The many faces of Malaysia’s laksa

(THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Flavour-drenched, hit-the-spot comfort food, a rush of spices or a hit of bracing tang, made with wheat noodles, rice noodles or even al dente spaghetti - laksa has many faces, and they're all delicious.

At its heart, it is a dish of noodles in a spiced gravy, which can have a creamy coconut milk base or a sour asam base. A bowlful then brims with fish flakes, prawns, chicken and even blood cockles or roast pork, and shredded cucumber, pineapple, bean sprouts and herbs … and often, a spoonful of fiery sambal or pungent prawn paste, making the dish further customisable to each diner.

In Malaysia, the different incarnations of laksa are bound by more than just a loose structure and character of noodles in gravy - daun kesum is also called laksa leaf, because it is used so extensively in the various versions of the dish. Most laksas are perfumed by it, along with other herbs and spices.

Sound simple? It is not. Here, almost every state has its own version of laksa and broad interpretations of the one dish can also span hazy regional borders - such as laksam, which is a white-on-white dish of thick, rustic rice noodle rolls in a pale, rich gravy of coconut milk and fish (or, more rarely, eel), popular in the northern states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah.

"When you look at the styles in Peninsular Malaysia, especially, it feels like there is a natural geographical progression from north to south, from the more sour, thin gravies to the creamy, rich ones," said Isadora Chai, who serves a luxe version of laksa at her Antara Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur.

"Malaysians are very familiar with and possessive of their own regional or state laksas - I think there's an emotional connection for a lot of people, who have been eating a particular laksa all their lives," she said.

You also find laksa in Thailand, where it's called khanom jeen, made with rice noodles and also manifesting in various incarnations, and in Indonesia, where permutations of the dish are specific to towns and cities. In Singapore, the coconut milk-based Katong laksa is extremely popular, traceable to the Straits Chinese community based in the Katong precinct.

There are various origin theories for laksa - in different countries, usually traceable to interactions between Chinese traders or settlers, who brought their own thin noodle soups with them, and locals, who then decked out those broths with local herbs and spices, and coconut milk.

While it is difficult to pinpoint its specific origins in Malaysia, in states such as Melaka and Penang especially - both enclaves of the Peranakan community - the dish seems to have been born among the ranks of the Peranakans, the descendants of Chinese traders marrying local Malays.

What is evident, though, as you contemplate such a lush bowl of plenty, is that it is a fusion of sorts in the best sense of the word - cultures, states and regions contributing various elements to come up with an extremely delicious whole.

Currying flavour

Curry laksa is thick and rich, with just a hint of sweetness from the addition of thick coconut milk. Possibly the best examples are the ones you find in the Klang Valley and Melaka, which are usually garnished with tofu pok (bean curd puffs), chicken, fish cake slices, prawns, blood cockles and long beans. The finishing touch? That spoonful of sambal and a scattering of mint.

"Melaka laksa is quite straightforward to cook - because there's no fish involved, you don't have to flake the fish flesh, so it's the fastest to cook," said recipe developer and cookbook author Debbie Teoh.

The "white" version of Penang curry mee. PHOTO: THE STAR

In Penang, where curry laksa is also known as curry mee, there are two variants of the dish using yellow Hokkien noodles - one served doused in chicken curry the colour of a fiery sunrise, the other in a pale, thin coconut milk base (this has now come to be known as white curry mee).

Aromatic chilli paste is then added according to one's taste. In white curry mee, the Chinese side of laksa's identity is manifested strongly - via cubes of congealed pork blood! "Curry mee is what I'd choose if I wanted something creamy yet light," said Teoh.

Asam-based laksas

The thin, sour laksas spiked with asam are usually made with asam gelugor, dried slices of the garcinia atroviridis fruit, with its slightly astringent, clean sour hit that makes your lips pucker, as opposed to the sweet-sour pulp of asam jawa or tamarind (tamarindus indica). Some laksas use a combination of the two and, in a pinch, you can sub one for the other - only the very discerning will notice the rounder, fuller mouthfeel of tamarind.

Sour, spicy and laden with the intensely fishy appeal of flaked mackerel, then perked up with turmeric and freshened with pineapple, chilli, mint, laksa leaves and bunga kantan (torch ginger flower), Penang's asam laksa is deservedly famous - and it is still not asam laksa until a spoonful of pungent hae kor (fermented prawn paste) is stirred into the heady mix.

"Ikan parang is the best fish to use - it's sweet, with a melt-in-the-mouth texture - but it's also the most work to get the flesh off the many small bones," said Teoh.

Sour, spicy asam laksa laden with flaked fish and freshened with pineapple, cucumber, chilli and mint leaves. PHOTO: THE STAR

In July 2011, CNN Travel ranked the dish at No. 7 for deliciousness, in a list of 50 foods in the world (later that year, a public poll saw it fall to the 26th rung, though). Perlis and Kedah laksas are similar, but the former is often made with catfish or eel, while the latter sees hard-boiled egg slices added, as well as various ulam.

Malay sellers tend to serve it with a spoonful of sambal nyiur, or coconut sambal. In this way, laksa also illustrates the differences in area, highlighting the produce farmed or produced in a state - such as the use of freshwater eels, fresh rice noodles in the rice-rich northern states, or the fact that Johor does not really grow rice much - as well as cultural influences from the ethnic communities in an area.

Hybrid offerings

And finally, there are laksas that defy convention like the laksa Siam found in Penang and Kedah that is a further fusion of both asam and curry laksa! This rich laksa is sour and fishy like asam laksa, and rich with spices and coconut cream at the same time - what you would call the best of both worlds.

The laksa Siam found in Penang and Kedah is a fusion of asam and curry laksa. PHOTO: THE STAR

In Johor, the creamy laksa gravy - enriched with asam gelugor as well as lemongrass, galangal and dried prawns - is characteristically served with spaghetti, making its fusion roots stretch further beyond borders than most.

According to Kalsom Taib and Hamidah Abdul Hamid in Johor Palate: Tanjung Puteri Recipes, Johor's well-travelled Sultan Abu Bakar (who ruled the state from 1886 to 1895) loved pasta from his first visit to Italy; he instructed his chefs to switch out the traditional noodles for the pasta, and Johor laksa was born.

Laksa love

The secret to a good laksa? Time, care and lots of love - and getting that base right, from the start.

"You have to get the base ingredients for the spice paste and stock right," said Basira Yeusuff, chef and co-owner of Agak-Agak in APW Bangsar.

"Making sure the proper amounts of ground fresh ingredients, aromatics and herbs get into that paste and, depending on the variety (as some pastes don't require prior cooking), that it's cooked down for the proper amount of time for full flavour release.

"Also the stock must be full-bodied, with the use of adequate amounts of fresh meat or fish," she added. "Everything else can be fixed with more or less liquid, a late addition of asam keping, a fresh squeeze of lime or a spoonful of sambal tumis, and you're good to go!"

With so much variation and interest in the one dish, and the way it illustrates culture and produce, Chai feels that there is a strong argument for laksa as Malaysia's national dish. "I think it would be a great rallying point for tourists as well," she said. "It could be a campaign for them to visit all our states and try all our different laksas!"

Basira agrees with all the buzz around the dish and the strong sense of a national identity to each bowl.

"It is all encompassing. Regardless of the variety that you're into - be it the asam, the curry, the western hybrid down south to the sweeter thick white or turmeric yellow 'broth' up north - it's just so Malaysian," she said.

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