Flavour-drenched, hit-the-spot comfort food, a rush of spices or a hit of bracing tang, made with wheat noodles, rice noodles or even al dente spaghetti – laksa has many faces, and they’re all delicious.
At its heart, it’s a dish of noodles in a spiced gravy, which can have a creamy coconut milk base or a sour asam base. A bowlful then brims with fish flakes, prawns, chicken and even blood cockles or roast pork, and shredded cucumber, pineapple, bean sprouts and herbs... and often, a spoonful of fiery sambal or pungent prawn paste, making the dish further customisable to each diner.
In Malaysia, the different incarnations of laksa are bound by more than just a loose structure and character, of noodles in gravy – daun kesum is also called laksa leaf, because it’s used so extensively in the various versions of the dish. Most laksas are perfumed by it, along with other herbs and spices.
Sound simple? It’s not. Here, almost every state has its own version of laksa, and broad interpretations of the one dish can also span hazy regional borders – such as laksam which is a white-on-white dish of thick, rustic rice noodle rolls in a pale, rich gravy of coconut milk and fish (or more rarely, eel), popular in the northern states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah.
“When you look at the styles in Peninsular Malaysia especially, it feels like there is a natural geographical progression from north to south, from the more sour, thin gravies to the creamy, rich ones, ” said celebrity chef Isadora Chai.
“Malaysians are very familiar with and possessive of their own regional or state laksas – I think there’s an emotional connection for a lot of people, who have been eating a particular laksa all their lives, ” she said.
You also find laksa in Thailand, where it’s called khanom jeen, made with rice noodles and also manifesting in various incarnations, and in Indonesia, where permutations of the dish are specific to towns and cities. In Singapore, the coconut milk-based Katong laksa is extremely popular, traceable to the Straits Chinese community based in the Katong precinct.
There are various origin theories for laksa – in different countries, usually traceable to interactions between Chinese traders or settlers, who brought their own thin noodle soups with them, and locals, who then decked out those broths with local herbs and spices, and coconut milk.
While it’s difficult to pinpoint its specific origins in Malaysia, in states like Melaka and Penang especially – both enclaves of the Peranakan community – the dish seems to have been born among the ranks of the Peranakans, the descendants of Chinese traders marrying local Malays.
What is evident though, as you contemplate such a lush bowl of plenty, is that it is a fusion of sorts, in the best sense of the word – cultures, states and regions contributing various elements to come up with an extremely delicious whole.
Curry laksa is thick and rich, with just a hint of sweetness from the addition of thick coconut milk.
Possibly the best examples are the ones you find in the Klang Valley and Melaka, which are usually garnished with tofu pok (bean curd puffs), chicken, fish cake slices, prawns, blood cockles and long beans. The finishing touch? That spoonful of sambal and a scattering of mint.
"Melaka laksa is quite straightforward to cook, because there’s no fish involved, you don’t have to flake the fish flesh, so it’s the fastest to cook, ” said recipe developer and cookbook author Debbie Teoh.
In Penang, where curry laksa is also known as curry mee, there are two variants of the dish using yellow Hokkien noodles – one served doused in chicken curry the colour of a fiery sunrise, the other in a pale, thin coconut milk base (this has now come to be known as white curry mee).
Aromatic chilli paste is then added according to one’s taste. In white curry mee, the Chinese side of laksa’s identity is manifested strongly – via cubes of congealed pork blood!
“Curry mee is what I’d choose if I wanted something creamy yet light, ” said Teoh.
The thin, sour laksas spiked with asam are usually made with asam gelugor, dried slices of the Garcinia atroviridis fruit, with its slightly astringent, clean sour hit that makes your lips pucker, as opposed to the sweet-sour pulp of asam jawa or tamarind (Tamarindus indica). Some laksas use a combination of the two and in a pinch, you can sub one for the other – only the very discerning will notice the rounder, fuller mouthfeel of tamarind.
Sour, spicy and laden with the intensely fishy appeal of flaked mackerel, then perked up with turmeric and freshened with pineapple, chilli, mint, laksa leaves and bunga kantan (torch ginger flower), Penang’s asam laksa is deservedly famous – and it’s still not asam laksa until a spoonful of pungent hae kor (fermented prawn paste) is stirred into the heady mix.
“Ikan parang is the best fish to use – it’s sweet, with a melt-in-the-mouth texture – but it’s also the most work to get the flesh off the many small bones, ” said Teoh.
In July 2011, CNN Travel ranked the dish at No. 7 for deliciousness, in a list of 50 foods in the world (later that year, a public poll saw it fall to the 26th rung though).
Perlis and Kedah laksas are similar, but the former is often made with catfish or eel, while the latter sees hard-boiled egg slices added, as well as various ulam. Malay sellers tend to serve it with a spoonful of sambal nyiur, or coconut sambal.
In this way, laksa also illustrates the differences in area, highlighting the produce farmed or produced in a state – such as the use of freshwater eels, fresh rice noodles in the rice-rich northern states, or the fact that Johor doesn’t really grow rice much – as well as cultural influences from the ethnic communities in an area.
And then there are laksas that defy convention like the laksa Siam found in Penang and Kedah that is a further fusion of both asam and curry laksa!
This rich laksa is sour and fishy like asam laksa, and rich with spices and coconut cream at the same time – what you would call the best of both worlds.
In Johor, the creamy laksa gravy – enriched with asam gelugor as well as lemongrass, galangal and dried prawns – is characteristically served with spaghetti, making its fusion roots stretch further beyond borders than most.
