Monday, July 16, 2012

laksa lemak

Hello! Guess what? It's that time of month again. No, not THAT time of month, the other one - the Nona Nona time of month! This month's Nona Nona party is sponsored by my BB (blogger buddy)and co conspirator Biren, who came up with the idea of hawker noodles. As with our previous Nona Nona posts for kerabu, sardines and Chinese kueh, Biren has no idea what I'm doing here and I am as clueless as you at this moment about what she is stirring up in her wok or pot. To find out, hop over to her kitchen at Roti n Rice. I'll be right behind you, and tell Biren to save me a bowl or plate, whatever it is ;)

Hmm... I'm thinking, you may be thinking, "what are hawker noodles?" I would classify them as relatively elaborate noodle dishes commonly sold by food hawkers in Singapore and Malaysia. 

For that reason, home cooks usually give them a miss when thinking about what to cook for dinner. Really, why would you want to cook something that takes quite a bit of time and effort, when it's commonly and usually well done by the sweaty guy in the cuboid kitchen of your favourite noodle stall in the hawker center, five minutes away on foot? 

click on image to know all about Nona Nona about because you have a food blog, and because the laksa guy is (too) sweaty? Or because peskily persistent laksa lore is just too creepy to ignore? Laksa lore??! 

In all seriousness though, laksa is one of the few hawker dishes in Singapore that I have never, ever, in all my years living here, which is basically my whole life, eaten a bad bowl of. Never! I have searched up hill and down dale and have yet to taste a badly made bowl of laksa anywhere from east to west, north to south of this tiny, beautiful island.

But back to creepy lore. Inspite of modernisation and urbanisation, laksa lore is alive and well here. Have you ever heard of the laksa worm story? 

It seems that in days gone by, hawkers would add worms (either earthworms or a species of tiny white worm) into the gravy. This one simple act supposedly kept the coconut laden gravy which easily spoils in tropical heat, fresh. It was also said to prevent the coconut milk from curdling or separating. 

I can't say if this is true or just local urban legend, though many people, especially those of the pre-war era, will swear tis so, tis so!! Curiously, in spite of believing that slimy little critters inhabit the hawker's pot of laksa gravy, many still flock to popular 'celebrity' laksa stalls like those dotting the Katong/Joo Chiat area in the Eastern part of Singapore, unperturbed, with wallets at the ready and spoon eagerly in hand. 

While the more intrepid may just think of the crawlers as additional protein, this may be another reason to cook your own laksa *ecckk*. But if it's any consolation, just as many claim that the 'proper' (really??) worm to use is now extremely scarce so this practice is safely ensconced in the distant past. One last bit of laksa trivia before we get to business; authentic Nyonya laksa is eaten only with a Chinese soup spoon as the noodles are served in short lengths which can be easily scooped up in the spoon with a nice amount of rich, thick, tasty gravy. For those who only eat the noodles and eschew the ambrosial gravy, I can only say *tsk tsk tsk* Sayang!!! 

One question I keep getting asked (apparently cookbook writers are a repository of food knowledge; who woulda thought?!) is "what is the meaning of "laksa"?" Well, I don't know! But here's what wikipedia has to say :
The origin of the name "laksa" is unclear. 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). It has also been suggested that "laksa" may derive from the Chinese word  (Cantonese: [lɐ̀t.sáː]), meaning "spicy sand" due to the ground dried prawns which gives a sandy or gritty texture to the sauce. The last theory is that the name comes from the similar sounding word "dirty" in Hokkien due to its appearance.
The fact that the tidy little paragraph above is peppered with "[citation needed]" at the original source leaves me less than convinced about its verity. But as I often say when forced to admit my ignorance, food is for hedonists, not pedants. So, all you need to know is that laksa means drop dead delicious and how to cook it. Now there, I can help you!

My recipe is for Nyonya Laksa or Laksa Lemak which is the quintessential style of Laksa served in Singapore. The Laksa family runs the gamut from this version, to the long and winding, so authentic it takes half a day to prepare Nyonya Laksa, to Asam Laksa, Curry Mee and Laksa Melayu. There are signficant differences but most feature a thick and rich coconut based spicy gravy, with the exception of Asam Laksa, which has a thin and tangy tamarind based gravy, no surprise since "Asam" means sour in Malay.

For Nyonya Laksa or Laksa Lemak, it's traditional to include deep fried tofu puffs and shelled cockles amongst the garnishes. More recently, shredded chicken meat or whole chicken drumsticks and even crayfish tails have begun to appear in bowls of laksa. The one thing though, that no bowl of laksa should ever be without is laksa leaves. The brazenly herbal, sharp and almost grassy scent of shredded laksa leaves lifts it heavenward in my humble opinion. Without it, the insanely rich gravy would be simply too much of a good thing. 

