Laksa is a popular spicy noodle soup from the Peranakan culture, which is a merger of Chinese and Malay elements found in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
ORIGIN OF LAKSA
The origin of the name “laksa” is unclear. One theory traces it back to Hindi/Persian lakhshah, referring to a type of vermicelli, which in turn may be derived from the Sanskrit lakshas (लकशस्) meaning “one hundred thousand” (lakh). It has also been suggested that “laksa” may derive from the Chinese word 辣沙 , meaning “spicy sand” due to the ground dried prawns which gives a sandy or gritty texture to the sauce. The last theory is that the name comes from the similar sounding word “dirty” in Hokkien due to its appearance.
TYPES OF LAKSA
There are two basic types of laksa: Curry Laksa and Asam Laksa. Curry laksa is a coconut curry soup with noodles, while Asam laksa is a sour fish soup with noodles. Thick rice noodles also known as laksa noodles are most commonly used, although thin rice vermicelli (bee hoon or mee hoon) are also common and some variants use other types.
Curry laksa (in many places referred to simply as “laksa”) is a coconut-based curry soup. The main ingredients for most versions of curry laksa include bean curd puffs, fish sticks, shrimp and cockles. Some vendors may sell chicken laksa. Laksa is commonly served with a spoonful of sambal chilli paste and garnished with Vietnamese coriander, or laksa leaf, which is known in Malay as daun kesum.
This is usually known as curry mee in Penang rather than curry laksa, due to the different kind of noodles used (yellow mee or bee hoon, as opposed to the thick white laksa noodles). Curry mee in Penang uses congealed pork blood, a delicacy to the Malaysian Chinese community.
The term “curry laksa” is more commonly used in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. Laksa is popular in Singapore and Malaysia, as are laksa yong tau foo, lobster laksa, and even plain laksa, with just noodles and gravy.
Variants of Curry Laksa include:
Laksa Lemak – Also known as nyonya laksa, is a type of laksa with a rich coconut gravy. Lemak is a culinary description in the Malay language which specifically refers to the presence of coconut milk which adds a distinctive richness to a dish. As the name implies, it is made with a rich, slightly sweet and strongly spiced coconut gravy. Laksa lemak is usually made with a fish-based gravy (with vegetarian food stalls omitting fish) and is heavily influenced by Thai laksa (Malay: Laksa Thai), perhaps to the point that one could say they are one and the same.
Laksam – A speciality of the Northeastern Malaysian states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah, is made with very thick flat white rice flour noodles in a rich, full-bodied white gravy of boiled fish and coconut milk. Though usually made of fish flesh, it is sometimes made with eels. Traditionally laksam is eaten with hands rather than with eating utensils due to the gravy’s thick consistency.
Katong Laksa – A variant of laksa lemak from the Katong area of Singapore. In Katong laksa, the noodles are normally cut up into smaller pieces so that the entire dish can be eaten with a spoon alone, without chopsticks or a fork. Katong laksa is a strong contender for the heavily competed title of Singapore’s national dish.
Asam laksa is a sour, fish-based soup. It is listed at number 7 on World’s 50 most delicious foods complied by CNN Go in 2011. Asam (or asam jawa) is the Malay word for tamarind, which is commonly used to give the stock its sour flavour. It is also common to use asam keping (also known as asam gelugor), dried slices of sour mangosteen, for added sourness. The modern Malay spelling is asam, though the spelling assam is still frequently used.
The main ingredients for asam laksa include shredded fish, normally kembung fish or mackerel, and finely sliced vegetables including cucumber, onions, red chillies, pineapple, lettuce, common mint, “daun kesum” (Vietnamese mint or laksa mint) and pink bunga kantan (torch ginger). Asam laksa is normally served with either thick rice noodles or thin rice noodles (vermicelli). And topped off with “petis udang” or “hae ko”, a thick sweet prawn/shrimp paste.
Variants of Asam Laksa include:
Penang Laksa(Malay: Laksa Pulau Pinang) – Also known as asam laksa from the Malay for tamarind, comes from the Malaysian island of Penang. It is made with mackerel (ikan kembung) soup and its main distinguishing feature is the asam or tamarind which gives the soup a sour taste. The fish is poached and then flaked. Other ingredients that give Penang laksa its distinctive flavour include lemongrass, galangal (lengkuas) and chilli. Typical garnishes include mint, pineapple slices, thinly sliced onion, hε-ko, a thick sweet prawn paste and use of torch ginger flower. This, and not ‘curry mee’ is the usual ‘laksa’ one gets in Penang.
Perlis Laksa(Malay: Laksa Perlis) is similar to Penang Laksa but differs in garnishing used such as catfish and eel fish. The famous Perlis laksa can be found in Kuala Perlis.
