It’s fair to say that one of the reasons I came to Singapore was the laksa. Katong, not far from where I now live, is one of the stated birth places of this wonderfully rich spicy curry noodle soup.
For those of you that have never enjoyed laksa because by accident of birth and circumstance you find yourself in the wrong hemisphere, I truly apologise. For those that have been to a food court somewhere and had a tepid mess of overcooked underfresh noodles in a bleak dirty water tinned curry paste broth, I also apologise. You’ve missed out.
Let me start by saying that I know that there are many varieties of laksa, and each of these has a number of names…these names, in turn, often prepended by “The Authentic…”, “The Original…”, or some other title. Given that there is so much controversy on what this laksa or that laksa is actually called, it is not possible to describe it without contradicting one expert or another – and in doing so, cause offense. That said, if I am going to talk about my own laksa journey, I need to define it in my own terms so you’ll know what I am talking about. I am a simple soul, and divide all laksa I’ve experienced to date into two main groups:
- The curry soup with coconut milk in it (Laksa Lemak, Katong Laksa, call it what you will – I’ll stick to the generic Bahasa Melayu “Laksa Lemak” – lemak meaning “fat” or “rich”) – basically, take some hot stock, add curry/shrimp paste, add coconut milk/coconut cream, add noodles of some description, throw in some veggies and one or more of shrimp/pork/beef/chicken. Laksa leaf (Vietnamese Mint or Duan Laksa) is optional in some locations. Add spongy fried tofu, sprinkle with fried shallots/onions, and serve.
- The curry soup without coconut milk in it, usually fish based (Assam Laksa, Laksa Penaeng) – basically, take a fish (usually a Mackarel), boil it until the bones are soft, smoosh fish (bones and all) up into a paste, add a souring agent (lime, calimansi, and/or tamarind pulp) and some curry paste (but no coconut milk). Add noodles, maybe some veggies, sometimes some tofu, and serve.
My first Laksa Lemak experience was at the Dickson Asian Noodle House, in the late 1990s. This family run restaurant is in a suburb in Canberra, Australia, not far from where I grew up. Spicy, rich, tasty, delicious, more-ish, pick an adjective, it was that and more. A hot flavoursome curry soup, rich coconut base, noodles, bits of chicken pork and duck, slightly crunchy choi sum, big triangles of fried tofu soaking up the curry sauce goodness. It changed me. I went back there many times, and still miss it.
To my shame, I only have one picture of a Dickson Asian Noodle House Laksa Lemak available to me here in Singapore – the rest are on hard drives in storage back in Australia. This is a Duck Laksa at meal’s end:
The picture above does no justice to the spicy creaminess of the curry broth and the rich flavour of the slices of duck meat. I enjoyed many laksas at Dickson (mostly duck or vegetable with extra tofu) over the next ten plus years.
I’ve also had Laksa Lemak since in Singapore, Malaysia (West and East), Thailand, and the US. With apologies, I have to say that I am still looking for a better one than I had in Canberra – the richness of the coconut milk/cream and the intensity of flavour are not quite there. I’ll keep looking – but please, if you have a favourite, leave a comment and let me know.
As for Assam Laksa… I’ve enjoyed that in many places too – but the best I have had is the one in the Air Hitam Wet Market, Penang, Malaysia. Apart from the garlic and black bean crab (post to follow), it was the standout highlight of the weekend in Penang a month back. We asked our driver/guide Mr Choong to take us to the best Assam Laksa in Penang – he took us to Air Hitam, away from the tourist bustle of Georgetown and the coastal beach resort areas. Note the price – MYR3.50 is about SGD1.30, and around AUD/USD1.
The laksa stand is on the edge of one of the busy vehicle traffic areas inside the wet market – and if you want to get a picture of the uncle spooning the rich fish curry into bowls of noodles, be careful (the drivers do not stop for tourists)
What is the taste? Sour, spicy, fishy, golden wonderful curry goodness. In it’s own distinct way, this is the Assam Laksa equivalent to the Dickson Asian Noodle House Laksa Lemak.These two best in breed examples share an intensity of flavour, a kind of no holes barred intensity, a fantastic balance of flavour and chili heat – things that I really admire.
I’m not suggesting that you get on a plane to Penang tomorrow, but if you are in the region, it is absolutely worth a visit. I’ve got a post planned on my impressions of Penang as a food tourism destination, and will talk about it more then.
You can see the gleam of bright red chili oil in the shot above – also the chopped shallots and rich black mackerel curry. It may be a little salty for some, but this is the style of the thing and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I opted for larger noodles – they also sell it there with smaller noodles (I’m guessing rice vermacelli – hopefully I’ll get to find out next trip). This shot shows the noodles and some of the other ingredients that were hidden lower down in the bowl.
So… the quest for the perfect Laksa Lemak continues. And I will absolutely be going back to Penang for more of that Assam Laksa from Air Hitam. And I hope, in time, to find more regional variants to be cataloged and described (but above all, enjoyed).