Laksa: Discovering Malaysia’s signature dish
By Lara Dunston
AS a university student in Sydney, I used to head to class via Chinatown where I’d quickly grab a bite to eat before the lecture. While the all-you-can-eat buffets soon lost their appeal, a stall in the food hall sold Curry Laksa. It became my go-to quick fix for a bowl of noodles for many years. This spicy noodle soup found mainly in Malaysia and Singapore was a delicious meal in a bowl.
On my first trip to Penang over a decade ago, I was really looking forward to trying my first laksa in Malaysia. But my anticipation turned to confusion when an incredibly sour soup, with no coconut milk in it, was placed in front of me. A mix up perhaps? Did she not understand my Aussie access? How could it have the same name if it was so different? And that’s where my quest to understand laksa in all its forms began.
Although laksa can also be found in Indonesia and Singapore, it is Malaysian in origin and Malaysia remains the best place to try it in its many forms. The most common theory for the origins of the name ‘laksa’ is that it comes from the Persian word for noodle, ‘laksha’. How noodles ended up in Malaysia is not codified, however, Chinese immigrants did bring noodles to Melaka, which may go some way to explain the Penang connection and the origins of this complex dish.
Today, there are two basic types of laksa, with many variations of both. The first type is my university treat, which is commonly called ‘curry laksa’ or ‘curry mee’, ‘mee’ being a Chinese name for noodles. This laksa is easily identified due to its use of coconut milk and is generally found in southern Malaysia and Singapore.
The base spice mix – ground into a paste and called a ‘curry’ paste – for the dish varies, but generally it includes shallots, garlic, lemongrass, coriander seeds, chilli paste, and belacan (Malaysian shrimp paste). Often a chilli oil mix is added to the final broth just before serving. Bean sprouts and halved pieces of fried tofu are nearly always part of the dish, as is a half hard-boiled egg on the side.
You’ll see some people add sambal, a squeeze of lime juice or sprinkle some dried chillies for some extra kick. Protein, in the form of chicken (shredded) or seafood (whole prawns or cockles), generally forms part of the dish, and the noodles are generally thin – although sometimes thick – rice noodles and occasionally yellow noodles.
One notable variation of this version is called laksa Sarawak, from the state of Sarawak in Borneo. The base of the dish isn’t the same curry paste and is a little more sour, but it does include coconut milk, as well as omelette strips, chicken strips, and prawns. Some call this the third version of the dish, but there are other versions emanating from other states in Malaysia as well.
For simplicity’s sake, the other main type of laksa is called asam laksa or sometimes Penang laksa, which is essentially the dish’s spiritual home. ‘Asam’ in Malaysian means sour or is often translated as such, as tamarind, the fleshy fruit of the tamarind tree, is a major component of the flavour profile of this sour and spicy dish.
The broth of this dish is a fish stock, most commonly made from mackerel and sardines, and the must-have additions are laksa leaf, often called Vietnamese mint, and the wonderfully perfumed, unopened flower of torch ginger (bunga kantan). It is usually eaten or served with a small bowl of heh ko (shrimp paste), which you mix in to your own taste, as well as julienned cucumbers, mint leaves, more Vietnamese mint leaves, red onion, rounds of sliced bird’s eye chillies, and – just for a little more tartness – strips of pineapple. The noodles for this dish are generally thick rice noodles and usually no extra protein is added.
Generally, laksa is eaten with chopsticks and a Chinese-style soup spoon. You can then add condiments as needed. You’ll find most locals have a very set method for adding extra sauce and other condiments to get the right balance. It’s all a matter of personal taste. If you’re having asam laksa, tell the vendor that you’ll add heh ko to it yourself. Most aficionados will claim that this is the only way to have it and that if you go to a vendor and the extra condiments are not laid out for you to mix, go elsewhere.
As many laksa vendors only sell laksa, it’s the perfect dish for a one-person hawker stand. Armed with a huge pot of stock and condiments, these vendors generally just serve it until it runs out and they’re done for the day. If you find small shophouses selling it, often with other noodle dishes on the menu, watch to see how many locals are ordering laksa before you order as laksa might not be their specialty.
You will find laksa stalls in malls, and in Asia eating in malls is not a bad thing. In Kuala Lumpur you might find stalls doing both asam and curry laksa and these are definitely worth trying.
The great thing about trying laksa in Malaysia is that you can try the different variations in the different cities and towns you visit. I’ve had the tastiest laksas in Penang, Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur. Which version tastes better? Aficionados will claim that the complexity of obtaining the sweet-sour mix of asam laksa makes it a more accomplished dish, while others find the sourness a turnoff and find the creamy curry laksa a more approachable dish.
When a bowl of laksa is usually between $0.90c and $1.25, there’s no reason not to keep trying them all!
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website
About the author…
Australian-born, Dubai-based travel writer Lara Dunston and her photographer husband Terence Carter have been living out of their suitcases since 2006, bouncing around the planet on assignment for publications from National Geographic Traveller in the USA to The Independent in the UK. The couple also have a popular travel blog Grantourismo, where they blog about slow and sustainable travel, local travel, and experiential travel.