Laksa is a popular spicy noodle soup that was formed through the fusion of Asian cultures. The dish can be found in Malaysia and Singapore, and Indonesia where migrant Chinese and Malays can be found coexisting in harmony irregardless of religion and and race. There are so many varieties of laksa out there, ready to be explored by gastronomist who has a pungent appetite for the ‘stronger’ ASEAN food cultures that have been molded by the demographic migrations, necessity and uniquely available local ingredients . Just in Malaysia itself there is already individually distinctive variations of laksa that lay claim by the state that they were “born” in. Some of the more well known ones other than the famous Penang Laksa:
- Laksa Kelantan, boiled ‘ikan kembong’ or ‘round scad’, minced then fried with onions, garlic, ginger, datil pepper, belacan, ‘kantan‘ flower, Vietnamese coriander or ‘daun kesum’, lemon grass and dried tamarind slice. It is lastly finished off with coconut milk to transform the fishy soup stock into a thick gravy like soup with lots of body. The Lakas Kelantan is then served with rice noodles and adding ‘ulam‘ or raw vegetables and blended chili on the side.
- Laksa Johor, is much complicated with the use of not only ‘ikan kembong’ and coconut milk, but also dried prawns, kerisik, lemon grass, galangal and spices akin to curry. Garnishing and condiments include not only slices of onion, cucumber and fresh lime juice; they also make use of bean sprouts, Vietnamese coriander and pickled white radish with a side of sambal belacan. For noodles, the usual cylindrical rice noodles are substituted with spaghetti pasta.
- Laksa Sarawak , is a love or hate story. The soup base is mainly of sambal belacan cooked with tamarind, garlic, galangal, lemon grass and coconut milk. The common savings come with rice noodles or vermicelli, omelette strips, chicken strips, prawns, fresh coriander and lime for additional tanginess.
The infamous Asam Laksa that Penang is proud to be home to is the culmination of the Chinese and Malay cooking heritage that also forms the unique Peranakan culture. The Assam Laksa or commonly called Penang Laksa is a sour fish soup served with cylindrical rice noodles, various raw vegetable and herb toppings/condiments. The signature Asam Laksa soup is prepared by boiling either Ikan Kembong, Sardines or Ikan Selar, which we were told was the best type of fish to be used for the soup stock. After which a mixture of herb and spices are combined, pounded and added into the soup stock to spice up the flavours and to give it a dimension of flavours. Then Asam Jawa (tamarind juice) and Asam Gelugor (tamarind peel) are added to transform the sweet savoury soup into a soup filled with a balance of sweetness, acidity, spice, heat and body. A bowl of laksa is not complete without the colour contrasting garnishes and condiments that tops the firm and succulent heap of uniform cylindrical rice noodles. These garnishes do not just add a touch of visual beauty, but also enhances the taste of the steamy bowl of laksa to each individuals preference. They include cucumber, pineapple, Chinese lettuce and onions that constitute the julienned fresh vegetables. Then there is also the finely chopped bunga kantan or ginger bud, sliced red chilli and freshly picked mint leaves. Making the Asam Laksa your own also requires some seasoning of sorts, like adding the Pamersan cheese powder to a plate of pasta or finely chopped garlic into a bowl of thick and silky Hainanese Loh Mee . For Penang’s Asam Laksa, it is the notorious ‘hae ko’ a.k.a the thick and sweet prawn paste made from the simmering process of prawn juices and sugar, thus the creamy richness and sweet caramel taste. With all the above, you are ready to dig into a bowl of laksa that is not only filled with layers of flavour but also a bowl filled with the marriage of cultures and the taste of many years of heritage handed down from generations to generations.
Some of the common or well known tourist hotspots for Penang Assam Laksa are:
- Joo Hooi Cafe Address: 475 Jalan Penang, Penang. Bus. Hour: From 12pm to 5:30pm.GPS: N 5.417152, E 100.3306808
- Taman Emas kopitiam Address: Jalan Gottlieb, 10350 Georgetown, Penang. Bus. Hours: Daily from 2pm to 5pm, close on Monday. GPS: N 5.433316N, E 100.302864
- Air Itam Market Assam Laksa. Address: Jalan Pasar, 11500 Air Itam, Penang. (Beside the Air Itam Market). Bus. Hour : Daily from 11am to 5-6pm. GPS: N 5.401193, E 100.277999
- Kim Laksa @ Nan Guang Coffee shop . Address:67,Jalan Balik Pulau, 11000 Penang. Bus. Hours: Daily from 11am to 5 pm, close on Wednesday. GPS: N 5 21.09204 E 100 14.13564
- Ah Teong’s Assam Laksa. Address: Chuan Heong Café, 118,Jalan Balik Pulau, 11000 Penang. Bus. Hours: Daily from 11am to 5pm, close on Monday. GPS: N 5 21.09204 E 100 14.13564
- Mizi’s Tanjung Bungah Assam Laksa. Address: Shamrock Beach, Tanjung Bungah, Penang. Bus. Hours: Saturday & Sundays only from 9am to 6pm. GPS:
Our preferred Penang Assam Laksa joints are:
- Air Itam Market Assam Laksa – for its smooth, tender yet springy ‘nai fun’ a.k.a laksa noodles.
- Ah Teong’s Assam Laksa @ Chuan Heong Café - for its balanced spicy(spicy as in filled with herbs and spices), tart and sweet soup base (without prawn paste added) made using traditional Peranakan methods.
- Mizi’s Tanjung Bungah Assam Laksa – for its Malay & Peranakan fusion soup base that is light and tart, minus the strong fishy taste.
This article was published on Vouch in their Novenber 2012 issue.