When I was in Malaysia I ate an amazing array of delicious food (all gluten-free, of course), but one of the dishes that stuck with me the most was laksa. I like spicy food, but in the way that Westerners like spicy food; just enough heat to make me tear up a bit, but nothing that any Malaysian would notice. I gradually built up to the laksa during my time there, starting with congee minus the chillies for breakfast, moving through Hainanese chicken rice (which the Singaporeans claim as theirs), rendang (which the Indonesians claim as theirs) to nasi lemak (which nobody can deny is quintessentially Malaysian) and onwards. Through family gatherings where solicitous hostesses asked if the food was mild enough for me, telling me they had deliberately put no chilli in when they heard I was coming, as tears streamed down my face, to bowls of soup and fish balls which caused sweat beads to form on my forehead (though equally that could have been the 40-degree heat). Finally, on my last day, we went to an excellent restaurant, strangely enough hidden away in KLCC, the shopping complex below the Petronas towers. Tucked away on the sixth floor is a wonderful restaurant specialising in Penang cuisine and I finally ordered my very own laksa.
It was good, no, it was great, such simple flavours but so perfectly balanced, but oh my, was it hot. I refused to be defeated though. There is a photo of me somewhere sat in front of that empty bowl, spoon in hand, looking sweaty, exhausted and triumphant. It was well worth it. Since then I have not attempted to recreate my own laksa, as I knew it could never live up to that first one. However, it is such a delicious dish, and surprisingly easy to make, that it’s really worth a try.
This recipe is adapted from the Pahang laksa in the book, and is missing what is no doubt a vital ingredient, wolf herring soaked with pandan leaves. In fact the whole recipe is pared down (not least because the original served 8-10 people) and simplified, but the essence of the dish remains; the heat, the spice, the savouryness, the creaminess, and not to be forgotten, the freshness of the garnish, which sets the whole dish off.
Adapted, a lot, from The Complete Malaysian Cookbook
My one quibble with this recipe as I made it (and the fault is mine for being too timid) is it wasn’t nearly hot enough. Laksa should sear your mouth and make your eyeballs pop ever so slightly. Next time I’d use at least 3 fat red chillies, seeds and all, and perhaps even 4 to achieve the desired effect.
1/2 tablespoon fish curry powder (cumin, cayenne, anise, turmeric, pepper)
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/8 teaspoon onion powder
3 large chillies
1/2-inch piece of fresh ginger
1/2-inch piece of lemongrass
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons desiccated coconut
200g large prawns, deveined
400ml coconut milk
1 teaspoon tamarind pulp
Half cucumber, shredded
2 large handfuls of rice noodles, soaked in warm water until soft (according to packet instructions)
1. Finely chop the ginger and lemongrass. Heat a drizzle of oil in a large saucepan and add the fish curry powder, turmeric, onion powder, chillies, ginger and lemongrass. Fry until fragrant and the oil separates out, about 3 minutes.
2. Add the desiccated coconut and the prawns, along with the salt and sugar. Cook on medium-high heat for a further 3 minutes, or until the coconut is starting to brown.
3. Add the coconut milk and water, and the tamarind pulp. Bring the laksa to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the coconut doesn’t stick.
4. To serve, place the soft noodles in the bowls. Put the shredded cucumber and basil on top, and spoon the laksa on top of everything. Garnish with a little more cucumber and serve immediately.