One of Penang’s most famous dishes, at least within Malaysia, is the laksa. Laksa generally describes a bowl of thick rice noodles in broth. The noodles are thick like udon but made of rice rather than wheat flour; the broth varies from fish-and-tamarind-based (assam laksa) to coconut curry (curry laksa, naturally), and there are famous regional variations as well, which I look forward to trying once I get to those regions.
Naturally, people (by which I mean Malaysian people) devote a lot of time and conversation to the taxonomy and hierarchy of laksas. But there is consensus that the very best assam laksa comes from Penang, and more specifically, the small fishing town of Balik Pulau on the west coast.
As with many noodle stands, the bowls are pre-assembled, and the broth is added on ordering so the noodles don’t overcook. Yet another reason you should only frequent stands with lots of customers, to ensure freshness.
This was actually my second laksa of the day; the first bowl was at a strategically located court at the base of the Kek Lok Si temple (just look for the 40-foot Kuan Yin statue on the mountain). It was so underwhelming that I had to try a second bowl just to see what all the Penang laksa hype was about. Luckily, rice noodles aren’t very filling, so I was ready for that second bowl a couple of hours later.
I know, it doesn’t look like much. Noodle soups aren’t very photogenic. In the case of laksa, it’s all about the broth. Apparently the sour-spicy flavor comes from a tamarind base, brought to Penang via visiting Thais. (In fact, assam means tamarind in Malaysian. That totally explains the powder they put on the fruit.) The fish used for the broth is usually a mackerel-type fish, and a lot of assam laksa tastes fishy as a result; this one, in contrast, was very clean-tasting. Even Tom liked it, and he’s not much of an assam laksa guy. Imagine a richer tom yum soup with noodles, and you’ll be on the right track.
The most exotic components, in my mind, are the pineapple and mint garnishes. Pineapple and pork I’m used to, but in a fish noodle soup? In practice, the fruit adds a sweet but tart note and a nice textural contrast to the noodles. The mint provides a clean, herbal finish (although it doesn’t do much to freshen the breath, unfortunately).
If you’re hankering to try assam laksa yourself, but you can’t swing a flight to Malaysia, you can give this recipe a shot. An Asian market with a large Southeast Asian clientele should have most, if not all, the ingredients.
Tomorrow: SOK follows in Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps, yet again.