A fragrant and addictive coconut based noodle soup from Malaysia and Singapore. This soup was flavour of the month here in Sydney about 10 years ago and decent renditions can still be had around town for about 7 dollars. It is the perfect gourmet food for those on a budget - cheap, packed to the rim with flavour and filling.
However, it was not until I traveled to Singapore and Malaysia that I realized the sublime heights to which this soup could ascend. On the Malay Peninsula there are 3 distinct varieties of laksa. Penang laksa is from the north of Malaysia and has a thinner consistency. It contains chunks of local fish in a sour coconut broth redolent with tamarind. In Johor laksa from the south, the fish is pureed, then stirred back into the soup to thicken. It is Singapore laksa however, that many consider king. Also know as laksa lemak ¹, it is a highly spiced, rich coconut soup, full of noodles, herbs and king prawns (jumbo shrimp).
What all 3 varieties have in common is a delicious coconut broth, thin rice noodles, herbs, bean sprouts and a complexly pungent spice paste that is the basis of the soup. It is possible to buy laksa pastes from Asian grocers and some supermarkets but I have never come close to replicating a true laksa with these. The paste is the heart of a laksa so try not to skimp on this step.
For those keen enough, here is a laksa lemak paste recipe and directions on how to make an authentic Singapore laksa. Some of the paste ingredient may well be hard for you to obtain, so I will give substitutions when applicable.
Soak the chillies in some warm water for 10 minutes. Trim the lemongrass. Pull of the tough outer leaves and chop off the skinny top half, discard. Mince the bottom half finely as possible. If using lemon rind, peel the lemons with a vegetable peeler and mince finely. Remove the chillies from the soaking liquid and remove the seeds if you want a milder paste. Chop the chillies. Place all paste ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree, using some of the chilli soaking liquid to form a paste.
This paste is enough for about 8 big bowls of laksa and will last in the refrigerator for several weeks, covered well.
Peel the prawns and remove the vein than runs along the back. Crush the shells a little. Heat 1 Tbs of the oil in a large pot and fry the prawn shells until the change colour. Add 1 litre (4 cups) water and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain and discard the solids. Soak the dried noodles in warm water for 20 minutes.
Rinse out your pot and heat the remaining oil. Fry half the paste from the recipe above for a few minutes, until it smells nicely aromatic. Add the prawn stock and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the coconut milk and prawns and simmer for a few minutes, until they are just cooked. Taste the soup for salt, it will probably need a little. Divide the noodles between 4 large bowls, top with some soup and prawns, then garnish with the bean sprouts, herbs and peanuts (if using). Pass the chilli paste around separately for any culinary daredevils.
This is a traditional laksa recipe, but as with many popular travelling recipes, they gain variations along the way. If you go to a laksa bar in Sydney, you will be offered a choice of around 10 variants, with different ingredients such as chicken, vegetables and deep fried tofu. So don't be afraid to experiment with the ingredients, Try chicken meat and chicken stock or Chinese cabbage, fried tofu and vegetable stock instead.
¹ gn0sis has informed me that laksa lemak is also known as Katong laksa, after the area in which this dish was first made. He also tells me that cockles, rather than prawns are the more authentic seafood choice. Seeing that cockles are the backbone of that other famous Malay/Singaporean street dish, char kway teow, I am not all that surprised. Try this soup with cockles as well – I’m sure it would be delicious.