Spicy soup! Satisfying noodles! Seafood, tofu puffs and sprouts! The number of reasons to love laksa is about as long as the ingredients list, but how well do you know this Peranakan specialty? Keen to examine the adored dish, we delved into regional recipes and discovered a wealth of difference between them.
1. Johor laksa
What makes this regional dish so unusual is its choice of noodle. Veering away from the regular rice vermicelli, laksa in Johor is made with spaghetti-like strands that are spun into bundles. The noodles come with a thicker broth of coconut milk, dried prawns, spices, and a garnish of mint leaves, cucumber and pickled white radish. Uniquely, this drier dish is traditionally eaten by hand.
For many Australians, this is what we think of when we hear – or crave – laksa. Made from a coconut milk and curry paste base, this version is creamy, intense and often super fiery thanks to lashings of chilli on top. Curry laksa isn’t a dish of subtlety. Bulked up with fish balls, tofu puffs, noodles and prawns or chicken (sometimes both), a medium-sized bowl is often big enough for two meals – if you have self-control, that is. Traditionally made with fresh, flat, thin rice noodles, you’ll sometimes see a combination of mee (yellow wheat noodles) and vermicelli. (Get the full breakdown of curry laksa components here.)
Boiled fish and coconut milk form the foundation of this Northeast Malaysian laksa. The white soup is rich and creamy, skirting between sweet and sour notes. Served with keropok lekor (Malay fish crackers) and sambal chilli paste, laksham is one for the fishy flavour fiends.
Unlike our former contenders, assam or Penang laksa contains no coconut milk. Instead, the lighter broth is made from fish (trevally, snapper or mullet), tamarind and torch ginger flower. Shallots, shrimp paste and fragrant roots are blended to form rempah (spice paste), which adds punchy flavour to the dish. A garnish of pineapple, cucumber and mint delivers major refreshment. Whilst originating in Penang, this laksa is particularly popular in the capital Kuala Lumpur, eaten – no doubt – as the antidote to heat and humidity.
5. Sarawak laksa
Born in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, this laksa carries a sweet, spicy and slightly smoky profile. The coconut milk base is imbued with galangal, lemongrass, tamarind and sambal belacan, creating a sour broth, tinged with chilli. Here, rice vermicelli noodles may be joined by pork belly, omelette slivers, chicken or prawns. Fresh coriander and a squeeze of lime juice add a fresh, tangy finish.
6. Tom yum laksa
The love child of laksa and tom yum soup, this Thai invention is filled with zest. Seafood generally makes up the protein component, but chicken (meat and stock) can be added, too. The broth, made from coconut water and coconut milk, is imbued with makrut lime leaves, lemongrass and garlic. Don’t forget the rice vermicelli. (Cheat's variation here.)
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.
A lovely sour, fragrant soup, served with chewy, translucent noodles and garnished with the lively flavours of fresh pineapple, cucumber and eschalots.