Laksa Lemak

Prep 90 mins     Cook 30 mins      Serves 4 - 5

Spice Paste
4 stalks lemongrass, use core, discarding at least 3 of the outer layers and about 2/3 of its upper length
Large walnut sized piece fresh galangal, peel and slice thinly
2 medium onions, peel and slice
8 cloves garlic, peel and slice thickly
12 fresh red chillies, discard seeds

60 g (3/4 cup) dried prawns (shrimp),rinse a few times and drain well
500g (1 lb) fresh medium sized prawns, wash and drain
2 Tbsp coriander powder
1 tsp white pepper powder
4 pandan leaves, wash and tie each in a knot (optional but recommended)
2 L (10 cups) prawn stock (see below)
4 fried fish cakes, sliced
400 ml (2 cups) thick coconut milk
3 tsp salt (or to taste)
1 1/2 tsp sugar (or to taste)

Chilli Paste
8 fresh red chillies, discard seeds
4 cloves garlic, peel
2/3 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp white vinegar

1 kg g ( 2 lbs) fresh laksa noodles (coarse rice vermicelli or chor bee hoon)
200 g mung bean sprouts, wash and drain
10 deep fried tofu puffs, washed thoroughly in hot water, squeezed dry then thickly sliced
Vietnamese mint (laksa leaves/polygonum), pick leaves off stems, wash well, drain thoroughly and chop coarsely

Slice the lemongrass cores thinly. Combine lemongrass, galangal, onions, garlic and chillies and pound or process to a smooth paste. Set aside.
Pound or process the dried prawns, with a little water, to a very smooth paste and set aside.
Fill a pot with  2.2 L (11 cups) water, add a teaspoon each salt and sugar and bring to the boil. When water boils, put in unshelled fresh prawns and allow to cook until all turn orange (about 3 minutes) Remove prawns from pot and keep the water on a simmer. 

Rinse prawns in cold water until comfortable enough to handle. Peel prawns, set aside and return all heads and shells to the simmering pot. Simmer for about 15 minutes then strain and discard shells and heads. You should have about 2 L of strained stock.
Heat about 1/2 cup (I'm being conservative - 1 cup is closer to the truth so this is not for the figure conscious) vegetable oil in a pot and when hot, add the ground dried prawns, coriander powder and pepper powder. Fry, stirring constantly until lightly golden, almost crisp and fragrant.
Add the ground spice mix and pandan leaves and continue to fry, stirring constantly until oil separates from spices and mixture is fragrant. Add the prawn stock, stir and leave to boil.
While waiting, split each of the fresh cooked prawns horizontally into 2, removing any dark veins and where necessary, giving the prawns a quick rinse, if the veins rupture. Set aside. Slice the fish cakes thinly and set aside.
When gravy in pot boils, stir in the coconut milk and add salt and sugar to taste. Bring back to the boil, lower heat immediately to minimum and allow to simmer, while stirring continuously for about 2 minutes. Do not allow mixture to boil again as it will curdle. Turn off heat and cover until needed.
To make Chilli Paste : Combine chillies and garlic and process to a smooth paste using minimal water. Heat about 3 tablespoons light vegetable oil in a pan and when hot, add the ground chilli garlic paste and salt. Stir over moderate heat until oil separates from mixture and paste is a deep, dark red. Add the vinegar, stir well then dish out and set aside.
Fill a separate, small, deep pot with water (deep enough to blanch noodles) and bring to the boil. When water boils, blanch desired amount noodles per serving along with some bean sprouts then drain thoroughly and put into a fairly large, deep bowl. Blanch a few slices deep fried tofu, drain and place on noodles and sprouts. Top with some halved prawns and fish cake slices. Repeat for the other bowls.
When bowls are ready, gently reheat gravy until piping hot but don't allow to boil. Ladle gravy over each bowl making sure noodles are submerged. Top with a dollop of chilli paste and a generous sprinkling of the Vietnamese mint. Serve immediately.


  1. I say friend...this is another one of my favorite hawker noodles. So glad we didn't make the same dish. You are such a trooper for making all these dishes that can easily be found at the hawker centers just down the road from you. It's quite a different story for me. "Mau makan, kena masak sendiri-lah."

    Yikes! I hope the legend is remains just a legend...haha! Wouldn't want to discover one of those little slimy critters in my bowl of laksa. Absolutely agree with you that laksa means drop-dead-delicious! :D You are making me crave a bowl right now even though it is past midnight.

  2. This looks absolutely delicious! I am drooling reading the description - amazing dish! Bravo!

  3. Denise, I have yet tried making my own curry laksa. I bet someday I will do so. My kids love them with 'you tiao'.
    Hope you're having a great week ahead, dear.

  4. I am craving for one now... and I have yet to have my breakfast :P

    I've heard of that too.. worm and coconut milk ~ roadside cendol

  5. Hey Denise, u should've cooked Laksa for me too the other night! I can never resist Laksa, but I want mine with lots of "Hum" please. Gosh, cockles are so sinful! Darn, who cares!! Eat & die a happy man, I mean, woman. Lol!

  6. I just hopped over from Biren's. I love prawn mee and I love laksa, all kinds of laksa. I think the flavours of the Singapore laksa lemak is quite close to the flavours of Sarawak laksa, which, undoubtedly is the signature dish of the Land of the Hornbill :-) Everyone goes gaga with the laksa back home, and I 'm sure I will love your laksa, too! Again, congrats on your book launch, Denise. Well done!

  7. That is exactly what I was thinking..."what are hawker noodles?" :) And aside from the worm story, lol...this is making me hungry!


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