Limitless laksa: Cross-cultural Southeast Asian noodle soup is a ‘world’s best dish

It may be the theme of noodle soup taken to its international, ultimate and yet entirely logical extreme. It may also be the most approachably delicious dish you’ve never heard of: laksa.

In reality, laksa is not a single dish, but an array of different but related Southeast Asian noodle soup dishes particularly popular in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. All forms of laksa feature noodles of some type with toppings like chicken, shrimp and/or fish in either a rich and often spicy coconut soup or a sour tamarind-based broth. Laksa leaves, an herb sometimes called Vietnamese mint, Vietnamese cilantro, rau răm, or various other names, are often used as a topping, too.

The origins of laksa lie with the Peranakans, a people descended from early Chinese settlers along various Southeast Asian coastal areas. While the specific origin of laksa remains sharply disputed, the interaction between the Peranakans and their hosts in Singapore and the nearby state of Malacca is thought to have led to its development. Oddly, the name “laksa” appears to come from the ancient Persian or Hindi words for “noodles.” Ultimately, the character of laksa seems to be defined by the crashing together and blending of these various ethnic communities.

It is generally recognized that there are two primary forms of laksa: Singaporean-style Curry Laksa and the tamarind-based Assam Laksa of Malaysia. Curry Laksa is a coconut milk-based curry soup featuring noodles, fried tofu (sometimes called “bean curd puffs”), fish cakes, shrimp and cockles (or other small clams) along with the pronounced flavor of curry from chiles, as well as ginger, galangal (a root that looks similar to ginger but has a citrusy flavor and a hint of piney sweetness) and lemon grass.

Assam Laksa generally does not include coconut milk or curry flavors. It features a lighter broth including the sour flavors of tamarind along with fish and torch ginger flower. The latter features a sweet, gingerlike taste that serves to tame some of the fishy flavors that feature in the broth of Assam Laksa. Torch ginger flower is prevalent in Southeast Asia, though a bit harder to get in Southern California. Specialty Produce (a local wholesale distributor to the restaurant industry that also sells retail) sometimes carries it.

The spread of laksa throughout Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, though, defies any simplistic attempts to categorize each and every version as falling into one of those two camps. For example, Sarawak Laksa (from the Malaysian state of the same name) contains coconut milk but no curry flavors. Bogor Laksa, from West Java, is similar to Sarawak Laksa but features less fishy flavors. Every region, if not every town, has its own version of laksa. Even the Wikipedia listing on laksa identifies at least 32 variations, and that is probably a drop in the proverbial bucket.

Perhaps not surprisingly — given that so many cities, regions and nations can stake a claim to laksa — Malaysia sought to do just that in 2009, to the exclusion of others. Then-Malaysian Minister of Tourism, Ng Yen Yen, asserted that Singapore (among other neighboring countries) had “hijacked [Malaysia’s] dish” and that “we cannot continue to let other countries hijack our food.” The small-scale food fight died down eventually, as those things tend to do, but it highlighted the importance of the dish to the identity of the lands that lay claim to it. They’re not the only ones who recognized that importance. For example, CNN Travel honored Assam Laksa as No. 7 on its list of the world’s 50 best foods.

At base, regardless of whether a laksa is going in the curry or the Assam Laksa direction, there are a few basic moving parts: a broth, a spice/laksa paste, noodles and toppings. For Singaporean-style Curry Laksa, the broth tends to be based on shrimp shells, water and chicken stock. For Assam Laksa, the broth is based on fresh mackerel (though frozen or even canned will do) with both tamarind and torch ginger flower featuring in the broth.

The paste is a mélange of ground ingredients that will generally include galangal, lemon grass, shallots, garlic, chiles and garlic, along with dried shrimp paste (aka Belacan). As for the noodles, thin rice noodles are the most prevalent, but thick rice noodles often make an appearance, as do wheat noodles and egg (hokkien) noodles. Some forms of laksa use multiple types of noodles in the same soup.

The topping ingredients for Assam Laksa generally include cucumber, herbs, torch ginger bud, chiles and pineapple. For curry laksa, the garnishes often include bean sprouts, fish cakes, herbs, hard-boiled egg, shrimp (and sometimes cockles and/or chicken), along with a dollop of Chili Garlic Sauce. There are few, if any, absolute rules about the topping ingredients.

Ultimately, part of the attraction of laksa is down to the inherent, comforting appeal of noodle soup. Whether it is the chicken broth with wavy egg noodles of childhood, a bowl of sophisticated pho, or laksa (curry shrimp or assam), there is something deeply soothing that washes over you as you slurp down noodles with a flavorsome broth. Top the bowl with some wonderful, tasty ingredients and the chances are that (1) you will not go wrong and (2) you will feel good.

