Laksa Vol. 2: The Anatomy of a Great Bowl

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

As caveated at the end of last week's origin story, what makes a laksa can be a difficult thing to put your finger on.


However, through a year of extensive "research", I think every great bowl of laksa can be broken down into the following 4 elements:


1. The Spice Paste

Known as rempah in Malay, this is the very DNA of what makes a dish laksa and not just any old noodle soup.


A laksa needs to be spicy, fragrant and complex. All of which are achieved through the paste.

Elbow Grease: The key ingredient... (or a blender)

There is a myriad of ingredients but at its most basic all laksa paste must include shallots, chilli and lemongrass.


However, rarely does it stop there.


Additional aromatics are often added including roots such as garlic, ginger, galangal & turmeric. Herbs as also added such as torch ginger (a flower with an intense taste midway between coriander stalks and ginger) and daum kesam or Vietnamese coriander (tellingly known locally as Laksa leaf).


Candlenuts are also often included. Similar in appearance to a large macadamia nut, these off additional oil and are useful as a thickening agent.


Belacan is also often added. A dark and pungent paste, formed from fermented krill (often misdiagnosed as shrimp paste). You definitely want this to add a deep umami hit to any laksa... you definitely don't want to package this up with your Christmas presents to add a deep rotten fish smell to your brother's new batik shirt (true story).


Other than the ingredients the most important part of a rempah is the process of frying off the ingredients. Over a medium to low heat, the paste should be mixed with a healthy amount of oil and cooked through. Initially the oil will incorporate with the paste, however over time as the water evaporates the ingredient's aromatic oils are released and the oil will separate.


This technique, which is known as pecah minyak (oil separation), is the key to region's brilliantly fragrant cuisine and the core pillar of Malaysian cooking.

Pecah Minyak: The secret

2. The Broth

The next step is to make up a broth which gives structure to the great flavour we've developed. Depth of flavour, mouth-feel and a savoury umami punch are all key.


This is where variants start to diverge significantly, falling into 3 camps

- Asam

- Lemak

- Mixed


Asam, literally means sour. This is where a souring agent is added to give a clean, spicy and tangy broth. Asam also translates as Tamarind, a fruit often used in south and south eastern Asian cuisines, which is the typical souring agent used. Other laksas utilise other acerbic fruits such as Garcinia Cambogia or Asam Keping.


The most famous Asam variant is Asam Laksa, or Penang Laksa however others include Ipoh Laksa and Kedah laksa, which differ in their sourness and garnishes.

Asam Laksa: Notice the "clear" broth

Laksa, on the other hand, means fat or creamy. This is always added by the addition of santan, or coconut milk. This is often combined with the addition of curry powder, and gives a much richer and more luxurious soup. In the west, if you've had Laksa, this is likely the one you've encountered.


Curry laksa itself has hundreds of regional iterations and in many places is referred to as Curry Mee (noodles). However, beyond this there are a number of specific variations including Laksa Lemak, Nyonya Laksa, Singapore Laksa, Thai Laksa and many of the Indonesian versions, all differing in level of creaminess and curry spicing.

Laksa Lemak: Creamy Curry Laksa

There are also mixed laksas which defy definition into either the Asam of Lemak camps. The most famous of these are Sarawak Laksa (which employs both coconut and tamarind) and Johor Laksa (which uses coconut milk and Asam Keping).


Just to complicate things even more the type of stock used varies wildly. For Asam Laksas this is almost always a fish-based stock. However, for Lemak/Curry Laksas this could be fish, prawn, chicken or a combination of prawn and chicken... are you still with me?!


Laksa Matrix: A rough sketch of how Malaysia & Singapore's Laksas fit in this classification.

3. The Noodles

Noodles are the key sustaining element of what is essentially a working man's breakfast or lunch. Unsurprisingly it is another element where there are multiple variations.


Laksa mee (laksa noodles) are arguably the most prevalent across all the variations, to the point it's easier for me to point out where they aren't used. These are thick rice noodles, between 3mm and 6mm wide. They also vary in chewiness dependent on the amount of tapioca flour added to the rice flour, however usually are fairly soft and infinitely slurp-able.


Mee (yellow egg noodles) are also frequently used in curry laksa and curry mee, particularly when sold in Chinese restaurants and kopitiams (coffee shops). These are much chewier and often served with another type of noodles which you get to choose.


Vermicelli (thin rice noodles) are frequently another options. This is my least favourite, however ironically key to my favourite Sarawak laksa variety. That said, if you can find freshly made vermicelli noodles, they are actually pretty great as retain a lot of their chewiness.

Lastly, down in Johor for their eponymous version, due to a previous Sultan spending a gap year in Italy, even Spaghetti is used!


4. The Extras

Last but not least the extras!


This is where we add a personal touch, extra flavour and texture to the dish.


And yes. There is a huge amount of variation. Arguably the most in any category.


The main garnish would usually be the meat from the protein used for stock - fish, chicken and/or prawns. However additional protein might come from blood cockles, which are intensely salty, iodine-y and oceanic, or even pig-blood pudding (provided the proprietor is distinctly non-halal - mostly Chinese Penangites).


Egg is another common addition. These are usually boiled until solid and strongly sulphuric, however more up-market versions are leaning towards a soft ramen-style egg (pandering to a western palate). Sarawak laksa even used thin, shredded omelette.


Tofu is another addition. The classic Curry Laksa uses absorbent tofu puffs, which act as a broth sponge and are fantastic little bursts of flavour (just make sure they laksa isn't boiling hot!) Singapore style laksa uses a more standard tofu slice as an additional (cheap) source of protein.


Additional vegetables are also almost always included. As well as ensuring a balanced meal, these also add additional texture and brightness to a dish. Beansprouts, cucumber and onion provide crunch, whereas pineapple, torch ginger, fresh lime, mint and laksa leaf provide zing.


Last, but by no means least, most laksa will be served with an additional dollop of sambal made from chilli and belacan (shrimp paste). This is an optional additional, however lets the eater control the spiciness and strength of flavour. Though I have no idea why someone would choose to limit the greatness of a bowl by leaving this out!



 

So, there it is.


Laksa.


In all its complexity and glory.


An idiosyncratic amalgam, born out of a literal marriage of cultures and ingredients.


As weird and wonderful as the region it calls home.


My favourite!


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