From the kitchens of South-East Asia comes a noodle dish (laksa) that is fast gaining a foothold in the international food scene as a delightful dish that seems to have endless variety to cater for every taste and fancy.

If sushi secured Japanese food a solid spot in the world cuisine scene, laksa is helping promote South-East Asian food around the globe. The word laksa is said to be from Sanskrit that means 'thousands' or 'many', perhaps an indication of the many ingredients that go into the pot in cooking it. Laksa dishes are becoming famous and you are bound to have seen it in cookbooks and magazines. Delis and food halls around the world carry tantalizingly labeled jars of laksa paste, often erroneously selling one particular flavour as the definite laksa paste. The dish may turn out great but be assured that your discovery of the laksa-out-of-a bottle is only at the very fringes of this hugely popular fish.

The laksa is basically a noodle dish that is eaten any time of the day. The noodles and gravy that are used for each type define the name and characteristics of the dish. To the basic noodle and gravy, a host of accompaniments such as meat, seafood, tofu and vegetables are added, making the dish a complete single-bowl meal. From creamy, spicy concoctions to tangy, sour soups, the laksa pays homage to the creativity of the cooks who match the noodles, ingredients and gravy according to the herbs and spices available at hand. And since it is quite a humble dish, laksa is enjoyed by all and caters to just about every taste and preference.

Strangely, Singapore is often credited as the birthplace of laksa. Almost every country in South-East Asia has a minimum of one laksa dish per country. There is the Nyonya (Straits Chinese) laksa from Singapore, Siamese Laksa from Thailand, Bali Laksa from Indonesia, and Mohingar and Kao Soi from Burma. And if you embark on a quest to uncover more laksa dishes, every country will have its own delightful version. Malaysia alone has several different types that reflect the diversity of laksa dish and the local preference to certain flavors, tastes and textures.

Penang Island in Malaysia is known as a food paradise, with hawker food being extremely popular. From this epicurean island comes Assam Laksa, a mouthwatering sweet and sour laksa that will make you salivate simply thinking about it. Assam means sour in Malay as the dish's distinct ingredient is tamarind that provides the integral flavor to the gravy. The gravy us a thick soup made of flaked kembung fish and tamarind extract. Lemon grass, laksa leaves (polygonum leaves), torch ginger buds and chilies add bite to the robust flavor. The gravy is ladled into bowls of rice noodles that are garnished with mint leaves, pineapple slices, cucumber and sliced onions. An essential addition to the Assam Laksa is the hey-koh, which is a thick and sweetish prawn paste.

Curry Laksa and Nyonya Laksa are Chinese adaptations of the Malay curry dish. Curry Laksa is essentially a noodle dish served with a coconut cream-based curry, and topped with shelled cockles, prawns, hardboiled eggs, bean sprouts, fried tofu and fresh herbs like mint leaves or laksa leaves; served with sambal belachan (shrimp paste chili dip) and a slice of lime. Very simply, a bowl of noodles topped with any kind of accompaniment and doused with a curry-based gravy will give you an inkling of what Curry Laksa tastes like.

Nyonya Laksa differs slightly; the curry is richer and is served with fish cake, shrimps, bean sprouts and topped with cucumber, laksa leaves and sliced torch ginger buds. The Malays call it Laksa Lemak, referring to the coconut cream that creates the rich gravy. The enticing aroma of the curry and coconut is simply irresistible and the dish has found its way into many international cookbooks and Asian menus.

From the southern state of Johor in Peninsula Malaysia comes an almost peculiar laksa dish that cannot be found anywhere else in the region. Rich, robust and delicious, the gravy is also curry based with additional ingredients such as roasted, desiccated coconut (kerisik), dried prawns, lemon grass and galangal. In addition to the onions, julienne cucumbers, laksa and mint leaves, purists will only use pounded tenggiri (mackerel) fish to thicken the gravy. But the peculiarity lies not in the fish but the type of noodle used. Laksa Johor strictly uses only spaghetti. The Western ingredients in this Eastern dish is believed to have been created due to the connections and dealings the royal family of Johor and with Western traders and colonialists in past centuries.

The laksa that hails from Sarawak is vastly different in taste and texture, though the basic structure of the stock is the same. The stock carries a peculiar pungent-spicy taste that isn't similar to other curry-based gravies. This is attributed to the use of select spices such as cinnamon, star anise, shrimp paste, tamarind, garlic, lemon grass, coconut milk and candlenuts. The paste is easily available in packets in Sarawak and is boiled together in a stock of prawn shells and fish bones. Rice vermicelli is the preferred noodle for this dish and it is garnished with omelette strips, bean sprouts, shredded chicken meat and fresh coriander leaves.

The states of Perlis and Kedah too have their own versions though the laksa there are variants to the basic Assam Laksa and Laksa Lemak. The fish gravy is known to be less sour with the addition of grated coconut mixed with green chilies to reduce the tang. Sliced hardboiled eggs are also added to the dish. In the East Coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu, Laksam is popular. Rolls of flat rice noodles are sliced up like little rosettes and a super thick, fish gravy is ladled onto the noodles. Traditionally, Laksam doesn't use any curry spiced to flavor the gravy and relies purely on fish, coconut milk and herbs for flavor.

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