A warm bowl of Singaporean-style Curry Laksa

(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Singapore Curry Laksa

Some of the ingredients for curry laksa — for example, the shrimp paste, galangal, fish sauce, bean curd puffs, fish cakes and laksa leaves — are not likely to be available at major American supermarket chains. Fortunately, in San Diego we have a number of excellent Asian markets. Perhaps the best choice for the ingredients called for in this recipe is Thuon Phat (6935 Linda Vista Road in Linda Vista). Other good options include Vien Dong Supermarket (5382 University Ave. in Rolando) and 99 Ranch Market (7330 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. in the Convoy district).

Makes 2 servings

8 large shrimp
2 tablespoons grapeseed, canola or other neutral cooking oil
5 cups water
2 cups chicken stock

15 dried chiles (such as Japanese chiles or chiles de árbol)
2 Fresno chiles, stemmed, seeded and sliced
3 tablespoons dried shrimp, soaked in hot water
1 teaspoon shrimp paste (also known as Belacan)
8 cloves garlic
1 shallot
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
1-inch piece of galangal, peeled and sliced
2-inch piece of turmeric root, peeled and sliced
¼ cup candlenuts (or macadamia nuts)
1 stalk lemon grass, greener and more tender bottom third only, sliced

2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 tablespoon palm sugar (or brown sugar)
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1¼ cups coconut milk
¼ pound fried tofu squares (often called bean curd puffs), halved diagonally

2 cups vermicelli rice (or pho) noodles, cooked
1 cup bean sprouts, blanched
8 cockles (or small clams), cooked and deshelled
1 Asian fish cake, sliced (and warmed in the bean sprout blanching water), such as Asian Best or Choripdong brands
1 hard-boiled egg, halved
1 bunch laksa leaves, also known as Vietnamese coriander or Vietnamese cilantro (or, failing that, use ½ bunch cilantro and ½ bunch mint)
2 tablespoons Chili Garlic Sauce (optional)

To make the stock: Remove the heads and shells from shrimp, setting aside the shelled shrimp in a separate bowl. Add the cooking oil to a medium-sized soup pot on medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the shrimp heads and shells to the pot and stir for 5 minutes, crushing the heads to release their flavor. Add 5 cups of water and the chicken stock to the pot and simmer for 45 minutes, allowing the stock to reduce. Strain the stock to remove the shells.

For the paste: In a food processor, add the chiles (both dried and fresh), soaked dried shrimp, shrimp paste, garlic, shallot, ginger, galangal, turmeric, nuts and lemongrass, and pulse for 5 minutes until a thick paste forms.

Add the cooking oil to a soup pot over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the laksa paste and cook for 5 minutes until fragrant. Add the palm sugar, fish sauce, coconut milk and stock, stirring to combine. Simmer the mixture for 15 minutes then add the shrimp and tofu puffs, cooking for 3 minutes to finish.

To serve, add cooked noodles to a bowl, then top with bean sprouts, cockles and slices of fish cake. Ladle in scoops of the laksa, making sure to include half a boiled egg, fried tofu and shrimp in each bowl. Top with a handful of finely chopped laksa leaves and optional Chili Garlic Sauce.

Chili Garlic Sauce

Makes 1 cup

8 ounces Fresno chile peppers, stemmed (but not seeded)
2 heads garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
⅓ cup white distilled vinegar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon water, divided
1 teaspoon cornstarch

Combine the chiles, garlic, salt, sugar, vinegar and water in the work bowl of a food processor or blender. Blend on medium (or pulse) until chunky. Reserve and remove a quarter of the blended mixture. Turn the blender to high and liquefy the remaining contents of the blender. Strain the liquefied mixture so that only the juices remain. Discard the solids. Add the cornstarch to a small bowl with 1 teaspoon water; stir to mix well to make a slurry.

Add the strained juice and reserved chunky bits previously removed from blender to a pot over over medium-high heat. Once warm, add the cornstarch slurry and bring to a boil. After the contents of the pot reach a boil, remove from heat and allow to cool completely.

Use immediately or, to store, transfer the sauce to a clean Mason jar and seal it. Store in the fridge for up to 1 month.

Gardiner is a freelance food writer whose first cookbook, “Modern Kosher: Global Flavors, New Traditions,” published in September 2020. A second book, “Cali-Baja Cuisine: From Tijuana’s Taco Stands to San Diego’s Cali-Baja Burritos,” is expected in September. He lives in La Mesa.

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