa (I forget which) also had an unusually strong flavour of star anise which was interesting, but lost it a few marks on the authenticity scale. That is because star anise is not a flavour I normally associate with curry laksa even though it tasted quite pleasant.

Laksa in London – Part 2

I initially had low expectations when we visited the second venue, partly because a senior UK food critic raved about it too fervently. Usually, when a food critic is so biased, it means he likes the food but that does not necessarily apply to everyone else.

I need not have worried as the dining at Singapore Garden is indeed quite good. They only have the Singapore (curry) laksa and it tastes as authentic as what one would expect at a good food court in Kuala Lumpur.

The evening was enhanced by bumping into a waiter we had known for many years and who helped us choose the best dishes on the menu.

Both places were not expensive by London standards and subjectively worthwhile to get over the craving for laksa. I also bought some packs of curry laksa paste to take back to France to try on some adventurous (and unsuspecting) friends.

There is one other curiosity about laksa leaf. In Vietnam, laksa leaves are used to suppress sexual urges, and Buddhist monks grow and eat the leaves to help maintain their celibacy. If you are looking for the opposite effect, then the Vietnamese believe that raw bean sprouts improve libido.

I have not researched these claims though it is interesting that the only ingredient in common with all laksa is bean sprouts.


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