Malaysian laksa styles vary far beyond the yellow coconut curry soups we know as laksa in Australia. There are 13 states in the country, each with its very own signature laksa containing a range of variations on noodle and soup style, not to mention garnishes and proteins.
In the southern state of Johor, bordering Singapore, the locals eat their laksa with a different kind of noodle: Italian spaghetti.
“The legend has it, the old king of Johor used to travel around the world,” Malaysian chef, Engku Putri Irna Mysara tells SBS. “He got to Italy and fell in love with spaghetti. He brought some back and got the royal chefs to make a sort of gravy for it.” Thus, creating the state dish, laksa Johor.
“He got to Italy and fell in love with spaghetti. He brought some back and got the royal chefs to make a sort of gravy for it.”
Mysara, grew up in Johor, but moved to Melbourne for studies and never left. She now runs Sijori, a restaurant in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Bundoora where the first menu on the item is laksa Johor.
“My dad is actually part of the royal family [in Malaysia] and we asked him [about the tale]– he said ‘well, that’s the story that was told to us too’.
“Even as a kid we ate [laksa Johor] with spaghetti, so we never really knew any other way,” she says.
Mysara describes laksa Johor as a cross between regular curry laska known by many Australians, and the sour Assam laksa from Penang, but drier.
“Because we use both tamarind and curry as a base. We then simmer it down to a thick gravy ‘a la Bolognese’ and serve it with spaghetti. I know it sounds weird, but it’s like a fish Bolognese; the sauce is really thick and hearty and it goes well with the spaghetti.”
It’s an item that Mysara had trouble shifting from the seasonal menu at Sijori, so it’s sort of become her signature. Recently, Mysara appeared on the series Asia Unplated with host Diana Chan, who also grew up in Johor, to cook the dish.
“It's completely different to the laksas that you get here in Australia. And what people know as laksa to be,” says Chan. “But it really does make a lot of sense. It's [the] spaghetti noodles, and the fact that the gravy's dry.”
When SBS spoke with Mysara she was in Malaysia on business, speaking with suppliers to develop a new product to help showcase laksa Johor.
“I want to try and find some spices and pastes so people can cook it at home for an at-home brand,” she says. “We live in that sort of ‘masterchef generation’ where you don’t have to go out to eat.” She adds that if people want to try something new they’ll look to cook it at home.
Mysara’s own recipe for laksa Johor is on the website here, but if you don’t fancy a night in the kitchen, you can try it at Sijori in Bundoora.
“It’s funny because when we started the restaurant four years ago I had no background in hospitality. I just thought laksa Johor is something I wanted to showcase. When I moved here ten years ago, I was like ‘well everybody loves laksa, and I’m from the south of Malaysia and we have our own laksa’ which is pretty cool, so I thought ‘hey why don’t we just try it and put it out there.’”
"When I moved here ten years ago, I was like ‘well everybody loves laksa, and I’m from the south of Malaysia and we have our own laksa’"
Mysara says another motivator is that it’s been difficult to find native Malay flavours in Australia, with many dishes reflecting the Chinese- or Indian-Malay cuisines. “I want to showcase a different type of Malay food people haven’t tried before.”
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Catch the Malaysia episode of Asia Unplated with Diana Chan on SBS On Demand.
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