Kedah Laksa(Malay: Laksa Kedah) is very similar to Penang laksa and only differs in the garnishing used. Sliced boiled eggs are usually added to the dish. Kedah laksa used rice to make a laksa noodle. The famous laksa in Kedah is Laksa Telok Kechai.
Ipoh Laksa(Malay: Laksa Ipoh), from the Malaysian city of Ipoh, is similar to Penang laksa but has a more sour (rather than sweet) taste, and contains prawn paste.
Kuala Kangsar Laksa(Malay: Laksa Kuala Kangsar), made of wheat flour (usually hand made). The soup is rather lighter than the common laksa taste and so much different from Ipoh Laksa in shape, taste and smell. The local municipal council even built a complex called “Kompleks Cendol dan Laksa” near the river bank of the Perak River. It is the main attraction for tourists in Kuala Kangsar.
OTHER LAKSA VARIANTS
Several variants mix coconut milk and fish and can be identified as either curry or asam laksa.
Johor Laksa(Malay: Laksa Johor) – From Johor state in southern Malaysia, resembles Penang laksa only in the kind of fish used but differs in everything else. Johor laksa has coconut milk, use kerisik, dried prawns, lemon grass, galangal and spices akin to curry. The garnishing comprises slices of onion, beansprouts (taugeh), mint leaves, Vietnamese coriander (daun kesum), cucumber and pickled white radish. Sambal belacan (a kind of chilli paste) is placed on the side. Finally, just before eating, freshly squeezed lime juice is sprinkled on the dish. Unique to Johor laksa is its Italian connection – spaghetti is used instead of the normal rice noodles or vermicelli. Johor laksa is traditionally eaten using the hand and the noodles are usually knitted (cetak) into a disk for each serving.
Sarawak Laksa(Malay: Laksa Sarawak) – Comes from the Malaysian state Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. It is actually very different from the curry laksa as the soup contains no curry at all. It has a base of Sambal belacan, sour tamarind, garlic, galangal, lemon grass and coconut milk, topped with omelette strips, chicken strips, prawns, fresh coriander and optionally lime. Ingredients such as bean sprouts, (sliced) fried tofu or other seafood are not traditional but are sometimes added.
Kelantan Laksa(Malay: Laksa Kelantan) – (raw vegetables) and blended chilli on the side. Another variable of Kelantan Laksa is ‘Laksam’. The sauce’s recipe are exactly the same but the noodles are a bit bigger and flat.
Bogor Laksa(Indonesian: Laksa Bogor) – Probably is the most famous Laksa variant in Indonesia from Bogor town, West Java. The thick yellowish coconut milk based soup is a mixture of shallot, garlic, kemiri (candlenut), kunyit (turmeric), ketumbar (coriander), sereh (lemongrass), and salt. The hot soup runs, drained, and filled several times into the bowl contains bihun (rice vermicelli), ketupat (glutinous rice cake), smashed oncom (similar to tempe but different fungi), tauge (bean sprout), kemangi (basil leaf), cooked shredded chicken and prawn, boiled egg, until all the ingredients is soft and cooked. Usually Laksa Bogor is served with sambal cuka (ground chilli in vinegar).
Betawi Laksa(Indonesian: Laksa Betawi) – ALaksa variant from Jakarta, Indonesia. The thick yellowish coconut milk based soup is a mixture of shallot, garlic, kunyit (turmeric), lengkuas (galangal), sereh (lemongrass), salam leaf and kaffir lime leaf, ginger, pepper, and contains rebon (dried small shrimp) to gave the unique taste. The dish contains ketupat (compressed rice cake wrapped in young coconut leaf), tauge (bean sprout), kemangi (Indonesian basil leaf), and boiled egg.
Palembang Laksan(Indonesian: Laksan Palembang) – Often referred as pempek served in laksa soup, it is a specialty of Palembang, South Sumatra. It is a pempek based fishcake soup, sliced pempek served in coconut milk based soup, shrimp broth and spices, sprinkled with fried shallots.
Palembang Lakso(Indonesian: Lakso Palembang) – The Palembang style laksa. Unlike laksan that uses slices of pempek, laksan uses noodle-like steamed sago paste served in coconut milk soup with mixture spices: of palm sugar, black pepper, turmeric, coriander and candlenut, sprinkled with fried shallots.
Banjar Laksa(Indonesian: Laksa Banjar) – The Banjarmasin style laksa that has snakehead as one of its ingredients.
Laksa is simply referred to or ordered at a restaurant as laksa (curry laksa) or asam laksa. By default, laksa means the standard curry laksa while asam laksa refers to the standard Penang version. If a restaurant serves a non-standard version, the restaurant will qualify the laksa by the version being sold. For example, a restaurant serving Katong laksa will list Katong laksa on the menu.