Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Laksa: One Word, One Pot, One Heckuva Meal

Ten years ago Marty and I traveled to Borneo, with stops in mainland Malaysia and Singapore. Besides trekking through primeval rainforest, watching a pageant of colorful songbirds from high up in the canopy, and hanging out with endangered orangutans in their diminishing habitat, we also ate bowlfuls of the region's signature one-pot meal.

Laksa is thought to be the centuries-old creation of Chinese traders living in Malaysia. The country has long been a crossroads for a variety of Asian cultures. Ethnic Malays, Chinese, and Indians make up the bulk of the population, and their representative cuisines intermingle to give Malaysia a wide-ranging national menu. It's only just, then, that Laksa has gone on to be much more than a Malaysian specialty. Versions of it are found all over Southeast Asia—indeed, all over the world, with those determined globetrotters the Australians particularly enamored of it. Within Malaysia itself there are countless variations, from the slightly sour tamarind-based Sarawak style found on Borneo to the rich coconut "Curry Mee" of Penang.

In fact, trying to sort out the many variations and their devoted adherents is a trip down the rabbit hole that I don't intend to make. The important thing to know is that Laksa is delicious, many-layered, and filling. (Apparently the name Laksa translates as "ten thousand"; whether this refers to the number of ingredients in the paste or the amount of condiments required is unspecified.) In its most basic form, Laksa is a curry-like soup ladled over noodles. Chicken along with seafood such as shrimp and squid are the most common meats added to the pot. In parts of Malaysia and elsewhere a type of cockle called the blood cockle (because it bleeds red) is considered an essential ingredient, as is congealed pig's blood. Other typical ingredients include fried tofu puffs and the usual pho-style garnishes: basil, Vietnamese mint, lime, bean sprouts, and so on.

I rediscovered Laksa while contemplating my haul of cockles the other day. The cockle is something of a problem mollusk. It has great flavor but it can also be tough and chewy—and its stomach of dark green half-digested algae is definitely not a turn-on for most diners. I usually chop up cockles for chowders. Grinding for Clam Cakes is another possibility.

While searching for new cockle recipes online, I stumbled upon a reminiscence of eating hawker Laksa in Singapore. The island city-state of Singapore off the southern tip of the Malay peninsula is known for its "street hawker" food. One can spend a lifetime roaming the markets and stalls and sampling an ever-changing parade of Laksa, with no two bowls tasting quite the same. Unfortunately, I only had 24 hours in this food-lover's paradise, though it was enough to know I will be back. The hawker Laksa reference sent me on a bit of wild hare, both down memory lane and through the Internet's culinary matrix, until my head was dizzy with possibilities. In the end I decided to try my hand at the dish with no single recipe but rather a cherry-picking of ingredients and methods. Certainly you can make all sorts of substitutions and additions. This is merely a start.

Laksa Paste

First you need Laksa paste. If you're in a hurry you can always buy a jar of pre-mixed paste, but part of the fun is the mad scientist approach to mixing and matching an odd assortment of ingredients found at your local Asian market. Combine the following in a food processor and whir until finely blended:

3 shallots, peeled
3 hearts of lemon grass (the lower white part)
5 hot red chilies, stemmed and seeded to taste
4 slices of galangal
1 thumb ginger, peeled
5 cloves garlic
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
1/2 red bell pepper
2 tsp shrimp paste
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp paprika
4 tbsp peanut oil

Add more peanut oil if necessary. The red bell pepper is my addition. I like its sweetness and it lends a richer, warmer color to the final product. Refrigerate leftover paste in a glass jar.

Laksa for 4

1 cup Laksa paste
2 tbsp peanut oil
4-5 cups stock or water
1 can coconut cream (or less)
2 dozen cockles, shelled, cleaned, and cut into bite-size portions
1 dozen shrimp, shelled (reserve shells)
1 package fried tofu puffs, cut into cubes
1 lb rice noodle and/or egg noodle, cooked
garnish: Thai basil, Vietnamese mint, cilantro, green onion, bean sprouts, lime wedges, diced peppers, chopped peanuts, fried shallot

1. Saute reserved shrimp shells in peanut oil over medium heat until slightly browned; remove with slotted spoon. Next add paste and cook, stirring, a few minutes, careful not to burn.
2. Raise heat and add stock (I used chicken), bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer several minutes.
3. Stir in coconut cream. Add cockles, shrimp, and tofu. Simmer another few minutes until shellfish are done.
4. Divide noodles into bowls. Ladle soup over noodles and garnish.

Lastly, prepare to enroll in 12-step Laksa addiction center.


Banu said...

Oh wow. This looks fantastic; I can almost smell it. Thank you for another amazing post.

Heather said...

I love falling down the Internet's culinary rabbit holes. I learn so much that way. And speaking of, I just remembered Malayasian food from another post I looked at today. There's some near me, and now I'm jonesing (though you may have inspired me to just try my own hand).

Curtis said...

I've only had cockles and soft shell clams and found that I preferred the cockles. Now you say the cockle is chewy, which I don't find it to be bad, but I usually just eat it in chowders. What other clams are less chewy?

Unknown said...

The red bell pepper sounds interesting. I actually use a little tomato paste in my laksa to give it a more vivid colour. So delicious!

Langdon Cook said...

Banu - In researching this dish I ate it three times in two days. I'm still hungry for more.

Heather - We've got Malay Satay Hut nearby, which is decent. Singapore is calling you...

Curtis - Well, littlenecks for one are less chewy. Also, it's easy to overcook cockles, at which point they're like rubber. But as I say in the post, they more than make up for this with tremendous flavor. Cutting up the cockles helps.

M - Good call on the tomato paste. I'll try it next time.

ze junkie said...

Wow that looks delicious! I haven't had laksa in a looooong while.. maybe I'll give your recipe a whirl :)

tigerfish said...

I just had laksa in the famous Katong Laksa last week. The laksa which only a spoon can handle (no chopsticks required!) :p

matt said...

holy crap, this looks awesome! I have read about Laksa a few times, but have yet to try it myself.

Lovely photos too mate!

Curtis said...

So then what about razor clams? I've never had them, but they are obviously the most famous clam on our coast? What makes them so good?