Nyonya Hot and Sour Noodles in Fish Soup – Penang Asam Laksa

Assam Laksa is truly an exceptional dish – an intoxicating noodle soup dish with the perfect balance of spicy, sweet, sour, salty, and savoury flavours. This is not a dish for the meek and mild – this is an assertive and robust dish that will jolt your taste-buds and get your blood pumping.

Nyonya Hot and Sour Noodles in Fish Soup - Penang Asam Laksa
Recipe type: Soup
Cook time: 
Total time: 
For spice paste
  • 10-12 dried red chillies, soaked in warm water until softened, deseeded then roughly chopped
  • 6 small fresh red chillies, deseeded and roughly chopped
  • 8 French shallots (about 100g), peeled and roughly chopped
  • 8 cloves garlic (about 35g), peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 lemongrass stalks, the white parts only, roughly sliced
  • 5cm piece of galangal (40g)
  • 1½ teaspoons belacan powder or 1 teaspoon belacan paste
  • 1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
For stock
  • 2 whole mackerel (about 800g)
  • 2 ½ litres water
  • A couple of extra fish heads or bones (optional, but makes for a stronger fishy soup)
For soup
  • 100g seedless tamarind pulp
  • 125ml hot water
  • 5 pieces dried tamarind peel or dried tamarind skin (asam keping / asam gelugor)
  • 5 large sprigs Vietnamese coriander
  • 1 tablespoon salt (adjust to taste)
  • 3 tablespoons sugar (adjust to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon fish sauce
  • 2-3 tablespoons belacan paste(adjust to taste)
For the bowls
  • 500 - 750g thick laksa rice noodles, cooked
  • 2 Lebanese cucumbers, julienned
  • 1 large red onion, very thinly sliced
  • pineapple, finely chopped (or tinned pineapple pieces)
  • fresh red chillies, deseeded and sliced
  • mint leaves
  • Vietnamese coriander
  • belacan paste, whisked with a little boiling water to a slightly runny consistency
For the paste
  1. With a stick blender, food processor or mortar and pestle, ground all the spice ingredients until it turns to a paste. If you’re making this in advance, store it in a clean jar in the fridge until ready to use.
For the soup
  1. Clean, gut and scale your mackerel and rinse off the blood (you can get your fish monger to do this for you but make sure you keep the heads). Bring the 2 ½ litres water to a boil, then carefully lower the fish and the extra fish heads/bones if you’re using.
  2. Cook for 10 minutes then remove the whole mackerel (leave the other bones in the pot). Set aside the mackerels to cool and reduce the heat of the stock to low.
  3. Add the warm water to the tamarind pulp and leave to stand for a few minutes. Squeeze the tamarind pulp to break it up and extract the juice. Keep squeezing until all the pulp has broken up. Strain and set aside. For a lazier option, use a stick blender to pulverise the water and pulp together before adding to the fish stock.
  4. Add the spice paste, tamarind juice, tamarind peel and Vietnamese coriander and simmer on low for 40 minutes. Season with salt, sugar, fish sauce and belacan paste to taste.
  5. Meanwhile, when the mackerel has cooled enough, use your hands to remove the flesh from the fish and set aside. Be sure to remove all the bones, brown bits and skin. Flake and set aside.
  6. Strain the stock and check your seasonings with salt and sugar (it should be balanced with salty, sour and sweet). Add about a third of the flaked mackerel to the soup and use the rest to garnish the bowls. For a thicker soup, add more fish flakes.
  7. Fill bowls with cooked noodles and ladle hot soup over it. Garnish with cucumber, onions, pineapple, chilli, mint leaves and serve immediately with prawn paste to the side.
If you’re making the soup in advance, remove the tamarind peel and Vietnamese coriander after it has simmered, bring to the boil then remove from heat and leave overnight (this will make for an even better flavoured soup). When ready, strain, add the flaked fish and heat before serving.

Some people prefer their assam soup less sour so if that’s the case, use less tamarind peel or tamarind pulp. Or similarly, add more sugar and prawn paste to sweeten. For those who like it tangy, a squeeze of lime in your individual bowls will do the trick.

If you’d like it less spicier, you can use less dried and/or fresh chilli in the paste.

For a more darker and flavoursome soup, you can add more belacan to the soup base. But usually the individual will adjust it themselves to taste in their own bowls.

A traditional garnish is finely chopped torch ginger bud (also known as ginger flower bunga kantan). However these are not readily available, but some Asian stores may sell packets of it in the freezer section therefore it's purely optional.


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