A Taste of the Tropics: Laksa Lemak

Laksa Lemak with Prawns, Quail Eggs and Chicken

Years ago, I used to consider my pantry pretty well-stocked. Overflowing with bottled sauces, vinegars, oils, all sorts of things dried, pickled and salted, pastas, rices, spices and various assorted kitchen sundries, I assumed that as long as I kept collecting, some day I would have everything, and exotic dishes could be whipped up at the drop of a hat. Sicilian sun-dried tomato paste? Got it. Hawaiian red rock salt? Ditto. Pistachio extract and cocoa nibs? Four kinds of dried mushrooms, six kinds of vinegar, and eleven different types of bouillon cubes? I think you get the point. What I hadn’t taken into the equation was just how much more I would need when I started experimenting with Asian food. In the blink of an eye, my pantry was looking very bare indeed.

Asian cooking – and by this I’m specifically referring to Southeast Asian, Chinese and Japanese – was uncharted territory in my kitchen for a long time. Although I’ve always loved eating it, cooking it was something I used to happily leave to the experts, and as long as I was living in places where ethnic restaurants were good and affordable, that seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Another good reason for this was that Asian food always took me outside my ‘culinary comfort zone’ whenever I tried to do it myself. The recipes, in addition to requiring hard-to-find ingredients with strange names, contained confusing abbreviated instructions for things I had no idea how to do: exactly how does one grind rock-hard things to a paste, or steam things in a multi-tiered steamer? Yet whenever I attempted simpler (and obviously ‘Westernized’) versions they never tasted authentic. It wasn’t until I moved to Edinburgh and its lack of authentic Asian restaurants that I realized it was imperative that I track down the right ingredients and master the unfamiliar cooking techniques, or else I would have to bid farewell to some of my most favorite food on the planet. Thankfully, due in no small part to a five-year old craving for a bowl of laksa, I decided to give it my best shot.

I first tasted laksa in Australia, of all places, at a wonderful Malaysian restaurant in Melbourne. Straddling the line between a curry and a soup, it’s really the best of many different Asian traditions and is always a deeply, bottom-of-the-belly satisfying one-bowl meal. It’s a popular street food all over southeast Asia, but particularly in Malaysia and Singapore, where it grew out of a fusion of Chinese and tropical Asian ingredients and techniques. And if you’re interested in the name, as the linguist in me always is, it apparently comes from the Sanskrit ‘laksha’, which means ‘many’, obviously referring to the profusion of ingredients in (if not versions of) the dish.

There are, I’m told, as many versions for Laksa as there are cooks in Southeast Asia, but there are some broad commonalities based on region. Laksa lemak, perhaps the most well known and also known as nonya laksa, is a type of laksa served in a rich, slightly sweet and strongly spiced coconut gravy, and usually features cockles or prawns and a variety of toppings like bean sprouts, fresh herbs, tofu and cucumber. Katong laksa is a variant of laksa lemak from the Katong area of Singapore. Here the noodles are normally cut up into smaller pieces so that the entire dish can be eaten with a spoon alone (that is, without chopsticks or a fork). Penang laksa, also known as asam laksa (from the Malay for tamarind), comes from the Malaysian island of Penang and has a sour tamarind flavor as its main distinguishing feature. Other ingredients that give Penang laksa its distinctiveness include lemongrass, ginger flower, blue ginger (lengkuas) and chilli, and typical garnishes include mint, pineapple slices, thinly sliced onion and a thick sweet prawn ketchup. Finally, Sarawak laksa comes from the town of Kuching in Sarawak, on the Malaysian island of Borneo. It has a base of shrimp paste, sour tamarind, garlic, lemon grass and coconut milk; toppings include beansprouts, omelette strips, chicken strips, prawns, fresh coriander and optionally lime.

The only difficulty I had, considering the myriad types of laksa out there, was to find a recipe that looked both authentic and do-able. There are of course as many recipes you could care to find floating in the wilds of the internet, but I had three in my possession I was determined to use. Two of those are in recently acquired (and very highly recommended) cookbooks, Shiok! by Chris and Terry Tan and Tropical Asian Cooking by Wendy Hutton (and both, I might add, exquisitely photographed by Singapore-based photographers Edmond Ho and Masano Kawana). There was also a recipe Tara sent me from the The Best cookbook which corresponded to their cook-off of Asian noodle dishes I had seen a few years ago on television. After scrutinizing all three for their strengths and weaknesses and worrying about which was the most authentic, I gave up and decided to attempt a fusion of all of them, based on what I could find and what looked good. After trolling the supermarket shelves for several weeks and making a trek into lesser-known parts of the city in search of a rumored Asian supermarket, I finally found everything I needed (and my already-bloated pantry had swollen by yet another size or two).

The laksa that resulted was definitely worth the wait. Crunchy, creamy, slurpy and spicy, it was the perfect antidote to the tasteless westernized Asian food I’ve been suffering for years. I can’t really vouch for its authenticity, but considering the dissenting opinions on that anyway, I’m not going to worry too much – to my long-starved tastebuds, at least, it was perfect. In fact, next to the Sicilian tomato paste, Hawaiian salt and six kinds of vinegar, you’ll now find a section of my bursting pantry devoted to all sorts of things like fermented shrimp paste, sambal olek and Vietnamese rice-stick noodles, ready and waiting for the next Asian-food adventure. This may never be ‘comfort-zone’ cooking for me, but if the results are anything near as good as that laksa, I’ll soon be renting out a storage locker for the inevitable pantry overflow.

Laksa Lemak
Serves: 4

For the laksa paste:
3 large onions, chopped
2 oz (60g) galangal, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
3 oz (90g) fresh ginger, chopped
3 stalks fresh lemongrass, chopped
5 long red chillies, chopped
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ground tumeric
3 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons fermented shrimp paste (belacan), toasted*
1/4 cup dried shrimps, ground to a fine powder

For the sauce:
2 cups (500ml) coconut milk
4 cups (1ltr) good chicken stock
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 – 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
laksa paste (see above)

For assembly:
1 lb (450g) dried round rice noodles, soaked according to package instructions, or 2 lbs (900
g) fresh rice noodles, briefly blanched

4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, sliced
4 shallots, sliced
4 long dried chillies
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
12 hard-boiled quail eggs, or 4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered

12 cooked large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 lb (450g) cooked chicken, cut or torn into strips

1 1/2 cups (150g) beansprouts
4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro/coriander
2 limes, halved
chili sambal, for serving

Process the first 6 ingredients together in a food processor to a coarse paste. Heat the oil, add the paste, and fry over medium heat until the moisture has dried up and the paste is deeply fragrant, about 15 minutes. Raise the heat and add the chili, turmeric and coriander powders; fry 1 minute. Add the shrimp paste and ground shrimp and fry for another 2 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk, chicken stock, salt and sugar, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and boil gently for about 20 minutes, until slightly thickened. Season to taste and keep warm.

Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan and fry the sliced garlic, and separately fry the shallots and chilies for about 30 seconds until crispy and golden brown. Strain and cool. Pound together in a pestle and mortar with the salt and the sugar. Reserve.

Divide the hot drained noodles between four serving bowls. Top with the chicken, shrimp, eggs, and sauce. Scatter with the garlic, shallot and chili mix, beansprouts and coriander. Serve with the limes and sambal.

*To toast shrimp paste, spread it on a piece of foil and put it under a hot broiler or grill for a couple of minures.