I just landed in Kuching, Sarawak, where I'll be for a couple of weeks on the first proper leg of my research tour of Malaysia.
I've come here for a few reasons, but none so important as the hunt for the perfect Sarawak Laksa.
Arguably my favourite variation of the spicy noodle soup that has become totemic for my love-affair with Malaysian food.
Anyone who's crossed paths with me in the last year or so will most likely have heard me wax
lyrical about Laksa. However, this wasn't always the case...
It's a dirty secret, but there was actually a time when I didn't like Laksa!
"Laksa" was actually on the chalet menu when I worked a ski season in 2008. Consisting of vermicelli and chicken, poached in coconut milk and curry powder... it was pretty insipid. An irrational hatred of Laksa persisted for almost a decade.
But fortunately, a chalet in France is as far from the forefront of gastronomical adventure as the Alps are from Borneo...
I was wrong. Malaysia showed me the light!
Up until now, considering the amount I've talked about Laksa over the last year, this has been another glaring omission from the blogs I've written so far.
This is partly because I wanted to do it justice, and as a result there is a lot to write on the subject.
So, this week we start with Laksa Volume 1: An Origin Story.
Where is Laksa from?
As with most food in the region this is contentious...
The argument tends to go like this:
Malaysia: "It's ours. Singapore just copies our food and markets it as their own"
Singapore: "Shut up. We were part of the same country until 1965. It's not our fault we're so famous"
Indonesia: "Malaysian food doesn't exist. They just steal ours! (or China's or India's...)"
The truth is most of these arguments are likely rubbish, certainly pointless.
Cultures that developed in pre-colonial times rarely pay respect to the borders drawn out by 18th & 19th century imperialism.
Found across Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Southern Thailand (where many Malays live), Laksa is a marriage (literally) of these cultures and beyond.
From the early 15th century, this area saw a huge influx of trade with the Ming dynasty from China. Unlike today, there was no FedEx, long distance travel was unrealistic and therefore trade was conducted in increments, along a network of coastal trading posts. Around these posts permanent Chinese populations developed and, as is often the case in such close proximity, marriages between Chinese traders and local women were inevitable.
This gave birth to the Peranakan people, known as Baba-Nyonya in Malaysia.
Half Chinese, half local.
This was subsequently mirrored in the food culture.
Chinese noodles were married with local spices and ingredients.
Laksa was born.
There are a number of theories as to where Laksa gets it name. Each as etymologically spurious as the last... including:
"Luak Sua" from the Chinese dialect Hokkien, meaning "Spicy Sand". This supposedly refers to the taste and gritty texture from the inclusion of ground dried prawns. However, seeing as this is a soup, even if there was a sandy element it seems far-fetched to refer to it as the defining feature! It's also worth pointing out that ground prawns are only used in a tiny minority of Laksa recipes. These do however include Singapore, which makes me suspicious this might be a ploy from the aforementioned marketeers aiming to increase Singapore's claim on the dish.
"Lakhshah" a Persian word for a type of vermicelli. Supposedly the Chinese general who lead the first settlements of the region was Muslim, therefore may have been influenced through the Arabic world. However, it does seem pretty far-fetched that it would arrive in Malaysia, from Persia, via China in the 15th century.
"Laksha", the Sanskrit for many (or 100,000) and referring to the many ingredients in a bowl of laksa. However, considering this is the origin on the previous explanation (lakhsah), I think we're just making the issue of reliability even more problematic.
"Lup Sup" the Hokkien for dirty due to the appearance of the broth... I mean really? Has this etymologist seen laksa?
"Lak Sa" from the Hokkien for 6 (Lak) and slang for vermicelli (Sa). Supposedly named due to Laksa containing just 6 ingredients. Tune is next week to discover why this is unlikely.
Conflating the first and last definitions, it would be more satisfying if it had found its origin in "Luak Sa" meaning "Spicy Noodles" (for obvious reasons), however this seems to have little traction amongst the expert (and amateur) etymologists on the web.
Despite all this, I think the unsatisfying origin stories add to the legendary status of the dish.
Mysterious to the extreme!
What is Laksa?
As mentioned, Laksa is spicy noodle soup.
However unsurprisingly, for a dish with such a convoluted origin, there is a huge amount of variation within this seemingly simple concept.
Much like the UK seems to have a different accent every 25 miles, this part of the world has a similarly complex patchwork of Laksa variants such has Singapore Laksa, Johor Laksa, Malacca Laksa, Sarawak Laksa, Penang Laksa... (you get the point).
When you finally think you've got your head around the concept, someone will throw a new one at you which seemingly breaks every convention, making you doubt everything you thought you knew.
This is a helpful caveat at this stage...
As next week we'll go into Laksa Vol. 2: The Anatomy of a Great Bowl