“We call it the soup of many flavors,” he said, pointing to the picture of Penang Laksa. The guesthouse in Penang had provided us with a brochure that listed all of the regional delicacies found on the island, and a local Malay at the guesthouse was eagerly telling us his favorite dishes and where to find them. The man’s excitement was infectious, and we sought out the soup our first night in Penang, and had it a second time during our two day stay.
Though there are different variants of laksa (its name’s origin is debated) in Malaysia, Penang’s version reigns supreme, having been ranked #7 of the World’s 50 Best Foods published by CNN in 2011, and acquiring a nod from Anthony Bourdain in an episode of No Reservations. Also known as assam laksa (assam meaning tamarind), Penang Laksa’s complexity is unlike any other dish, comprised of spicy chilies, savory fish sauce and shrimp paste, sweet pineapple, and sour tamarind.
This recipe is actually the product of my second attempt making Penang Laksa. For my first try, I followed a recipe online. Though I’ve been cooking long enough to feel when a recipe is going wrong, I stayed with it against my better judgement, and ended up with an unappetizing soup the color of bubblegum. My sweet husband gobbled up the “test” soup and told me it was a great first try. The next afternoon I started over, letting taste and color be my guide. When my husband tried the next batch, he declared it the laksa that we had eaten in Penang.
I made the laksa quite differently than traditional recipes, having to work with ingredients in Korea. However, a closer internet search revealed that each family makes theirs differently, too, so I will claim this recipe as belonging to my family. Here are some things that are very different about my version: Unable to find mackerel in the market, I worked with fresh saury fish. Instead of fresh mint leaves (which would have pushed it over the top), I used the mint I froze from last year’s harvest. Unable to find Vietnamese mint, I had to forgo it, along with the garnish of red onion that is not always around when I need it. Remembering radish in one of the versions we tried in Penang, I garnished the soup with the radish my husband pickled a few months ago.
Ingredients (serves 2 generously with leftovers)
3 saury fish
6-7 cups water
1 tangerine-sized portion of tamarind pulp (to extract 2 cups of tamarind juice)
4-5 tablespoons homemade sambal
1 tablespoon shrimp paste (plain or sauteed version)
1 tablespoon light fish sauce
1 tablespoon mint (fresh mint leaves are best, but dried will do in a pinch)
2 cups cooked vermicelli noodles
1 cucumber, sliced
1 and 1/2 cup pineapple, cubed
1/4 cup radish
First, prepare the fish by removing the head, tails, guts, and scales. Bring the water to a low boil on the stove, and drop the fish in, cooking them for 8-10 minutes. When the time is up, gently remove the fish with tongs (reserve the stock) and, once cool, proceed to break the fish into little bits with your fingers, removing the bones as you go along.
Meanwhile, extract the tamarind juice by simmering the tamarind pulp in a 1/2 cup of water for a few minutes, then pouring the dark juice into the stock (carefully avoiding the seeds). Repeat this step 3 more times. If it is possible to extract more juice, continue this step until all possible juice has been removed, and store it in the refrigerator to be used in a later recipe.
Add the mint, fish sauce, shrimp paste, and 1/2 cup of the pineapple to the stock, along with the bits of saury fish. Add the sambal a tablespoon at a time, until the color of red clay emerges. Taste the soup often to make sure your flavors are on track, adding more sambal, fish sauce, or shrimp paste until you are satisfied. Simmer on low heat for 10 minutes or longer to allow the flavors to mingle — laksa is even better the next day.
Divide the cooked vermicelli noodles into two large soup bowls. Ladle the soup over the noodles, and garnish with the sliced cucumber, radish, and pineapple. Fresh mint leaves and sliced red onion make excellent garnish, too.