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Essentially a bowl of thick rice noodles with either a sour tamarind or creamy coconut soup that perfectly balances sweet, sour, salt and spice, laksa recipes are the fusion food of early Chinese migrants to the southern South East Asian countries, with locally available fruits, herbs and flavours. The dish is thought to have originated in Malaysia. How it got its name is less clear. One hypothesis puts the origins of laksa in Persia and the word lakhshah, referring to a type of vermicelli. Another suggests it stemmed from the Cantonese word làtsá, meaning "spicy sand", which may refer to the ground dried prawns which give a gritty texture to the soup. The last theory is that the name sprung from the word lasam - meaning dirty- in Hokkien language, the dominant Chinese culture in Singapore and Malaysia, describing the soup’s mucky appearance.
Names aside, there are few dishes that are at once so geographically spread out and diverse in regional differences as the piquant laksa. There are three basic types: curry laksa, assam laksa and Sarawak laksa, with multiple variations within these, and a version called Bogor laksa which hails in from the Indonesian island of Java.
Found readily in southern Malaysia and Singapore, it is most easily recognized for its liberal use of coconut milk in the curry soup. Creamy, slightly sweet and spicy, with liberal additions of deep fried tofu puffs, fish sticks, shrimps, cockles, fresh bean sprouts, hard-boiled egg halves, laksa leaf herbs and a generous spoonful of sambal chilli paste, curry laksa makes a wonderful sweat inducing, tongue tingling lunch. Locals warn not to eat curry laksa at night; calorific and laden with coconut fat, it’s a bit heavy for a good night’s sleep. Like all good laksa’s, curry laksa has its variations, including laksa lemak with a heavier coconut gravy. Katong laksa from the Katong area in Singapore has the same soup, but with noodles that are cut into short stumpy pieces and eaten with a spoon. Katong laksa is a strong contender for the much coveted, much discussed and much contended title of “Singapore national dish”.
For me it's the king of all laksas, is a sour fish based soup from the island of Penang in northern Malaysia. Assam is the Malay word for tamarind, the fleshy brown coloured fruit which is used to give the soup its sour, zesty and full flavour. Lighter and healthy than its southern cousin, assam laksa is typically served with a mackerel fillet, shredded cucumber, diced onion, chopped pineapple, lettuce, mint, and topped with the diced heart of a torch ginger flower. It can be eaten as is, but is better with a dollop of shrimp paste and sprinkle of minced bird’s eye chilli.
It comes from the Malaysian state Sarawak on the island of Borneo. It is quite different from the curry laksa in that although it contains coconut milk, there is no curry in the soup base. Rather, the base paste is concocted from sambal belacan, an omnipotent ingredient made from fermented shrimps and hot chillies that tastes a little like spicy rotten fish and, obviously, is not for the faint hearted. There is also tamarind, garlic, galangal and lemon grass. Alongside the noodles and broth are omelette strips, chicken strips, prawns, fresh coriander and usually lime, resulting in an earthy and jungle-style noodle soup dish. Bouncing over to the Indonesian island of Java is the last dominant laksa for South-east Asia.
Originating from Bogor town, West Java, it has a thick yellow-hued coconut based soup made from shallots, garlic, candlenut- usually used as a thickener, turmeric, coriander, lemongrass and salt. Topped with glutinous rice cakes, smashed oncom (a fermented by-product of tofu, tapioca or coconut milk and oil), bean sprouts, Indonesian basil leaves, shredded chicken, prawn and boiled egg, the soup is hearty and filling. For more zest, locals add sambal cuka, ground chilli with vinegar.