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Darwin locals and visitors alike are no strangers to steaming bowls of laksa, a particularly fragrant, sweet-sour Southeast Asian noodle soup. Australia’s northernmost capital city has been dubbed (by us!) the laksa capital of Australia for good reason – it is, after all, closer to Jakarta than to Sydney, boasts a history of Southeast Asian immigration, and this year for the second year in a row, it’s playing host to an International Laksa Festival.
Pandemics and travel bans can't keep this city away from its love of laksa, so the month-long celebration is well and truly back again, starting today (October 26). The festival's main attraction is a laksa-making competition (which, for the average Darwinian, translates to downing A LOT of laksa in the space of one month), open to any restaurant, eatery or smallholder from the Darwin, Palmerston and rural areas.
Businesses are encouraged to register, turn up their laksa-crafting prowess to level 11 and watch as the punters flock (in a socially-distanced fashion, of course). With the whole city’s consciousness erupting over a slew of noodle soups and related activities, this laksa trail is encouraging people to eat and vote for their favourite bowl until November 29 when the full festival's day of celebrations will come to a head. This year, voting will take place via the official laksa festival app, with the winning dish crowned the People's Choice.
“Everyone is invited to participate, whether it be to vote for your favourite laksa, learn how to make your own or celebrate the Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian cultures tat contribute to making Darwin so unique and the multicultural capital of the world,” says Darwin Chief Minister Michael Gunner. “The Darwin International Laksa Festival aims to drive people to Darwin City and gain positive attention for Darwin as the gateway to Asia and the capital of laksa in Australia.”
With the territory’s laksas boasted to be some of the best in the world, competition is expected to be stiff. A standard Peranakan laksa consists of thick wheat noodles or rice vermicelli, chicken, prawns or fish in a heady, coconut milk-based soup – but the big players in Darwin’s laksa scene are playing it anything but safe.
Just like the many Southeast Asian iterations of the dish (Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean) the laksas shining brightest throughout the next month will be those that turn tradition on its head, incorporate variety and play into the regular cooking process, and let the bevvy of Top End indigenous ingredients speak for themselves – things like the first-class barramundi, crocodile, and even a laksa cob-loaf!
There are plenty of businesses who are perfectly poised to compete. In a Facebook post on the official Darwin International Laksa Festival page last year, locals were encouraged to nominate their favourite laksa vendors. Yati’s and Mary’s, two regular stallholders at Parap Village Markets received more than the occasional mention, re-igniting a controversial debate over the rightful holder of the Darwin Laksa Queen title.
“Everything [we offer at Mary’s] is home-made, the laksa paste is freshly ground and we make our stock from real chicken,” Mary (Guo Lang Lei) told SBS in 2019. “I think we attract customers because we use the best quality ingredients and I make everything from scratch each week.”
Meanwhile, Yati’s, specialising in Malay-style laksa, has been voted home of Darwin’s Best Laksa in a 2018 poll. “Yati’s Laksa is the best there is,” wrote one Facebook user.
To determine the ultimate prize-winner this year, mystery shopper-style ‘laksa ninjas’ will be visiting registered eateries throughout the month and shortlisting the best laksas. Each venue will be visited by multiple 'ninjas' at different times, and scores tallied to determine the top 10 laksa venues that go onto the shortlist. The top 10 venues will then participate in a blind tasting by an expert panel of judges including Jimmy Shu, to decide on the ultimate 2020 Golden Bowl winner.
The party doesn’t start and end with noodle soup, either as last year Cold Rock Icecreamery has risen to the Laksa Festival challenge by creating laksa-inspired ice cream. This brand-new flavour is intriguingly curried in taste and topped with a spate of unusual toppings as far as desserts go – crispy noodles, chilli flakes and coriander
“It’s more salty than sweet and tastes pretty much exactly like laksa, only frozen,” says Cold Rock Darwin owner, Susan Webb. “You could have it for dinner or dessert. It’s both really.” If there’s ever a time for laksa-flavoured ice cream, it’s right now.
Who will emerge from the laksa-fest victorious remains to be seen, but with the calibre of food on offer, it’s safe to say this is an exciting time not just for laksa lovers far and wide and perhaps a few top tips for enjoying laksa never go astray.
For more information about the festival, you can visit the Laksa Festival’s official website.
Laksa curry is one of Malaysia's most popular dishes. Be sure to strain the soup before serving, for a silky smooth dish that's full of flavour.
This rich laksa was inspired by my fishing trip with local Brian Lee to Cape Leveque, surely one of the best fishing spots in the world.
Unlike the more well-known coconut-milk based curry laksa, the base broth is made from fish, tamarind and torch ginger flower, resulting in a lovely, sour, fragrant soup, served with chewy, translucent noodles and garnished with the lively flavours of fresh pineapple, cucumber, red onion, torch ginger and shrimp molasses.
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 came about from contemplating the gritty solids that gather at the bottom of a bowl of traditional laksa when the soup has been almost completely drunk. It led to this alternative of a light, clear and flavoursome bouillon.