Kenneth Tan ~ AsiaCuisine.com / CW Magazine
Tuesday, 28th June 2005
One dish - many varations - one country - how does one distinguish them from the next - much less decide which is Singapore’s favourite? CW takes a look at the different laksa on offer in the Garden City.
As with any dish which has been assimilated into local culture, laksa’s origins are hard to trace with many rushing in to claim ownership to the humble bowl of noodles. Furthermore, with the exception for laksa leaves, also known as the Vietnamese coriander, there isn’t one definite set of ingredients that goes into it. The stock, condiments, garnishing and even the noodles vary from one culture to another.
Ask anyone from Penang and they’d say that laksa is noodles served in a clear fish-based sour broth. Straits-born Chinese on the other hand would point out that laksa is cooked creamy with coconut milk, topped with prawns and fishcake. Others swear by the laksa with cockles dished out on the streets of Katong.
Laksa is arguably Singapore’s national dish but with its many different varieties springing from different sources, it is a conundrum of choice that many face when they want to try out the famous bowl of noodles when they’re in town.
Penang laksa, also known as asam laksa, is the most distinctive of the lot as it doesn’t use coconut milk and is sour instead of creamy. According to Penang-born Chef Loh Hong Chye, their laksa is different from the rest because the locals in the north-west city of Peninsular Malaysia tend to favour spicy, sour food. Loh, who has travelled to Australia, China and Hong Kong to teach chefs how to cook Penang cuisine said that a good bowl of Penang laksa has to have good stock.
“The stock is made of sardine fish for the gravy. What we do is to boil the sardine fish, and then we take it out and put in some tamarind and pineapple juice which makes it sour. There is also blended lemongrass, shallots, mint leaves, laksa leaves and red chilli, ginger flower, leng kuas (blue ginger) which we add and boil for at least three hours,” said Chef Loh who currently heads the kitchen at the Princess Terrace in Copthorne Kings Hotel which is noted for its Penang cuisine.
“Traditionally, the laksa is served without any meat or prawns. It is simply garnished with mint leaves, red onions and sliced pineapple and most importantly you must put shrimp paste,” he said. With such robust highly-flavoured ingredients, Chef Loh recommends that it is best eaten last in a meal because “the taste is very strong and tasty. If you take it first, it’d mask the rest of the food.”
He is unsure as to the exact origins of Penang laksa saying only that it is a Malaysian Chinese dish that was passed down pretty much like how his grandmother taught him when he was 16-years-old. History does not matter as much though, he says, as laksa is personal and is customised to suit individualised tastebuds.
“In Penang, the laksa is served with a special thick beehoon (rice vermicelli) noodles which are made fresh but over here, people may request to have thin beehoon, egg noodles or even a mix and we give it to them. It really depends on what one likes.”
The Nonya refers to the female descendents of Straits-born Chinese known as the Peranakan. They retained most of their Chinese ethnic and religious origins but assimilated the language and culture of the Malays and they spread throughout the British Straits Settlements of the 19th century. Peranakan cuisine therefore tends to contain many of the traditional ingredients of Chinese food and Malay spices and herbs.
“Nonya laksa is based on lemak (coconut milk),” said Chef Raymond Yin, executive sous chef of The Line at Shangri-La, Singapore. “It’s very creamy and has a strong base of lemongrass so the fragrance is there. There are two things you have to prepare which is the laksa paste and stock. The paste is mostly made up of lemongrass, onion and chilli paste while the stock is made up mostly of chicken stock, coconut milk, evaporated milk and dried shrimp. With the laksa stock and paste in a pot, you have to boil and simmer the mixture.” The result is a milky orange gravy tinged with red from the chilli oil and a flavourful aroma which wafts out of the steaming bowl.
“Traditional nonya laksa is accompanied by an egg, prawns and bean sprouts with some laksa leaves,” Yin shared. Although it might seem unnecessary, he stressed that the most important garnish is laksa leaves. “Without it, it’s not laksa”.
While he tries to keep to the authentic Nonya style he says he has to offer what guests want and hence does provide a variety of noodles and toppings such as prawns which he says is interchangeable with other seafood such as lobster or crab although his personal favourite is boiled chicken meat, all of which he might consider implementing into the menu in the future.
While both Loh and Yin have adapted their cuisine to suit the taste of local diners, such improvisations have been taken note of by local hawkers and implemented into a local laksa dish in its own right – the Singapore laksa.
If you go to any Singaporean hawker centre, you’d find most that most stalls have names accompanied by a particular road or area included such as Changi nasi lemak, Jalan Kayu roti prata and more often than not, the fiercely contested label of Katong laksa.
The Katong area of Singapore was traditionally associated with the Eurasian and Peranakan community and today, is still home to old shophouses which have been targeted for conservation. However mention “Katong” to any local these days and “laksa” is most likely the most associated word to follow.
Home to about four stalls adjacent to each other, Katong has been the scene of what the media dubs as the “laksa wars.” With Peranakan roots in the area, it is not surprising that that Katong laksa is very similar to Nonya laksa.
However, Nancy Sim, owner of 328 Laksa, is adamant that Katong laksa is not Nonya laksa. “It’s Singapore laksa!” she insisted. “It may look the same, but the cooking method isn’t and that makes a difference.” While it uses similar ingredients, it is thicker than Nonya laksa because, depending on which Katong stall you patronise, they use grated coconut which is fried and used in the gravy or has condensed milk.
You won’t find hard-boiled egg in the noodles either though it has tau pok, fishcake slices, prawns and unique to this dish, cockles. The laksa noodles are also usually cut with a spatula so that it can be eaten with only a spoon.
It is therefore an improvised, as opposed to an improved, version and highly popular with diners who come not only from the corners of Singapore but also from overseas. Judging by Sim’s wall of photographs, fans of the laksa include Caucasian tourists, celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain and even political bigwigs such as former Singaporean president, Mr Ong Teng Cheong.
Katong laksa, particularly Sim’s brand of laksa, has become so popular that she has already licensed out seven franchises which allows them to use her stall’s label and is even selling her homemade chilli paste.
The Best Laksa?
Singapore is a melting pot of races and perhaps in her culinary world there is no dish which crosses as many cultures as laksa. Singaporeans are not only well-known for their love of food but also their penchant of variety. While each chef I interviewed for the feature are adamant about their popularity of their laksa over the rest and stand by them as the best version in Singapore, locals will always remain divided on the issue and continue to patronise their laksa of choice – and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
So if you’re off to Singapore for a visit, the experience will not be complete without that bowl of laksa – every version of it! KT
All rights reserved, Photos are credited to Peter Knipp Holdings Pte Ltd.
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