In the Australian imagination, Darwin is synonymous with Sunkist-orange sunsets, river-fresh barramundi and waterfront markets selling an A-Z of tropical fruit. But increasingly, the Top End capital, which is closer to Jakarta than it is to Sydney, is also shorthand for laksa.
Here, the much-loved soup — which originated with the Peranakans, the Chinese traders who settled in coastal Indonesia and Malacca and combined noodles with local staples like chillies and coconut milk — has become something of a culinary emblem.
Hunting down a steaming bowl of curry laksa (equally soul-affirming for breakfast, lunch or dinner), a dish that owes its sweet-sour punch to ingredients such as lemongrass and galangal, is a citywide ritual.
Google ‘Darwin Laksa’ and you’ll find a roll-call of local food bloggers debating the provenance of the city’s best laksa. In January last year, this quest made the front page of the NT News, in a break from the tabloid’s crocodile-related programming.
On Saturday mornings, Parap Village Market, the city’s longest-running open-air market, erupts with vendors selling everything from rainbow-coloured Thai sweets to oversized mangos and rambutans.
If you follow the queue of locals, along with the aroma of coconut broth, you’ll end up at Mary’s.
From a no-frills stand papered with printout images, Mary (Guo Yang Lei), has been dishing out exemplary laksa — along with green pawpaw salad — for nearly 20 years. Lei tells SBS that she owes the popularity of her laksa to her commitment to fresh ingredients such as coriander, fried onion and chilli sauce.
“Everything [we offer at Mary’s] is home-made, the laksa paste is freshly ground and we make our stock from real chicken,” she explains. “I think we attract customers because we use the best quality ingredients and I make everything from scratch each week.”
In Kuala Lumpur, vats of laksa simmer for hours on the sidewalks. At Mary’s, where you can choose toppings such as chicken, beef, BBQ pork and wontons, there’s a similar focus on traditional cooking techniques.
“We also make our own BBQ pork and wontons,” says Lei. “I get a lot of regulars and because it’s [dry season] at the moment, we also have a lot of tourists [visiting us].”
Lei attributes the popularity of laksa in Darwin to the compact size of the city as well as its history of South-east Asian immigration. Given that Darwin is more multicultural than the rest of Australia, with nearly 30 per cent of the population born overseas according to an April 2018 ABC report, it’s easy to see her point.
Last year, another Parap icon, Yati’s, was christened the home of Darwin’s best laksa in a local poll.
The stand, which is now run by Christiana Monostori and specialises in Malay-style laksa, brimming with fat prawns and tofu, was originally established two decades ago by two Malaysian immigrants.
If you take a short drive down Stuart Highway, you’ll find Laksa House.
At this roadhouse-style eatery, Amye Un, a refugee from Indonesian West Timor, doles out an Indonesian-style version of the soup, topped with spring onions and beansprouts, served in a yellow broth that is ever-so-slightly nutty.
Zach Green was the chef behind Elijah’s Kitchen,
a celebrated Darwin restaurant that gained a cult following for its focus on Indigenous stories and its artful way with native ingredients. When Green, a Gunditjmara and Palawa man who discovered his Indigenous heritage as a 12-year-old, decided to open a pop-up in Fannie Bay, he knew that laksa would be on the menu.
“Laksa is so popular in Darwin but everyone uses the same ingredients — chicken and seafood,” he says. “Crocodiles are always on the front cover of the newspaper but we also have so many Asian influences. So, I thought, why not combine Asian herbs and spices with Indigenous protein to create a dish that feels very Australian.”
The spirit of Green’s dish would no doubt draw approval from laksa’s original inventors.
“It’s part of Darwin life to go down to the market and the first thing that comes to mind is always to get a laksa,” Green laughs. “My laksa is sweet with a bit of spicy kick. People love it.” While Elijah's Kitchen has finished its pop-up stint, we can only hope there will be an Elijah Kitchen revival.
Discover more bush food flavours in Outback Gourmet, as Justine Schofield gets a taste for Yati's famous laksa. Douuble episodes screening 7.30pm Mondays on SBS Food Channel 33 and then available on SBS On Demand.
Coconut laksa is a favourite around Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as here in Australia. The Asian influences within the cuisine of Australia’s Top End make for some fascinating foods. I made this laksa with a fillet of Australian saltwater crocodile. Don’t cut the crocodile meat too thick or overcook it, as it can be very tough.
This laksa combines fresh ingredients with a commercial laksa paste, meaning a lot of the prep work is done for you. To make this recipe even easier, place the garnishes in the centre of the table, allowing diners to assemble their laksa to taste.
Traditionally made with rice noodles, prawns, chicken, tofu puffs and fish balls, this Malaysian curry laksa is not a dish of subtlety. A balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy elements, popular accompaniments include Vietnamese mint and fried Asian shallots.