Assam Laksa

Few dishes can evoke that ‘mouth-watering’ reflex like the powerful stimuli of sweet-sour broth from a steaming bowl of tangy, spicy, fishy Assam Laksa aka Penang Laksa. Its origins are unsurprisingly from the culture of all mouth-watering creations–Peranakan (Straits-Chinese). Assam Laksa is a spicy and tangy fish broth of thick rice noodles most commonly made with mackerel or oily fish like sardines (sometimes both of these are paired) or Wolf Herring (Ikan Parang). The use of tamarind lends the fishy dish its distinctive sour flavour which is in turn balanced by the sweetness of added sugar, pineapple and savoury fermented prawn paste and a plethora of chilli spices.

Like its name, the best comes from Penang in Malaysia, a food mecca of hawker delights that gives Singapore a run for its money and renowned worldwide for being the capital of Penang Laksa.

With so much talk about eating healthy in our times, I’ll have to vote this as my top pick from amongst a ‘tough-to-label-healthy’ list of my favourite street hawker eats. You have fish, vegetables, herbs, fruit and even chilli spices to speed up one’s metabolism. What’s not to like? I reckon you could give yourself a pat for ‘going Paleo’ the Asian hawker food lover’s way, ha. No kidding. CNN crowned it a magic seven on its list of the World’s 50 most delicious foods.

Can’t believe this humble noodle dish made it to such a coveted lineup but it sure deserves mention for the gobsmacking spicy tangy kick it serves up every time. It is the ultimate antidote for your homesickness when you’re dreaming and hankering after that exotic taste experience made possible only by the rustic street hawkers of Malaysia, Indonesia or Singapore. (I have a dream, and it is one of night markets in humid smoky polluted overcrowded Asia). From their noisy, cramped and cluttered stainless steel food carts often glowing yellow with naked bulbs, or under the glare of fluorescent lamps, the nimble skilful hawker lives on in the heart of every homesick Asian expat or migrant. Which one doesn’t dream of being ladled a hot steaming bowl of piquant, thick fishy broth of Assam Laksa in exchange for just less than a few dollars cash.

I bring you my homemade recipe. I have deeply steeped childhood kitchen memories of this being my mum’s favourite when I was too young to appreciate the sour loveliness of Assam Laksa but watched in absolute fascination as my mum slurped her noodles and the spicy soup, sniffing away and dabbing at her eyes, forehead and nose with tissues, then doing what was the unthinkable—i.e. tossing more chillies to up the ante.

For you, mum.

Assam Laksa
Assam Laksa

Assam Laksa Spicy Sour Fish Broth Rice Noodles

Fish of your choice about 1kg worth:
Spanish Mackerel or Wolf Herring (Ikan Parang) is best—may also be substituted with tinned tomato sardines or other oily fish
500g dried thick round rice noodles
2.5 litres water, or 1.5 litres water with 1 litre fish stock*
3 pieces dried tamarind peel (assam gelugor)
100g tamarind puree—to extract 1/2 C liquid (discard seeds; liquid extracted)
2-3 TB sugar, or to taste
1 TB salt or to taste
2 TB fish sauce or to taste

To make 1 litre fish stock*:
I make mine using dried anchovies (ikan billis), fish heads and bones, boiled on high then simmered to reduce liquid to half.

Serve and garnish with:
1 lebanese cucumber (skin and seeds removed, julienned)
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 pineapple, cut into slices or cubes
bunch of mint leaves
bunch of laksa leaves (daun kesum)
hae ko (prawn paste) to serve

Spice Paste:

6-8 small shallots, skins off
4 lemongrass stalks (use only white portion), chopped
8 large chillies
10 dried chillies (soaked in warm water first then squeezed dry)
1 galangal (blue ginger, about 1.5” length)
1 piece turmeric root (yellow ginger)
1 ginger bud (bunga kantan- optional)
1 cube ready-roasted belachan (dried shrimp paste)
1/2 C tomato puree or paste

Spicy Fish Broth

Clean fish and blanch in boiling water. Discard water.
Bring for 10-12 minutes until just cooked but not tough.
Remove and debone with fingers, taking special care to remove all bones. Flake the fish but not too finely, leaving small bite-sized pieces intact to savour the fish meat.

Add all ingredients for the spice paste into a food processor to pulse or pound with a mortar and pestle till they become a lovely pulp of rempah (spice paste).

Add water into a large saucepan, add the tamarind peel, tamarind puree liquid and spice paste, and the tomato puree (to omit this if tomato tinned sardines are used) or paste depending on which you are using. Take it all to a rapid boil on high heat. Season with sugar, salt and fish sauce.

Cook the dried rice noodles according to the packet instructions—until they are softened. Aim for soft springy noodles and not an al dente texture! Strain under cool tap water to stop the cooking process, separate noodles equally into 4 deep noodle bowls with a drizzle of vegetable oil and give the noodles in each bowl a quick toss so that they don’t stick together.

To assemble, top noodles with a handful of the fish you are using, a few slices or cubes of pineapple, cucumber and red onion slices. Serve hot with the spicy broth, with sprigs of mint leaves, laksa leaves and more hae ko (prawn paste) for each diner to help themselves too.

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