Laksa Noodles, Beloved SE Asian Street Food
The last time I was in the US, I adapted a traditional recipe for laksa lemak using the ingredients I could source locally. See the recipe or keep reading and find out about the many different types of laksa noodles.
Alongside the Malacca River, in Southern Malaysia, a heavy salty breeze travels from the seaside through the open door of a narrow, riverside noodle shop. From the kitchen, I can smell the rich, briny scent of Nyonya laksa – a delicious dish of rich creamy coconut curry served over fresh round rice noodles, topped with thinly sliced, crispy-fried shallots, spongy deep-fried tofu puffs and sliced white onion. Nyonya laksa can be served with shrimp or chicken, bean sprouts, Vietnamese coriander and sometimes a hard boiled egg. Vietnamese coriander, called daun kesum or duan laksa in Malay (phak phai ผักไผ่ in Thai) is a pungent fresh herb popular in Southeast Asian cuisine. Nyonya laksa showcases the Chinese and Malay heritage of Melacca’s Peranakan cuisine.
Laksa, a very popular Asian street food, is a strongly-flavored soup or curry served with rice or egg noodles, meat or seafood, and pungent condiments like sambal or shrimp paste (belacan in Malay). Many different types of laksa are served throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Thailand, but basically there are two types: a spicy coconut milk curry, with many variations including laksa lemak, curry mee and Nyonya laksa or or a sour and spicy fish-based broth called asam laksa.
In the North of Malaysia, Penang’s asam laksa is composed of a spicy sour broth of shredded steamed mackerel, seasoned with a chili and spice paste and tamarind (asam is Malay for tamarind). The distinctive flavor of this famous soup is further enhanced with the addition of sliced ginger flower (bunga katan), which is unfortunately impossible to procure in the West. Other garnishes consist of red chillies, diced pineapple, shredded cucumber, sliced onions, and a spoonful of black prawn paste (hae ko) to thicken the soup. Asam Laksa is available from hawker stands in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia and is enjoyed as a favorite snack or light meal.
The last time I was in the US, I adapted a traditional recipe for laksa lemak using the ingredients I could source locally. After multiplying the portions, this was a simple and memorable main dish at a dinner-party for twenty. Guests prepared their own bowls with their favorite combinations of noodles, shrimp, seafood, bean sprouts, and vegetables, drowned in the rich curry broth. A side of homemade chili garlic oil let each person control the heat. For me, spoiled by Thai shrimp, I was disappointed with American frozen shrimp, but fresh mussels from Maine more than made up for it — their firm freshness filled out the flavor of the broth. You can find my Laksa Lemak recipe in our recipe section.
If you would like to explore the world of laksa in even more depth, Chef David Thompson offers another version of Thai Laksa in his famous pink cookbook. This recipe is far more involved than my recipe, with directions for a fresh laksa paste with many ingredients and a homemade curry powder. It is a laborious process, but grinding and cooking the spices would be certain to make your kitchen smell like an authentic laksa stand.
There are many, many more regional varieties of Laksa, and the dish differs even between vendors. Do you have a favorite version that we didn’t mention? Please let us know in the comments, we would love to hear from you!
Images Nyonya Laksa and Curry Laksa © 2013 Kaitlyn Moore. Image Laksa Asam © 2013 cokemomo / 123RF Stock Photo