If you ask 50 Singaporeans what their favorite comfort food is, you’ll get a variety of responses reflecting the rich cultural tapestry that is the Singaporean food heritage. How do I know? Because I asked. The ONE response that I heard many, many times was “laksa”.
More than one friend recounted memories of heading home after school to a warm, spicy bowl of laksa with an affection akin to what I feel for macaroni and cheese.
“Lake-what?” an American colleague asked, when I brought him a packet of instant laksa seasoning to try at home. It isn’t really a dish that has permeated the awareness of most Americans (yet?), so I didn’t blame him. Pronounced “Lah-ksah”, this noodle soup is as ubiquitous in Malaysia and Singapore as a heaping bowl of chili is across the United States. And just like chili, everyone has their own favorite style, secret recipe, preferred spice level and toppings. For example, I grew up eating a mild, meaty tomato-based chili but have grown an affinity for a spicier, white bean and chicken chili. Somehow we call both dishes “chili”.
Like white vs red chili, the single most important distinguishing feature in categorizing laksa recipes is whether or not it is made with coconut milk. Other variables include different types of noodles, amount of vegetables, types of seafood used, types of spices and other garnishes. Before we get carried away with the chili analogy, I would also point out that a deep fishy flavor (from dried prawns, cockles, fresh prawns, flaked fish, fish cakes, etc) is typical, although there are of course, exceptions to everything. You could get chicken or vegetarian laksa, but I don’t really see the point. If you really hate seafood, I would skip the laksa. The flavors that are developed with the layers of fishiness are what makes laksa unique from say a curry chicken dish. Just my opinion, of course.
While we are talking about personal opinions, I’ll just go ahead and say that after a bad experience with the sour, coconut-free Asam laksa that almost kept me from trying another round, I learned that I strongly prefer the rich, creamy, coconutty versions like Nyonya Laksa that we had on our trip to Malacca or the Singapore-specific version called Katong laksa: famous for the chopped up noodles that can be eaten with a spoon instead of chopsticks.
I especially liked this shop (picture below) in Holland Village because you could order on iPADs and customize your order with extra prawns, beansprouts or cockles! Even with the fancy iPAD ordering, a meal was about 4 USD.
By far, my most memorable experience with laksa was when my friend and Bangkok-travel-partner, YeeLin, invited me to her family’s kitchen for homemade laksa! It was an elaborate process with a long list of ingredients including a special leaf (pictured bottom right) that they only called “sour leaf” and a ginger flower (bottom middle). Another ingredient that set their version apart was mixing in shredded zucchini with the noodles, which really gave the dish a light, fresh taste. The sauce (or “gravy”) was golden yellow, and creamy with all of the coconut cream. We all wanted a second helping!
There are apparently a few places to get a bowl of laksa in Seattle including the esteemed Wild Ginger and the Malay Satay hut. After seeing the whole process that went into making this, I think it may be worth a trip out for dinner. Who wants to join me?