Laksa, the famous noodle soup from Peranakan culture, gained popularity not only in Malaysia but also in Singapore and Indonesia. One can find Laksa even in Southern Thailand. I must say that this broad access makes me really happy because I like this soup very much.
The broth has such explosive flavors of spices, fish and of course some heat from chilies, which you’ll like if you are a lover of spicy food. Understandably, the complex flavors come from more than just these few ingredients. Some varieties of Laksa have a coconut base, which cools you down and brings a creamy sweetness to the soup. Others are more sour with fish and tamarind broth as a base.
Since Laksa can be found over such a vast territory, it’s to be expected that different versions of it exist. So far, we have tried Laksa in Singapore, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, and Georgetown. From all of those, the Penang Asam Laksa is our favorite. The unique flavoring agent in this Penang street food is a sweet and pungent black shrimp paste called Hae ko. This ingredient is the one which gives Penang Asam Laksa that legendary taste. Actually, if a cook leaves out pineapple, mint leaves or torch ginger flower, the Laksa isn’t as it should be. To be an authentic one, it has to have it all and truth to be told, if any ingredient is not in the dish, you’ll know it and miss it.
In Penang, we became huge fans of Laksa and so we couldn’t stop at just at one, we had to try more. Here is a short description of the ones we tested, some were recommended to us by locals.
The first one is in the core of the tourist zone, at the Cookoobird restaurant. The 40-year-old recipe was the reason we were drawn here, and we made the right decision. We liked the big chunks of pineapple and fish. It is rare to get the whole file of mackerel in your laksa, so that was a pleasant surprise here. The strings of fresh zucchini and the perfectly cooked noodles added a nice texture component to the dish. We like it when the noodles are more firm instead of being overcooked and therefore soft. The amount of chili was too generous for us, but in return, our noses certainly got a thorough cleansing!
Another delicious Laksa we found was on the street food market, located at the intersection of Jalan Magazine and Jalan Penang. There is the first stall of this “Auntie” with Laksa. “Auntie” had the most delicious soup, which was a bit sour with a great amount of fresh mint. The soup was sourer than the others we tried and we liked that a lot. This one was our favorite, despite the noodles being overcooked. And if “auntie” had added some pineapple to it, we would never want to stop eating!
The next location was Joo Hooi Café, where we weren’t too impressed. Here they serve the famous Penang Road Assam Laksa. It was nice that it wasn’t too spicy and the broth had a perfect thickness and consistency. However, it was too fishy for our taste and the dish had too little mint. Noodles were a bit overcooked, but nothing serious. This place is super busy, so you should be prepared for cramped feeling.
If you are in a rush and dying to try Penang Laksa, you will not regret having one in the E&O Hotel. The chef at that historical place definitely knows the taste of Penang. Even without torch ginger flower, it tasted good, and it was the nicest on the eyes and the camera. After all, you are eating decent street food in a heritage hotel. We were quite impressed to see traditional street food in on the menu of a hotel like this.
Our last Laksa was Pasar Air Itam Laksa at the food stall close to the giant Buddha. This place is famous and it is supposed to have the best Laksa here in Penang. The soup was great, rich, nicely balanced, it had nice flakes of fish and the noodles were cooked just right. There we were able to see for the first time how they pour the hot soup over the noodles several times to cook them up. Just by the moves, you can tell that this practice goes long way back. The only downside is that this place was one of the dirtiest we saw to date, so eating here won’t be a pleasant culinary event. Just pray you won’t get food poisoning and enjoy that great bowl of laksa.
Laksa is that kind of soup that we just can’t get enough of. Now I understand why the CNN Travel ranked Penang Laksa the 7th out of the 50 most delicious foods in the world in 2011 (source Wikipedia). If you are eager to find out how it tastes and you aren’t afraid of cooking, here is a recipe for you.
It is from the book: Famous street food of Penang and is the one we will use when we are back home and craving Laksa.
Asam Laksa (8 servings)
20 peeled shallots
1 peeled garlic clove
3 stalks of lemongrass
2 cm galangal
5 fresh red chilies
5 soaked dried red chilies
10g toasted dried shrimp paste
4 cm turmeric
700g wolf herring or mackerel
2,5 liters water
2 stalks bruised lemongrass
100 g tamarind pulp
3-4 pieces tamarind peel
2 laksa leaves
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
800g fresh laksa noodles, scalded
1 cored and grated cucumber
½ cut pineapple into thin strips
2 thinly sliced onions
1 split and finely sliced torch ginger flower
2 finely sliced fresh chilies
150g fresh mint leaves
Prawn paste sauce
8 Tbsp hae ko – prawn paste
80-10 ml hot water
To prepare laksa gravy
Roughly cut up the spice paste ingredients and blend them into a smooth paste. Gut and clean the fish. Bring water to boil and add the lemongrass and fish. Boil for 5 minutes or until the fish is cooked. Remove fish, cool and flake it and set the fish slakes aside. Strain fish stock into a clean pot and add the rest of the fish stock ingredients and the spice paste to it. Simmer over low heat for 30 minutes or until gravy gets aromatic. Blanch the laksa noodles in boiling water, drain and set aside.
To serve: Put some noodles and fish flakes in a bowl and ladle the soup over it. Put a pinch of each garnishing ingredient over the top. Serve with a spoonful of prawn paste sauce.
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