Sarawak Laksa: An Odyssey Pt. 1

Updated: Nov 23, 2019

I was in Borneo with a mission.

A mission to explore a corner of this world few people have ever laid eyes upon.

A mission for a Sarawak Laksa recipe.

I would understand if you were to scoff at the notion of an unobtainable recipe, however trust me: this was my most significant challenge to date.

Firstly, what is Sarawak Laksa.

Many readers of the blog may already know this from previous posts (here & here), however for those that don’t:

Laksa is a delicious concoction consisting of noodles, in a spicy broth, with various toppings of protein and/or veg.

Of these, Sarawak Laksa is my all-time favourite.

Anthony Bourdain described it as the “breakfast of the gods”, however I can assure you it goes way beyond that... an any-time-or-place showstopper. Immortal.

The Holy Grail: Bourdain's Sarawak Laksa spot @Choon Hui Kuching

Vermicelli noodles are topped with shredded chicken, prawns and finely sliced omelette. However, the real star of the show is the complex, rich and spicy broth which defines this bowl of heaven.

A spicy broth is balanced with creamy coconut milk, sour tamarind and savoury belacan shrimp paste. The result ensuring each spoonful is maddeningly moreish. On top of this a complex spice blend, made from exotic spices and fragrant aromatics, dials up the flavour to an astronomical degree.

As someone currently designing a street food venture to take to the public, I have a hit list of dishes that I would love to recreate back in the UK. This is number 1 on that list.

Travelling to Sarawak as part of this research, I ran into some difficulty.

It quickly became apparent that, like many addictive substances, Sarawak Laksa was controlled by a cartel. A closely controlled monopoly. The kingpins of which, the Tan family, have controlled the recipe since the 60s.

Interestingly there is almost no culture of cooks, even the restaurants, producing their own paste from scratch. Almost all laksa produced in Sarawak uses a pre-made laksa paste bought from the Tan family or a handful of other suppliers.

Unsurprisingly these guys are not very keen to share their secret to business success.

I clearly had some detective work to do.

Ground Zero: The building where Sarawak Laksa was born

The first task at hand was to acclimatise my taste buds…

This involved eating a lot of laksa.

A tough job… however I was up to the challenge.

In just over 2 weeks I ate 19 different laksas from 19 different stalls and restaurants. Considering I spent a fair chunk of these 2 weeks in different parts of the state, or even in an Iban longhouse… this was quite a rate (usually 2 per day).

Locals thought I was crazy, but I was brave enough to put my body on the line... (be it in the form of high cholesterol).

This helped me identify the type of laksa I want to cook. Important factors I identified included: quality toppings, noticeable chicken and prawn flavour in the broth, the balance of coconut milk, fragrance and acidity, a decent kick from chilli and Sarawak black pepper etc.

However, in terms of a recipe I was still at a loss.

Language was obviously a barrier. However, even when I wasn’t completely hobbled by being predictably monoglot Brit, one of several problematic scenarios would arise.

  • Scenario A – False Leads

I talked to every single person I could do about Laksa over 2 weeks… lamenting about the total lack of a dependable recipe for the paste.

Often the taxi driver or poor soul at the bar that I was lamenting to would answer “don’t be silly, of-course there is a recipe! My mum/grandma makes the best Laksa in Sarawak!”

After a call home, this was always disappointingly disproved. Even mum/grandma bought the paste.

  • Scenario B – Ingredient Confusion

I met a lot of knowledgeable cooks, and even more knowledgeable eaters in my time there.

In all my discussions there seemed to be next to no consensus about many of the ingredients involved.

“Lemongrass?” I asked… “no way!” (Despite it being one of the named ingredients on the paste package”

There are also between 20 and 0 spices added, depending on who you speak to. Annoyingly these are listed in the ingredients as just “rempah” of “spices”, so their identification is understandably difficult.

The internet seems to think Coriander seeds are the prevailing flavour, yet I’m not too sure.

Sarawak black pepper, I am certain on. Yet. I could find you 10 people in Sarawak that both disagree and agree with this in equal severe intensity.

This was when I started to worry about the task at hand.

  • Scenario C – Sworn Secrecy

Likely the biggest barrier to my success was a tendency of many people in this part of the world to guard their recipes as you would a deep dark family secret that might destroy you...

Beyond the obvious issue of the recipes being controlled by businesses, this is also a massive issue when trying to learn from home cooks.

Particularly in the Chinese community, a recipe can be seen as an extension of your very being. Something so intimate and personal that you would never even put a pen to paper to record it... let alone share it with some random British guy lamely trying to charm it out of you.

You might think I'm exaggerating but I have even heard of people not passing their recipes on to their own children! Doubtful that they would do the recipe justice they would quite literally prefer to die with it than pass it on to an unreliable guardian.

I was in trouble.

Guardians of the Laksa (see): The tight-lipped protectors of the recipe.

So what next.

I returned back from Sarawak with no clearer idea of how to make their Laksa paste by hand.

I'm seriously looking into starting an export company to fix this problem (the Laksa is that good, it must be worth it).

But first, a look at what I did return with:

  • A few good leads as to ingredient

  • Some packets of the shop bought paste

  • Around 6lbs worth of knowledge (mostly stored abdominally)

So it's time for an experiment!

Join me next week for Sarawak Laksa: An Odyssey Pt. 2

Let's reverse engineer this mf!

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