I thought I knew a lot about laksa. But the more I learn about this versatile noodle dish, the more I realize how much more there is to know. I know that the Asam Laksa, one of the more popular laksa variations, once emerged as top ten in CNN Travels’ Best Foods in the World. I know that in Malaysia, the dining ambience is almost always indirectly proportional to the tastiness of the laksa – the shabbiest stalls, sometimes located in the middle of nowhere, never fails to draw a large crowd regardless of the time of the day.
In essence, laksa is a spicy noodle dish eaten as a proper meal itself in Malaysia. Thick rice noodles, garnished with vegetables and seafood toppings, and usually served in spicy soup base was what I have always remembered it as, but I later found out that it is actually very tricky to define laksa because every ingredient could vary – from the noodle type to the soup base to the toppings. What I also did not know is that there was a minimum variation of 8 kinds of laksas, all almost as delicious but some have yet to be popularized except in certain states. One thing is for sure, every variant has its fan base, and attempting to crown one laksa superior over the others would not end great.
One minor problem constantly plaguing ASEAN countries is that, every time a best-food-of-somewhere list is compiled, it seems unavoidable for some food aficionados to argue over the origins of these foods, claiming that this country is taking credit for recipes invented in another country and so on. One author advocates that instead of spending ages disputing over who are the rightful owners, we can put aside all our differences and simply appreciate how beautifully intertwined our cultures are, and how fascinating it is that one kind of food manages to find new life in a foreign place.
But I digress. So, back to the world of laksa, many of the laksas obtain their names from Malaysian states, such as the Kedah Laksa, Johor Laksa, Sarawak Laksa, Kelantan Laksa and the Terengganu Laksa. Other popular ones include the Curry Laksa, Nyonya Laksa and the Asam Laksa. Additionally, laksa can also be found in Malaysia’s neighboring countries – Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, even though the names might differ.
Asam Laksa & Curry Laksa:
Perhaps the most ubiquitous, the Asam Laksa and Curry Laksa can be found all over Malaysia and are arguably the most popular types of laksa. Sold at an average price of 2 USD (prices vary according to location) along streets, night markets, hawker centers or food courts, they are highly popular among locals and also tourists. The Asam Laksa uses a sour and spicy soup base (asam meaning tamarind in Malay), whereas the Curry Laksa has a creamy curry soup base. The toppings vary greatly, some stalls have secret ingredients passed down for generations that they swear by, and some are no-frills but insist on using fresh and high quality ingredients. A good home-cooked bowl of laksa can take up to one whole day to prepare. Many insist on making the broth from scratch because they believe that effort in the broth reflects in the taste. While the ingredients are nothing fancy, there are up to 20 kinds of ingredients just for making the Asam Laksa, including cucumbers, onions, red chillies, pineapple, lettuce, mint, “daun kesum” (Vietnamese mint or laksa mint), pink bunga kantan (torch ginger), “har ko” (a thick, sweet prawn/shrimp paste) and et cetera.
The Nyonya Laksa, sometimes known as Laksa Lemak, is particularly popular in the state of Malacca. The term nyonya comes from “baba-nyonya” which refers to descendants of Chinese-Malay inter-race marriages, particularly notable for their rich food heritage. With its creamy and rich flavor contributed by coconut-milk and the fish gravy, served with generous portions of prawn and chicken strip toppings, you will not be able to forget its distinctive flavour once you give it a try.
The Johor Laksa distinguishes itself from its siblings by using spaghetti as its noodles instead of the usual rice noodles. Some like to call this the ‘Malaysian Spaghetti’ – it is a delightful east-meets-west fusion dish that combines Italian pasta with thick Malaysian-style curry gravy, served with a wedge of lime and sambal (a kind of chilli paste) at the side. Another unique aspect of the Johor Laksa is that it is traditionally eaten with the bare hands.
As mentioned above, there are still various kinds of laksas that I cannot go into detail. The next time you visit Malaysia, do your taste buds a favour and remember to give any of the laksa family a try!
By Liew Jeen Vern, ASEAN Correspondent from Malaysia