The Malaysian Guide to Laksa

Laksa. It’s the one topic in Malaysia that’s sure to spice up a stale conversation or date - right up there with our Prime Minister’s 1MDB scandal and the ethics of double parking. For the uninitiated, Wikipedia defines laksa as “a popular spicy noodle soup in the Peranakan cuisine”, but it is so much more than that. It’s a dish at the heart of Malaysian cuisine – spicy, sweet, sour, savoury, at-times fiercely pungent yet subtly nuanced, so strikingly different in each regional variation but all deep-rooted in the same history and heritage older than Malaysia herself.

Origin

Although the exact origin of laksa is unclear, most agree that it was a dish born out of the booming Southeast Asian spice trade in the 16th century, when Chinese traders assimilated into the local communities along the Malay archipelago (what is now modern day Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia). The descendants of these Chinese immigrants were known as Peranakan, and along with a ton of wealth and trade knowhow, they brought along their rich food culture, which when married with native Southeast Asian ingredients (think chillies, tamarind and coconut milk), birthed the beautiful lovechild that is laksa.

However, due to the sheer number of Peranakan communities dotted across the straits, there was not one unifying flavour that defined laksa, rather the laksas in each region varied according to the ingredients and flavour preferences of the area. For instance, laksas in Penang and Kelantan (Malaysian states that used to have dense fishing communities) have a mackerel or sardine-based broth, whereas the Siamese and Indonesian riffs on laksa are heavy on coconut milk and spices, ingredients synonymous with their cuisine. This resulted in a whole slew of laksas across South East Asia, ever evolving with the region’s cultural and political ebb and flow, all with their own identities but all unequivocally beautiful.

Modern-day laksas

The laksas we find today can be roughly split into two camps – asam laksa and curry laksa. The former has a tart, tamarind-infused fish soup; the latter, as the name suggests, uses curry paste in the laksa soup, often with the addition of coconut milk. Within these two camps, there are dozens of variants. From the prolific Penang Asam Laksa to the traditional Nyonya Laksa, to the almost heretical Johor Laksa, each laksa sings its own song and provides totally unique experiences. Even within each sub-group, there exists further differences between laksa vendors of the same region/state, making the task of defining and categorising them quite frustrating (as I found out the hard way).

Take laksas in Johor for example. (Johor is a state in Malaysia.) The archetypal Johor Laksa fits into the category of an asam laksa, but it sets itself apart by replacing the conventional laksa noodle/rice vermicelli with spaghetti. :O (I know, I had the same reaction). It was apparently conceived in the 1880s by the Sultan of Johor who fell in love with pasta on a trip to Italy. (This in itself is a movie-worthy plotline. A Malaysian Babette’s Feast, anyone?) So anyway, Johor Laksa = spaghetti. But in modern-day Johor, many laksa vendors serve the dish with traditional rice noodles, some cut the noodles into bite-sized chunks, which is characteristic of the Singaporean Katong Laksa, and some infuse their laksa broth with a heavy dose of curry and coconut milk, leaning more towards the flavour profile of a traditional curry laksa.

This begs the question: do they all qualify as Johor Laksas, or should they be labelled as Katong and Nyonya-inspired laksas sold in Johor? Heck, why is Johor Laksa even a laksa and not “Peranakan spaghetti”? To add to the dispute, even my parents (a.k.a. diehard laksa fans) have never heard of the spaghetti part of a Johor Laksa. How confusing eh! Maybe Wikipedia is right, maybe to save us all from bickering over definitions, all laksas should just be referred to as “popular spicy noodle soup(s) in the Peranakan cuisine”…

Although a part of me (the left-brained part) was severely let down by the lack of coherence and consistency in laksa names (I did try to make sense of it, as you can see from my attempt at a mindmap), I could not bring myself to give up this mission I set up to do – to define and categorise the many versions of laksa. So for the sake of science and research, I shall attempt to demystify the nuances in each regional take on this beloved dish of ours. Wish me luck.

But first, a disclaimer: This list is by no means comprehensive. There are certain laksas that I’ve omitted for the sake of clarity and brevity. But after consulting over two dozen articles and laksa origin stories spanning nearly a week of research, I hope to have done justice to a dish that Malaysians hold so dear. And if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that without the messy intermingling of cultures that make up our beautiful country, there can be no laksas, no mamak, no kuihs, no teh tarik, and no truly Malaysian food (cry).

Asam Laksa

  • Characterised by a sour, fish-based soup. Poached and flaked mackerels/sardines (relatively cheap fish) make up the broth, which is then infused with a spice paste of shallots, garlic, chilli, galangal and a ton of other spices.
  • The tartness of the soup comes from tamarind peel/paste (asam refers to tamarind in the Malay language).
  • Often served with rice noodles.
  • Commonly garnished with shredded cucumber, red onions, lettuce, mint, laksa leaves/Vietnamese coriander (daun kesom) and torch ginger flower buds (bunga kantan).
  • Penang Laksa: The most famous version of asam laksa. (It came #7 in CNN’s list of The World’s Best Food in 2011.) Extra garnishes include pineapple and prawn paste (a funky, fishy black paste famous in Penang).
  • Kedah Laksa: Similar to Penang Laksa, but with a thicker broth utilising more fish (blended/pounded, not just flaked), and the addition of a hard-boiled egg. According to my dad, even the laksas between Chinese and Malay communities in Kedah are noticeably different.
  • Johor Laksa: Spaghetti in place of rice noodles, with curry and coconut milk added at certain vendors.

Curry Laksa

  • Made with a chicken/fish broth with the addition of curry paste (a blend of spices often including chillies, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, turmeric, and galangal).
  • Coconut milk is often added, which makes this version of laksa markedly heavier than asam laksa.
  • Instead of rice noodles, often served with yellow mee or rice vermicelli.
  • Common garnishes include fried tofu puffs, shrimp, cockles and fish cake.
  • Optional addition of sambal paste or chilli sauce.
  • Referred to as “curry mee” in the Northern states of Malaysia.
  • Peranakan/Nyonya Laksa: Also known as Laksa Lemak, where lemak means fat in the Malay language. The fattiness comes from the heavy use of coconut milk.
  • Thai Laksa: Very similar to the Laksa Lemak above as coconut milk features heavily in Thai cuisine. Reminiscent of tom yum, as the spices are often more Thai-oriented (lotsa lemongrass, ginger, fish sauce).
  • Katong Laksa: The most renowned of Singaporean laksas. Characterised by short, bite-sized chunks of noodles. Edible with a spoon rather than chopsticks.

Other Popular Variants

  • Laksam: A variant popular in the east coast of Malaysia. Characterised by a white, milky broth. Like a curry laksa, but without the addition of curry paste. Also instead of long strands of noodles, thick and flat sheets of rice noodles are rolled up and cut up.
  • Sarawak Laksa: Similar to curry laksa in terms of prep, but sambal belacan is used in place of curry. Optional toppings include tofu and beansprouts.
  • Indonesian Laksa: Often similar to curry laksa, but with its own regional intricacies. The most famous ones are Laksa Betawi and Laksa Bogor, where oncom (a Indonesian fermented soy paste) and glutinous rice cakes are added, among other native ingredients.

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