Laksa, A Classic Dish from the Malay Peninsula (Part 1)

Laksa is one of the stars of the cuisine of the Malay peninsula (Malaysia and Singapore) and northern Borneo (Sarawak). Laksa is a category of food — like curry or soup — but the basic dish generally comprises a flavorful broth, noodles, and seafood. The varieties of laksa include:
  • Nonya laksa (a.k.a. laksa lemak) – coconut milk makes up the strongly spiced base
  • Penang laksa (a.k.a. asam laksa, asam is Malay for sour, and asam jawa is tamarind) – its hallmark is the sour taste of tamarind, with poached and flaked mackerel as the seafood component.
  • Johor laksa – uses mackerel, herbs and spices in a coconut base.
  • Sarawak laksa – has a base of shrimp paste, with tamarind, lemon grass, coconut milk.

According to the laksa entry at Wikipedia, the name comes from the sanskrit word lakh which means many. In Malay, laksa means “ten thousand”.It is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. While in Kuching (in Sarawak on Borneo), we visited Auntie Mary’s House (recommended by the Lonely Planet guide) for lunch, and they had run out of Laksa several hours earlier. In the mall beneath the Petronas Towers, the food court had a Laksa Shack with five or six bubbling caudrons of the regional bases. The photo above is from the Old China Cafe in the Kuala Lumpur Chinatown. Old China Cafe specializes in Peranakan cuisine (also called Nonya cuisine), which is a result of the cultural mixing of Chinese and Malay in the last few centuries. The basis of many laksas is fish or shrimp paste, so it is not easy to find a strict vegetarian version. The only one I found was the Casa Green Vegetarian Eating House in Singapore (near Ferrar Park MRT).

Home-made laksa is straightforward to make at home, but requires a lot of grinding. Although a laksa without polygonum/laksa leaf/daun kesum might be heretical to a Malaysian, the end result can still be delicious. A vegetarian-adapted recipe for Nonya Laksa is below.


Vegetarian Nonya Laksa
Recipe based on The Food of Malaysia, edited by Wendy Hutton, Periplus books.

Base and Vegetables
1/2 cup oil
6 sprigs polygonum (daun kesum, Vietnamese mint)
2 wild ginger buds, finely sliced
6 cups water
1 1/2 cups thick coconut milk
1 heaped tablespoon sugar
Salt to taste
1 pound thin fresh yellow noodles (or wider if you desire), or dried noodles, cooked and drained
12 oz. deep fried tofu or gluten or seitan
1 carrot, cut into sticks of about 1/2″ length (so they fit on a spoon)
8-12 ears of babycorn, cut in half
Other vegetables if you feel like it: cauliflower, potato, etc.

1 1/2 cups bean sprouts, blanched for 30 seconds
Snowpeas, trimmed, then blanched lightly (30-60 seconds)

Spice Paste
8 dried red chilies
10 shallots
1 stalk lemongrass (the lower two-thirds)
3/4 inch galangal
1/4 inch fresh tumeric (or 1/2 t tumeric powder)

3 sprigs polygonum (daun kesum), sliced
1 cucumber, in matchstick shreds
3 eggs, beaten, made into thin omelets and shredded
2 red chilies, sliced
2 spring onions, finely sliced
6 small limes (Kalamansi are ideal, Mexican limes would also be excellent), cut in half of in wedges

Chop all the spice paste ingredients finely, then put into a blender jar. Blend, adding a little of the oil if necessary to keep the blades turning until you have a fine paste. Heat remaining oil and gently fry the blended ingredients for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time.

Add the polygonum, ginger buds, and water and bring to a boil. Add thick coconut milk, vegetables, tofu, sugar and salt. Reduce heat and simmer very gently, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes.

To serve, reheat noodles by plunging them into boiling water for a few seconds. Divide the noodles and bean sprouts among 6 individual noodle bowls and top with the sliced polygonum and ginger bud. Pour sauce on top and add some of the garnishes. Serve with chili sauce and cut limes.

For storage of left-overs, do not put noodles into the broth, as they will absorb the sauce, swell and soften to the point of disintegration.

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