Laksa is a popular spicy noodle soup in the Peranakan cuisine. Laksa consists of rice noodles or rice vermicelli with chicken, prawn or fish, served in spicy soup; either based on rich and spicy curry coconut milk, or based on sour asam (tamarind or gelugur). It can be found in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Southern Thailand.
There are various theories about the origins of laksa. In Indonesia, the dish is believed to have been born from the Chinese coastal settlements and the mixing of cultures between Chinese merchants and the local cooking practices. Historian believes laksa is a dish that was born from actual intermarriage. In early coastal pecinan (Chinese settlement) in maritime Southeast Asia, it was only Chinese men that ventured abroad out from China to trade. When settling down in the new town, these Chinese traders and sailors set out to find local wives, and these women began incorporating local spices and coconut milk into Chinese noodle soup served to their husbands. This creates the hybrid Chinese-local (Malay or Javanese) culture called Peranakan culture. As Peranakan Chinese communities have blended their ancestors’ culture with local culture, Peranakan communities in different places now demonstrate diversity according to the local flavour.
In Malaysia, the dish is believed to have been introduced by Chinese immigrants in Malacca. In Singapore, the dish (or its local “Katong” version) is believed to have been created after interaction between the Peranakans with the local Singaporeans.
Because laksa has different varieties across the region, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the dish. Nevertheless, numbers of laksa recipes has been developed along the trade channels of Southeast Asia—where the ports of Penang, Medan, Malacca, Singapore, Palembang and Batavia (now Jakarta) are the major stops along the historic spice route. The intensive trade links among these port cities enables exchanges of ideas to took place, including sharing recipes.
Various recipes of laksas have gained popularity in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia; and subsequently international recognition. Initially in July 2011, CNN Travel ranked Penang Asam Laksa 7th out of the 50 most delicious foods in the world. Its rank however, fell to number 26th after CNN held an online poll by 35,000 people, published in September 2011. Singaporean Curry Laksa on the other hand ranked in number 44th.
In Indonesia, laksa is one of the traditional comfort foods; the spicy warm noodle soup is much appreciated during cold rainy days. However, its popularity is somewhat overshadowed by soto, a similar hearty warm soup dish, which is often consumed with rice instead of noodles. In modern households, it is common practice to mix and match the recipes of laksas; if traditional laksa noodle is not available, Japanese udon noodles might be used instead.
The type of laksa is based upon the soup base employed in its recipe; either rich and savoury coconut milk, fresh and sour asam (tamarind, gelugur or kokum), or the combination of the two. There are three basic types of laksa: curry laksa, asam laksa and other variant that can be identified as either curry or asam laksa. Curry laksa is a coconut milk curry soup with noodles, while asam laksa is a sour, most often tamarind-based, 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 recipes might create their own rice noodle from scratch. Some variants might use other types of noodles; Johor laksa for example uses spaghetti, while a fusion recipe might use Japanese udon noodle.
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 and Singapore. Laksa is quite popular in Singapore, and curry laksa or nyonya laksa can be simply served as plain laksa, with just noodles and gravy, or with additional ingredients. Singaporean curry laksa ranked in number 44th of CNN World’s 50 best foods. Recently, several modern twist of curry laksa has been developed, such as laksa yong tau foo which is stuffed tofu laksa, and a premium upgrade of lobster laksa.
In Indonesia, most of laksa variants are coconut milk-based soup, thus can be categorized into curry laksa. Common spices include turmeric, coriander, candlenut, lemongrass, garlic, shallot and pepper cooked in coconut milk. Widely available daun kemangi (Indonesian lemon basil leaf) is commonly used instead of daun kesum. Bihun or thin rice vermicelli is most commonly used noodle instead of thick rice noodle, and some recipe might add slices of ketupat or lontong rice cake. Bogor laksa uses ground oncom into its soup.
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