Put aside what you know about Penang assam laksa and try this Taiping version of assam laksa.
It does not use prawn paste as a condiment, but the full-flavoured broth more than makes up for it.
I first tried the Asam Laksa ($4) at Taiping Authentic Asam Laksa in Kovan Market & Food Centre within a week of the stall’s opening on June 9.
The initial sceptic in me was won over by the stall owner using ikan kembong (Indian mackerel) in his assam laksa.
This is admirable because of the amount of work it takes to steam and debone the fish. Kembong fish has such natural sweetness and fine texture that canned sardines can never hope to match.
The topping of thinly sliced red onion and julienned cucumber invigorate the palate with their refreshing crunch. Fresh pineapple gives a sweet tropical perfume to the dish.
No detail is overlooked.
Even the hard-boiled egg is cooked to the right degree without any green ring around the yolk, which is a tell-tale sign of overdoneness. Instead of the usual laksa beehoon which is thick rice vermicelli, the noodles are a fatter version similar to udon.
For $4, it is a steal when you consider the amount of effort required to put together this bowl of assam laksa.
But for all its aromatic properties, I find that the broth lacked a certain punch, because of the glaring absence of prawn paste as a condiment that I am so used to having with Penang assam laksa.
Stall owner Alvin Wong, 41, who is a trained chef specialising in French fine dining, says he started this stall as he wanted to promote the Taiping version of assam laksa which omits the use of prawn paste.
The recipe came from his mother-in-law, who is from Taiping. Mr Wong is originally from Kedah.
He says: “The assam laksa is made with fresh ingredients and I want people to be able to taste the spices without prawn paste overpowering the flavours.”
His broth is made with shallots, garlic, laksa leaves and torch ginger flowers.
I visit the stall again two weeks later.
This time, Mr Wong confessed that he caved under pressure from irate customers who insisted on having prawn paste.
After getting scolded almost daily, he now has a squeeze bottle of prawn paste on standby.
But he keeps it out of sight and takes it out only when customers request it.
I ordered two bowls of the Asam Laksa ($4), one original and one with the requested add-on of prawn paste.
To my surprise, the broth of the original without the prawn paste is markedly improved from the first time I had it. It is full-bodied and has a deep prawny flavour that is well-balanced with the use of spices and laksa leaves.
Trying the bowl with prawn paste, I now find that the prawn paste muddies the flavours of the broth, interfering with the refreshing fragrance of the spices.
As it turns out, following customer feedback, Mr Wong augmented the broth by boiling the stock with additional prawn shells and increasing the quantity of spices for added oomph and body.
He does not use monosodium glutamate in his cooking.
Besides Asam Laksa, the only other main on his menu is Asam Seafood Soup ($5). You can also order a side of Chilli Prawn ($1) and rice (fifty cents).
TAIPING AUTHENTIC ASAM LAKSA
01-24 Kovan Market & Food Centre, Block 209 Hougang Street 21; open: 9.30am to 8.30pm (Tuesdays to Sundays). Closed on Mondays
Rating: 4 stars