As discussed, Sarawak Laksa is a mystery.
An enigma, waiting to be cracked.
But how to decode it…
A good place to start seemed to be the shop-bought paste that the vast majority of Sarawakians rely upon.
So, utilising my limited Bahasa Malay (and a lot of Google translate) I set to deciphering the ingredients of some of the most readily available pastes on the market.
What I found was this:
Looking at the results it was clear that the elusiveness of this recipe was going to persist.
Firstly, it’s clear that there are some ingredients that are consistently present – shallots, garlic, salt, galangal, spices and lemongrass are all included 4 times, chilli is only in 3 however this is probably because it’s included as one of the spices.
Beyond this however there are a number of less consistent inclusions, however these are generally broken down into 3 groups seasoning (sugar & MSG), oil (regular or palm) and nuts/seeds (candlenuts, peanuts, sesame). Considering these are used for specific purposes i.e. seasoning, lubrication, fat content, I suspect they are largely interchangeable.
Unfortunately, it seems the ingredient list won’t be much use in deciphering the quantities of each ingredient. This is clear due to the seemingly random ordering, however also the fact salt appears so highly on each list. If this was by weight all of these pastes would be inedible.
The most annoying point however, has to be that spices are included as a generic term. No information is surrendered. Considering there are supposedly 20 different ingredients in the paste, this leaves a huge amount of room for interpretation (and mistakes).
So what next?
Looking at the ready-made paste seemed like a good idea. Opening up a packet of the Eagle brand there are a few things you notice:
Smell – this is overtly spiced. Due to the pure number of ingredients it’s hard to identify what, however there is definitely a "Christmassy" aroma of cloves/nutmeg/cinnamon.
Taste – the paste is actually pretty palatable. Again, it’s difficult to discern, however you can definitely taste coriander, a moderate hit of chilli and a number of earthier notes.
Texture – this is smooth, however there is that definitely graininess from the dry spice components.
Appearance – this paste is beautifully dark and fairly homogeneous. It’s difficult to asses how this is achieved, however a long cooking time and added sugar likely contribute to this level of caramelisation.
Interesting, however no where nearer to a working recipe.
It seemed like the next step was obvious. T'internet.
Fortunately, I’m not the only person to have become so obsessed about this conundrum and online there are a couple of blogs that have tried to develop a recipe.
I found 2 really good blogs that seemed a good place to start:
3 Hungry Tummies, a Melbourne based blog claiming to have “cracked” the secret to Sarawak Laksa paste
Guai Shu Shu who’s done an analysis of the 3HT recipe and others, trying to find a solution through collective intelligence.
The ingredient lists largely matched up to the rough idea I had in my head.
There were, however a few reservations.
They identify the key spices as – coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves, star anise. I would add to this Sarawak Black Peppercorns, which I'm certain is a main component.
The dosage of coriander was verging on the ridiculous, at 300g which is about a pint and a half. Although this was to make a monster batch it seemed excessive.
The 3HT recipe included belacan and tamarind for umami and sourness respectively. This is definitely a flavour in the broth, however specifically not included in the paste ingredients.
They both used fresh chillis for additional vibrancy. Considering the earthy tones, I don’t believe adding this additional freshness will help (they do point out this was the aim).
GSS’s recipe used dried powders for the spices as well as some of the aromatics (Galangal and Lemongrass). This might add to the earthiness and perhaps the dark colour, however I think fresh would taste better.
I was fairly confident I could improve on their great work.
It was time to devise a test.
What I planed was to cook 4 different broths from 4 pastes, as follows:
Control. Store-bought Sarawak Laksa paste – Eagle Brand
A. 3 Hungry Tummies recipe, minus the tamarind and belacan
B. A moderation of this recipe with altered spicing, including half the coriander and the addition of Sarawak black peppercorns.
C. A moderation of this recipe with just coriander and black pepper spices and the inclusion of Kicap Manis (sweet dark soy sauce) to try elicit the correct dark colour (at the suggestion of my cooking mentor Ana from Lazat cookery school)
All would then be made into the broth with the same stock made from chicken bones, prawn shells, fresh shallots, garlic, cinnamon, lemongrass, dried chilli, belacan and tamarind. This would be finished with santan/coconut milk. This was actually based on a recipe I got from a family in Sarawak who made the broth for many hawker stalls, so should be pretty legit.
I had lot of work to do…
I got to grinding the spices, blending the pastes, frying off for almost 2 hours to get a dark colour, making the stock, boiling the laska, straining the laksa and preparing the toppings.
I was hot, sweaty, tired…. My back hurt… but I had 4 laksas!
I was also lucky enough to have a real Sarawakian, in the form of my friend Saran, who was selfless enough to come taste and offer kind/critical/brutally-honest feedback.
