Peranakan style noodle soup22 December, 2010 by Yan
Laksa is what I consider a true-blue fusion of culture in-a-bowl. The dish has its roots as a merger of Chinese and Malay elements and is credited to the Peranakan people that have managed to flourish particularly well in Singapore and Malaysia. As one of the most iconic Peranakan dishes available, laksa is a well loved comfort food, even to those who do not have any Perankan blood running through their veins.
The true origin of the dish is unclear but internet sources point out that laksa means “10 thousand” in Indonesia (perhaps due to the many strands of vermicelli noodles in the dish). The name for laksa also is believed to be of Sanskrit origin from lakshas, meaning “one hundred thousand”.
Regardless of origins, laksa can be broadly based into 2 categories. The coconut-based laksa lemak which is very popular in Singapore and the tamarind-based assam laksa which is considered to be the iconic dish in Penang, Malaysia. Without a doubt, my guide today here will be focused on laksa lemak, which can be identified clearly by the coconut based gravy/broth shown in the pictures below.
The soul of a bowl of laksa lies in its deep flavorsome broth. It is generally made from a chicken/fish stock mixed with with ground up dried shrimp, spices and thickened with coconut milk to give its characteristic orange-white color. As a result, unsuspecting first timers may notice a sandy or gritty texture to the laksa gravy, which in my opinion is not a bad thing at all.
The other key ingredient giving laksa its unique flavor is the laksa leaf, also known as the daun kesom in Malay. The leaves are usually sliced thinly and sprinkled on the top of a finished bowl of laksa to produce its signature aroma.
Lastly, know that even though most generic stalls will cater to any type of noodles customers request, anyone who is looking for the real authentic laksa experience ought to know that only thin, white vermicelli or rice noodles will do.
The toppings that grace a bowl of laksa are rather simple seafood ingredients like cockles, prawns and fish cake. Cubes of tofu puff are also added in so that these tofu cubes soak up the delicious gravy like a baguette. Most stalls have the option of omitting or adding more blood cockles into the bowl of laksa according to preference.
Those who choose the former often belong to the health conscious bunch or are simply afraid of the bloody taste and smell of cockles. I admit that I belong to the latter group who must absolutely have cockles in my bowl of laksa. I think the taste of cockles itself is an essential part of the whole laksa experience.
Ever since laksa captured the hearts and stomachs of many Singaporeans, it is now rather easy to find a laksa stall in most hawker centers and food courts. Yet, if you ask any Singaporean where the most authentic place to get a fix is, all bets would be on “Katong laksa” being the most common answer.
This is only because it is well known that laksa stalls around the junction of Ceylon and East Coast Road (near Katong) are the best places to go for Singaporeans looking to get their fix of laksa.
Each stall here claims to be the true original stall from legend, with each its own fierce horde of loyal supporters due to their slightly varied tastes. Katong is so synonymous with laksa that most laksa stalls in Singapore will brand themselves as Katong laksa.
A brief history lesson. The real founder of laksa lemak was a legend by the name of Janggut, who used to peddle his laksa at the Marine Parade Jetty in the 1950’s. Janggut learned how to cook his laksa from Peranakan cooks and since then laksa has become the stuff of legends in the history of Singaporean food culture.
While laksa looks and seems to be a rich and complex bowl of soup noodles (it is actually), the prices are actually very affordable. A bowl of laksa goes for $2 onwards. And yet, I lament that it is rather hard to find a decent place to eat laksa casually besides all the famous stalls located at the other end of Singapore. Granted, I mentioned before that most hawker centers and food courts do serve laksa but they differ to greatly from the authentic taste.
What constitutes a true serving of history and culture?
For starters, laksa served in old school porcelain bowls are kind of a must for me, since that was how they were originally served when it was still being sold from carts pushed along the road.
Nowadays, it’s rare to see the traditional aluminum pot of the laksa stew resting on top of a charcoal fire and even harder to see laksa served in porcelain bowls without visiting a famous traditional stall. So there is no need to hesitate whenever you come across a stall in Singapore that resembles the picture below.
Just in case the pictures of laksa here have tantalized your desire to taste the exact same store that I frequent for my laksa fix, I will be happy to include the address for this particular stall below. Happy eating!
Sungei Road Laksa
Blk 27 Jalan Berseh,
#01-100 Jin Shui Kopitiam
9am – 6pm
(Closed: First Wedneday of each month)