Monday, August 1, 2011

Penang Assam Laksa(檳城亞參叻沙)

Penang Laksa ranked No 7 in the world's 50 most delicious foods. Wah, so proud. This is what they commented on Penang Laksa.

No. 7. Penang laksa, Malaysia

“Poached, flaked mackerel, tamarind, chili, mint, lemongrass, onion, pineapple … one of Malaysia’s most popular dishes is an addictive spicy-sour fish broth with noodles (especially great when fused with ginger), that’ll have your nose running before the spoon even hits your lips.”

Read more: World's 50 most delicious foods #2 |,1#ixzz1TaIL5ss7

Penang Laksa, the correct name should be Penang Assam Laksa(檳城亞參叻沙). Penang Assam Laksa which was developed from the original Malay Laksa, was a Peranakan or Nyonya food, a merger of Chinese and Malay food elements found in Malaysia and Singapore, and to a lesser extent Indonesia and Siamese influences. You can found many types of Laksa in Malaysia and Singapore, Asam Laksa however is uniquely Penang, and it is commonly add with the word Penang, Penang Asam Laksa to denote authentic or original.

Why call it Laksa?

The origin of the name "laksa" is unclear. Laksa in Malay is the name of the noodle specifically for laksa, Assam means sour in Malay. Penang Assam Laksa, literally means "Sour Noodle from Penang". There are many theories on the derivation of the names;

(i) One theory traces it back to Hindi/Persian lakhshah, referring to a type of vermicelli, which in turn may be derived from the Sanskrit lakshas (लकशस्) meaning "one hundred thousand" (lakh). This theory has its credit, obviously laksa cannot be Chinese food, it is high probably the food with maritime root. The theory hold ground as historical Malaya was culturally and politically under the Indian influence.

(ii)It has also been suggested that "laksa" may derive from the Chinese word lak-sa(辣沙) , meaning "spicy sand" due to the ground dried prawns which gives a sandy or gritty texture to the sauce. It is sound Cantonese, but Penang's majority population of early Penang was Fujian people, speaking Minan dialects. So the possibility is remote. However it was normally called for a curry noodle or curry mee by Chinese from Ipoh to Kuala Lumpur, which is not Penang asam laksa.

(iii)The name comes from the similar sounding word "dirty" or "lasam", in Hokkien due to its appearance, the base soup with the fish meat into fine form,coupled with the prawn paste, it has a dirty look. But do you accept the dirty name given to food, especially nyaoya food, it is not their culture.

(iv) can it be from the Penang Hokkien word, rubbish, "lapsap". "Lapsap tang" means rubbish bin or pail. Laksa is lapsap, you just throw all ingredient things to make Penang Asam Laksa. Anyhow, it stick.

Looking at the history, the Indian influence in Malaya is apparent, and it is obviously with maritime influence. Laksa Assam may be derived from Asam Pedas Ikan Soup(Malay sour fish soup)without noodle, may be found by Malay fisherman/pirates or the Indian sailors ; later some inventive Chinese nyonya may just added the noodle,to form the laksa noodle, the Laksa noodle is unique, unlike other flour noodle(normally yellow) or rice vermicelli(white color); the prawn paste or hae kor, which is uniquely typical Penang; together with the herbal leaves(called Ulam in Malay) from the Siamese influence, spices imported from Indonesia, adding more spicy and greenery, the new product formed is called Penang Assam Laksa. The Penang Assam Laksa is actually the mix of various cultures that influence the Penang island in historical days, it is the reflective of the political and cultural influences. This may possibly be the historical part of it...... and it originated from Penang.

Thus Penang Assam Laksa can be considered as heritage food of Penang with long history, fully match with the Heritage City of Penang.

Types of Laksa

There are two basic types of laksa: curry laksa and asam laksa. Curry laksa is a coconut curry soup with noodles, while asam laksa is a sour fish soup with noodles. Thick rice noodles also known as laksa noodles are most commonly used, although thin rice vermicelli (bee hoon or mee hoon) are also common and some variants use other types. Penang laksa is called Penang Asam laksa, a sour type. Some innovative Penang hawker, some time ago come up with Laksa Lemah or coconut milk curry laksa,without asam or tamarind, some called it Siam laksa(暹叻沙).

In Malaysia, there are many types of laksa, some called it Malay laksa. You have the famous Laksa Johor and Laksa Kelantan, which are laksa lemah. The sour laksa type or assam laksa, you have Kedah Laksa, Perlis laksa from Kuala Perlis, which are similar to Penang laksa, except the ingredients. Kedah laksa use rice to make noodle and served with sliced egg; Perlis laksa served with catfish and eel fish. Ipoh laksa is actually Penang laksa, but more sour without prawn paste hae kor. Kuala Kangsar Laksa is more unique, noodle is made of wheat flour (usually hand made), you can found it in tourist complex near Perak River.

But the most memorial laksa that I ever tasted outside Penang, was the Trengganu laksa sold at Kuala Trengganu chinatown, Kampong Tiong, near an ancient bridge in late 70s. The fullness of fresh fish meats make the laksa really different. The shop no longer open today.

