Ladies and gentleman, it’s time to hail the king of noodle soups. Forget ramen, udon and pho, this one rules above them all. Assam Laksa or Asam Laksa really ought to be Malaysia’s national dish; there is nothing quite like it in any other cuisine and it’s the perfect mascot to illustrate the uniqueness and diversity of Malaysian cuisine. It’s the one dish that I crave for most and the one that makes me cry like a baby because I can’t get to the good stuff without boarding a plane. Basically I see rainbows with every heavenly spoonful because it’s so damn good (or maybe that’s just me hallucinating from the spiciness!).
I can’t believe it took me this long to fall in love with this amazing dish. When it was assam laksa night for the family, it meant instant noodles for me. Then my tastebuds (thankfully) matured and suddenly, I was loving all sorts of food that I missed out on before. And then it wasn’t until I went to Malaysia in 2008 and tried the authentic assam laksas from the street hawkers that I was converted. I saw the light… and I was hooked.
I don’t think I can properly articulate just why I love Assam Laksa so much without sounding like buffoon but I’ll certainly try. It’s aromatic, intense and a party of flavours. The soup is wonderfully fishy from mackerel, sour from tamarind and lemongrass, as well as salty, spicy and sweet. The scent of the spices hits your nose with every slurp of chewy noodles that has been lusciously coated from the thick murky soup. The onions adds an extra touch of heat while the pineapple is sweet and cuts through the tangy tamarind soup. Through it all, my favourite part is the crunchy coolness from the julienned cucumbers (no doubt the best combatant for the onslaught of chilli heat) and the final hit of fresh mint. Each spoonful is better than the last but each one is a delicious riot.
Can you tell this is true love?
Malaysian restaurants are plentiful in Sydney but Assam Laksa sadly, remains elusive from their menus and even then, it is never as rich and flavoursome as back home. Luckily the ingredients are readily available at most good Asian grocers and markets in Sydney so there was no putting it off any longer. Even more so since I discovered that we actually grew polygonum and mint in the yard, right under my nose. So with a bit of encouragement from Mother Superior, I set about making it from scratch hoping that it’d bring a little bit of ‘home’ back.
Don’t let the ingredient list put you off. It’s not as crazy as it looks and the actual process is not difficult at all (the key is simply to season it correctly for the perfect balance of sour, sweet and salty). The spice paste can be made in advance and the soup only needs just over an hour’s cooking time so it’s not really arduous (trust me, I made ramen from scratch and that was epic. This was child’s play!). For a beginner’s homemade laksa outside of Malaysia, I think it’s pretty awesome. Actually scratch that; I don’t want to blow smoke up my own you-know-what but it wasn’t too far off authentically. The verdict that mattered however, came from The Father who claimed it to be just like Malaysia’s (woohoo) and *gasp* better than Mother’s (double woohoo but don’t repeat it to her hehe).
Needless to say, I have a few batches simmering away now ready to be frozen and stored for a rainy day.
- 10-12 dried red chillis – soaked in warm water until softened, deseeded then roughly chopped
- 6 small fresh red chillis – deseeded and roughly chopped
- 8 French shallots (about 100g) – peeled and roughly chopped
- 8 cloves garlic (about 35g) – peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 lemongrass stalks – the white parts only, roughly sliced
- 5cm piece of galangal (40g)
- 1.5 tsps of belacan powder or 1 tsp of belacan paste
- 1 Tbl of canola or vegetable oil
- 2 whole mackerel fish (about 800g)
- 2.5 L of water
- A couple of extra fish heads or bones (optional but makes for a stronger fishy soup)
- 100g seedless tamarind pulp
- 125ml hot water
- 5 pieces of dried tamarind peel or dried tamarind skin (asam keping / asam gelugor)
- 5 large sprigs of polygonum odoratum(Laksa leaf / Vietnamese coriander / Vietnamese mint)
- 1 Tbl salt (adjust to taste)
- 3 Tbl of sugar (adjust to taste)
- 1 tsp of fish sauce
- 2-3 Tbl of prawn paste or hae ko (adjust to taste)
- 500 – 750g of Laifen or any thick laksa rice noodles, cooked (I used Zhongshan rice sticks but Bun Bo Hue round rice noodles also works brilliantly)
- 2 Lebanese cucumbers, julienned
- 1 large red onion, very thinly sliced
- Pineapple, finely chopped (or tinned pineapple pieces)
- Fresh red chillis, deseeded and sliced
- Mint leaves
- Polygonum leaves
- Prawn paste or hae ko, whisked with a little boiling water to a slightly runny consistency
- With a stick blender, food processor or mortar and pestle, ground all the spice ingredients until it turns to a paste. If you’re making this in advance, store it in a clean jar in the fridge until ready to use.
- Clean, gut and scale your mackerel and rinse off the blood (you can get your fish monger to do this for you but make sure you keep the heads). Bring the 2.5 litres of water to a boil, then carefully lower the fish and the extra fish heads/bones if you’re using.
- Cook for 10 minutes then remove the whole mackerel (leave the other bones in the pot). Set aside the mackerels to cool and reduce the heat of the stock to low.
- Add the warm water to the tamarind pulp and leave to stand for a few minutes. Squeeze the tamarind pulp to break it up and extract the juice. Keep squeezing until all the pulp has broken up. Strain and set aside. For a lazier option, use a stick blender to pulverise the water and pulp together before adding to the fish stock.
- Add the spice paste, tamarind juice, tamarind peel and polygonum leaves and simmer on low for 40 minutes. Season with salt, sugar, fish sauce and prawn paste to taste.
- Meanwhile, when the mackerel has cooled enough, use your hands to remove the flesh from the fish and set aside. Be sure to remove all the bones, brown bits and skin. Flake and set aside.
- Strain the stock and check your seasonings with salt and sugar (it should be balanced with salty, sour and sweet). Add about a third of the flaked mackerel to the soup and use the rest to garnish the bowls. For a thicker soup, add more fish flakes.
- Fill bowls with cooked noodles and ladle hot soup over it. Garnish with cucumber, onions, pineapple, chilli, mint leaves and serve immediately with prawn paste to the side.
- *Substitutes for mackerel: any fatty flaky white fish with a strong “fishy” flavour. Sardines are a common alternative but I don’t like using it because it has too many tiny bones.
- *Most of the tamarind pulp etc sold in Sydney are from Thailand. I prefer my tamarind products from Malaysia so if you can find it, I recommend it (it’s not a patriotic thing but I think the flavour is much better than products from anywhere else).
- *If you’re making the soup in advance, remove the tamarind peel and polygonum after it has simmered, bring to the boil then remove from heat and leave overnight (this will make for an even better flavoured soup). When ready, strain, add the flaked fish and heat before serving.
- *Some people prefer their assam soup less sour so if that’s the case, use less tamarind peel or tamarind pulp. Or similarly, add more sugar and prawn paste to sweeten. For those who like it tangy, a squeeze of lime in your individual bowls will do the trick.
- *If you’d like it less spicier, you can use less dried and/or fresh chilli in the paste.
- *For a more darker and flavoursome soup, you can add more hae ko to the soup base. But usually the individual will adjust it themselves to taste in their own bowls.
- *A traditional garnish is finely chopped wild ginger bud (also known as ginger flower, torch ginger or bunga kantan). However these are not readily available in Sydney but some Asian stores may sell packets of it in the freezer section therefore it's purely optional.
Guide to Ingredients