According to Kalsom Taib and Hamidah Abdul Hamid in Johor Palate: Tanjung Puteri Recipes, Johor’s well-travelled Sultan Abu Bakar (who ruled the state from 1886 to 1895) loved pasta from his first visit to Italy; he instructed his chefs to switch out the traditional noodles for the pasta, and Johor laksa was born.
On Malaysia’s East Coast, a tale of two laksas is told.
Skirting the coasts of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang – and finding their way to Johor on occasion – these are the Rose Red and Snow White of a very different (and delicious) fairy tale.
Siblings, they are laced with the fish and coconut milk that you would expect from their lands of origin, but manifest quite differently.
The kuah putih, or white gravy, sees its noodles in a simpler, cleaner, milder gravy. It’s particularly popular in Kelantan, where it’s synonymous with the eponymous Laksa Kelantan.
In the state, its purity of colour is maintained by the common use of tenggiri, with its marble-pale flesh, in homes. If you buy it from a street vendor though, you’re likely to find the cheaper ikan kembung instead.
Laksa kuah putih gives the humble white pepper a dominant role in a way that few dishes do – it’s the predominant flavour in the thick coconut milk gravy, with a supporting cast of shallots, ginger and lemongrass. A squeeze of lime freshens the gravy after its slow cooking treatment.
It’s a gravy that is similar to the one that bathes laksam; what differentiates them is the thick, rustic rice rolls that you’ll find in laksam.
Both dishes are finished with a generous handful of vegetables and fragrant herbs – finely-sliced long beans, bean sprouts, cucumber, with Thai (daun selasih) or holy (daun kemangi) basil and the ubiquitous laksa leaf (daun kesum).
“Terengganu is the only state where both laksa kuah putih and kuah merah – which we also call ‘kuah masak’ – are offered alongside for choice in the markets, ” To’ Puan Rosita Abdullah, author of Kayu Manis: A Tribute to Terengganu told Flavours magazine in a 2012 article.
“The Terengganu kuah masak uses less fish, unlike in Pahang, where the gravy is thicker. The laksa paste can easily be bought in the market and fish used could be tenggiri, kembung or selayang.
“The fresh green topping can include shredded brinjal and daun jambu golok (cashew nut shoots).”
Because of its comparative mildness, you’ll find laksa kuah putih eaten for breakfast more often.
Also based on coconut milk, kuah merah has extra fish power – in addition to the fresh ikan kembung or tenggiri it’s usually made with, the deeper, more layered flavour of salted fish is also often discernible.
In addition to the other toppings, the intensely orange-yolked salted duck egg can also be a topping, as can daun kaduk (wild pepper leaf).
“People usually make one or the other, ” said Datin Munira Salinger, in Red & White Laksas (Flavours, 2012).
In the Pahang-born former teacher’s autobiography, My Story, you’ll find illustrations of her long-held enthusiasm for researching the history and culture of Malay food in particular, with some of her favourite recipes.
She says that the kuah merah is a grander dish with more planning and prep involved, and so usually saved for more elaborate functions, rather than one-dish meals at home.
“It is something that one gives to family members living nearby – often sent in a tiffin carrier as a gift, and one would provide enough to feed the whole family, ” she said.
Hopping across the South China Sea, you’ll find Sarawak Laksa – a dish so fabulously rich that it sees foodies’ ears pricking up all over the country at the mere mention.
While its home state boasts the most proliferation, you’ll also find it in Sabah, and in neighbouring Brunei.
The fact that Sarawak laksa is made from a paste with a multitude of ingredients that also remains a jealously-guarded secret only adds to its mystery-wreathed allure.
Often, when you find the dish on a menu in Peninsular Malaysia, it’s been made with the paste specially-ordered from Sarawak; a few adventurous chefs do attempt to replicate it solely by taste, but Sarawak laksa is unique in its common status as being more often made from a paste made and imported from its home state. This is so even when the dish is cooked at home.
The fiery, crimson gravy is laced with spices like cumin, star anise, fennel, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, white pepper and coriander, and includes a chunk of belacan along with the ginger, chillies, lemongrass, galangal and shallots. Both chicken and prawn stocks are used, and there are also roasted, ground peanuts, sesame seeds and candlenuts in there.
That explains its distinctive, delicious complexity and richness, but the key is in getting the ratio of every ingredient right.
Its origins, like those of many local dishes, are anchored more in lore than stone.
There’s a legend that in 1945, Goh Lik Teck, a Teochew migrant from Guangzhou, China, started selling a simpler version of the dish – with just six ingredients – in Kuching’s Carpenter Street.
Another story has the laksa emerging from the Chinese and Malay cultural collusion, rather than just one noodle-seller.
In the 1960s, Goh’s family started making and selling the paste to other vendors; around the same time, businessman Tan Yong Him started selling the paste commercially under the Swallow brand, and other bird-oriented brands soon followed suit.
Laksa paste and intense gravy aside, the other building blocks of Sarawak laksa are rice vermicelli, shreds of chicken and omelette, prawns and fresh coriander leaves. A spoonful of piquant sambal and lime halves are always served on the side.
And that’s the dish that Anthony Bourdain tweeted was the “breakfast of the gods” in 2015, when he revisited Kuching’s famous Choon Hui Cafe for CNN’s Parts Unknown; it was his second visit to the very same coffee shop, after his 2005 stop there for the Travel Channel’s No Reservations.
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