Asam Laksa

Asam laksa is a sour fish-based soup. Asam (or asam jawa) is the Malay word for tamarind, which is commonly used to give the stock its sour flavor. It is also common to use "asam keping" also known as "asam gelugor"(this is the name where Glugor town derived), dried slices of tamarind fruit, for added sourness. Modern Malay spelling is asam, though the spelling assam is still frequently used.
The main ingredients for asam laksa include shredded fish, normally kembung fish or mackerel, and finely sliced vegetables including cucumber, onions, red chillies, pineapple, lettuce, common mint, "daun kesum" (Vietnamese mint or laksa mint) and pink bunga kantan (ginger buds). Asam laksa is normally served with either thick rice noodles or thin rice noodles (vermicelli). And topped off with "petis udang" or "hae ko" (蝦羔), a thick sweet prawn/shrimp paste. For Penang Asam Laksa, it must served with hae ko, otherwise it is not Penang Laksa.

(source: wikipedia)

Talking about Penang Asam Laksa; I still remember my days of Laksa during the childhood days. I still remember the Nyonya cake shops at Kimberley Street. The shop that sell nyonya cakes and laksa . The shop not only selling wholesale at their shop, but also retailed by a team of Indian mobile laksa sellers. The Indian hawkers will carry rattan baskets of their cakes using pole over their shoulder. This is similar to the Nasi Kandar seller in the old day. The pole is called Kandar, thus derived the name of Nasi Kandar or Kandar rice(Pole rice). Cake basket was shouldered by the seller from one end of the "kandar" pole, the other end is the boiling laksa pot or container . The basket is layered, and packed with the nyonya cakes fresh from the shop. The pot of laksa soup is make warm by charcoal stove. This was the street hawkers that walking around old Penang streets. They were selling their nyonya cakes and Penang assam laksa to the office workers and families, especially stopping at the back lane where the family neighborhood normally gathered. It normally come in the afternoon. The laksa sellers is part of the old Penang mobile street food hawkers, just like top-top mee, nasi kandar etc. They left their shop at noon, and will return in the evening.

For the neighborhood, especially the poor folks, the best time is when the hawker returned, any leftover from their daily sale need to dispose off fast as the food cannot be kept for the next day, they normally throw it away. The price after the evening will be cheaper. We always buy the laksa from the hawker for our dinner, that was our special dinner in our childhood day. It is cheap and nutritious, and moreover for the family, the laksa soup can take together with rice. We always asked for more laksa soup. That was my memory of laksa during the childhood day. But the nyonya cake shop today no longer around.

The next laksa experience was the laksa hawker at Maxwell Road infront of Li Teik Primary School. This laksa hawker stall catered for school children. Its patron included school children from Li Teik and Chung Hwa Confucious school next to Li Teik. As it was also opposing the bus station of Hin Company or blue bus, the school children arriving from schools or going to schools by bus in the afternoon , may treat it as their lunch for the day. Beside the laksa stall ,was the tang-hoon fishball stall. These two stalls were the most popular among the school children. Sometime the cinema goers nearby will patron the stalls. At the time, it is no longer for daily dinner needs, we go for pineapples and spicy ingredients. The laksa must be spicy until sweats dropped from our face, and then only it is the best laksa. Another ask is asking for fish, “ ei hu bak lah”, or pineapple…..”ei ong lai lah”… Maxwell Road no longer around, and my school building had demolished for KOMTAR project, the taste of Laksa still linger in my memory.

The most famous laksa stall is Air Itam Maket Laksa Stall. But I do not know why they always called it Kek Lok Si Laksa Stall. Is it because there was another Laksa stall at Kek Lok Si?. But this laksa stall , located just beside the entrance of Air Itam Wet Market, can be said branded laksa stall in those day. The tourists will insist to have a bowl of laksa there before they left Kek Lok Si, or Air Itam. May be there are few commercial laksa stalls at tourist area, this stall was popular with the tourist, until today. In those day, Kek Lok Si was a must visit tourist area in Penang, the stall was having very good business from the visitors to Kek Lok Si. For Penang kid, may be for our poor family, you only have the chance to try it during Chinese New Year that means once a year, as part of Chinese New Year treat. The feeling of dressing in new clothing and eating laksa at the same time, sometime until your new clothing also get wet with sweat, when the soup is hot, and the day is sunny. It was always worth the experience, as during Chinese New Year, there were always long queue.

After many years away from Penang, whenever I was in Penang, it is always Penang Asam Laksa, Char Koay Teow, Hae Mee, Chee Cheng Fun, Curry Mee……But Penang Laksa is always special personally to me. After retirement, and returning to Penang, looking for Penang laksa all over Penang island, seeking for the taste of my childhood, the taste of my school days; but sad to say it never around. At time I was crazy about Balik Pulau laksa, going there many times just for laksa. I once tried the laksa sold by an Indian hawker sellers, a retailer from the modern nyonya cake shop in the old city, but now no longer using kandar pole, their containers and baskets are now in the carriage of tricycle, but the laksa no longer taste the same, as laksa from Kimberley Street.....

Suddenly I realized my taste bud must has changed due to aging, I will never get back the taste of childhood laksa, the taste of school days’ laksa….. I can only linger in my memory, the taste of old Penang laksa.

Laksa to me, was experience of the childhood dinner; was fond memory of the school days; Laksa is always my favorite street food.

And it is now the 7th most delicious foods in the world…..

If you're away in a foreign land and missing this Penang favorite, give this recipe a try. For a full recipe go to the blog at

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