Laksa is a big soup bowl full of crunchy, creamy and spicy surprises, and vivid with sun-yellow tumeric, bright sprigs of coriander and red chilli. It has to be one of the best things to eat when travelling in South-East Asia.
A native dish of Singapore and Malaysia, it is also widely available in various regional flavours in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, and is hugely popular in Australia. There are two versions – one which is curry based, using coconut milk, and the other, called assam laksa, is a sour fish soup. The first time I slurped a curry laksa, it was such a revelation I didn’t even care about the fat black cockroaches crawling up the wall of the Newtown eaterie in Sydney.
My favourite is one made with chicken broth, spicy laksa paste, coconut milk, rice noodles, crunchy bean sprouts, fried tofu, kaffir lime leaves, shredded chicken or seafood, fresh coriander and dried, fried shallots sprinkled on top.
Indonesia has its own variation called betawi laksa: The coconut milk based soup is a mixture of shallot, garlic, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, salam leaf and kaffir lime leaf, ginger, pepper, and contains dried small shrimp to gave the unique taste. The dish contains compressed rice cake wrapped in young coconut leaf, bean sprouts, Indonesian basil leaf and boiled egg. Galangal is like ginger, but has a more pungent taste.
And then there’s plain laksa – an abomination. After 10 days in India, I congratulated myself on an iron stomach and no Delhi Belly. But one dodgy plain laksa at an airport in Malaysia and I was sick for two weeks.
I should have known. Instead of the fragrant noodle soup bright with coriander and chilli it was brown sludge swimming with fat white worms passing as noodles.
Don’t let this put you off. If you go to South-East Asia, look for laksa which is often served as street food. Ideally, it will be made from super fresh ingredients prepared while you wait, and won’t cost more than $A10. Just don’t get a plain one!
More info before you go: www.malaysia.com