By the time we finished tasting all 4 we were disgustingly full...
But I had results!
These were actually very interesting:
Control) The shop bought paste was great, but way way too strong. I don’t know if I screwed up the measurements or the paste was just different from what they used but it was way to spice and salty. That said, it would actually be pretty spot on with with 2x the broth and coconut milk.
A) This recipe was really nice. Surprisingly the coriander wasn’t actually too strong; however, it definitely could have been helped by a nice bite from some Sarawak black pepper.
B) My own take had the black pepper taste I’d been looking for and was slightly less curried than option A. I actually prefer this as it’s more akin to a Chinese Sarawak Laksa versus the Malay made version, which is my preference. It was however a little thin as I think the paste measurement had been a little inaccurate.
C) With the least spices this was by far the cleaner taste. I actually like this, however somewhere in between this and paste B would be more accurate. It was however far to sweet through the addition of kicap manis. The colour it was intended to give was actually indiscernible.
More broadly speaking, for the homemade recipes, there were a few additional issues.
No matter how long I cooked the paste for it wouldn’t achieve anywhere near the colour of the store-bought paste
The use of fresh ingredients made the broth a little too bright. More needed to be done to bring the earthy note to the fore.
There was too much chilli. This meant the resulting broth was uncharacteristically spicy and uncharacteristically bright red.
That said, this test was a success.
All 4 were identifiable as Sarawak laksa, even if they have a lot of space for improvement.
Though I didn’t have time, or energy, for a second round of cooking this allowed me to immediately alter my recipe.
Reduce the chilli in the recipe (this can be added back in the form of sambal which usually accompanies laksa).
Toast the chillies before including in the paste to increase flavour and add darkness to the paste.
I also identified 2 tests I'd like to do, when I get my energy back:
Experiment with using dried galangal and lemongrass in the paste to up the earthy notes.
Experiment with using pressure cooker to cook more intensely to achieve a darker colour.
That said, merging the results from each of these tests, I've finally got a recipe!
I wont lie to you. It's challenging... but it's nothing compared to the reward a warm bowl of Sarawak Laksa is!
So I'm happy to share with you my recipe:
Sarawak Laksa (from scratch!)
80g Garlic (peeled)
150g Galangal (peeled)
2 Sticks of Lemongrass
20g Dried Red Chilli
30g Sesame Seeds
60g Coriander seeds
30g Cumin seeds
4 Star Anise
8 Cardamom Seeds
20g Black Peppercorns (Sarawak pepper if available)
1Tbsp Demerara Sugar
200ml neutral oil
Dry roast the whole spices until popping and fragrant.
Dry roast the chilli until blackened, but not burnt.
Place all ingredients in food-processor and blend until a smooth paste is formed, add water as required to assist paste formation.
In a steel bottomed pan, heat the oil and mix in the paste mixture. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 1.5 hours, stirring constantly. The oil should separate from the mixture and the colour darken considerably. If the mixture gets to dry, add a little water and/or put the lid on the pan.
Once complete, remove from the heat. This can be used immediately, however the flavour may also develop over a few days.
Laksa paste (approx 300g)
1 Large chicken breast
1 Chicken carcass
18 Large prawns with shells
50g Tamarind fruit soaked in hot water (or 1tbsp of extract)
15g Belacan, toasted (can substitute with other shrimp paste, or 2x mix of miso and fish sauce)
2 Sticks of Lemongrass
4 Cloves of Garlic
1 Stick of Cinnamon
1 Star anise
400ml Coconut Milk (best quality available)
400g Vermicelli Noodles (cooked as per packet)
4 Eggs (cooked into thin omelette and shredded)
Some lime wedges
To make the laksa, bring 3L of water to the boil. Add the chicken and chicken carcass and simmer until the chicken breast is cooked and can be removed (approx. 10 mins).
Add the whole prawns to the same stock and boil for 3 minutes before removing. Let cool, peel and return the shells and heads to the pot.
Smash the shallots, garlic and lemongrass. Add these, as well as the Tamarind, Belacan and spices to the pot.
Add the paste to the broth (approx. 300g) and boil for 1 hour, stirring occasionally and squeezing the chicken bones and prawn heads to extract flavour.
Strain the broth using a large sieve.
Season with salt, sugar, MSG (optional) and additional tamarind, as required.
Add half the coconut and cook for 20 minutes, before adding the second half and bringing to the boil.
The broth is ready.
Serve piping hot, poured over vermicelli noodles and beansprouts.
Top with reserved chicken breast (shredded), prawns and omelette.
Garnish with a small amount of chopped coriander (including the stems) and serve with sambal belacan (for optional spice and umami) and a lime wedge.