Malaysian

A Cozy Malaysian Spaghetti Dish to Keep You Warm for Days on End

My take on a Southeast Asian classic.

February 19, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

Laksa, a rich, spicy, zingy Malaysian noodle soup, consistently makes an appearance on lists and rankings of the world’s tastiest dishes. Just last year, it came second in Lonely Planet’s list of the world’s top food experiences, and seventh in CNN’s list of the world’s 50 best foods, beating out French croissants, classic Italian lasagna, and even its closest broth-based rivals, Vietnamese pho and Thai tom yum goong. But for all of the accolades it has received, nothing beats laksa’s crowning glory—when the late Anthony Bourdain called it the "breakfast of gods."

Outside of Malaysia and Southeast Asia, though, laksa can be difficult to find, even in restaurants that serve classic Malaysian cuisine. The simple reason is that it takes so much time and work to cook up, and many of the ingredients that go into a typical Penang or Sarawak laksa can’t be sourced easily outside of the region.

Unbeknownst to many, laksa doesn’t actually refer to a specific Malaysian dish with a singular way of cooking it. Heck, laksa isn’t even tied to a specific culture in Malaysia. Instead, it’s a dish that has for decades spread across the region and adapted itself to the taste preferences and availability of ingredients in the particular region it’s in, and continues to do so even today.

So if you travel through Malaysia and its neighboring countries, you’ll find many disparate versions of laksa. There’s the thick, fishy northern Malaysian laksas known for their sour broth and heavy-handed helping of shrimp paste (which is what gives the world-renowned Penang asam laksa its characteristic funk); the deep red, sambal-laced laksas of Borneo; the rich, coconut-y laksas of the southern states that are heavily influenced by Indian curries; and even the thick, saucy laksas from Thailand and Indonesia that are unlike anything found in Malaysia. They’re all very different dishes.

But for all of the accolades it has received, nothing beats laksa’s crowning glory—when the late Anthony Bourdain called it the "breakfast of gods."

The broth—which is what many consider to be the defining element of laksa—varies wildly from region to region, as well. Some restaurants and hawker stalls use a shrimp-based broth fortified with prawn oil and fish sauce, some use chicken, others use a whole spread of seafood. Some flavor their soup with tamarind paste, some use sambal belacan (a spicy Malaysian condiment), and others yet temper the broth with coconut milk and curry paste, giving it an entirely different flavor profile. My favorite, though, has to be the fish-based broth found in North Malaysian laksas. It’s made using really cheap, flavor-packed fish (commonly Indian mackerel) poached all the way through. Its flesh is then shredded down into a gritty paste and used to thicken the soup, giving it a naturally deep umami flavor with the rich taste of the sea, kind of like a spicy Asian bouillabaisse.

Even the noodles used in a laksa differ all across the country. In Kuala Lumpur, where I live, the laksa I get comes with a mix of rice vermicelli and yellow egg noodles. In the rice-growing regions in the north, it's made with springy, translucent, udon-like rice noodles. In other parts of Malaysia, you’ll find white noodles resembling tagliatelle (called kuay teow) swimming in the broth. Most curiously, in Johor—a Malaysian state that borders Singapore—the state laksa is most commonly made with spaghetti. I kid you not.

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Top Comment:
“My Vietnamese mother made one that was very similar to Laksa Johor (using tuna or mackerel), but used rice vermicelli (bun). It was my favorite noodle soup when I was a little kid, even more than pho. We call it "bun kieng" (sp?). I've been looking around for the recipe for a while and Laksa Johor is the closest to what I remember. The flavor is spicy but not hot (if that makes any sense) with the richness from the coconut milk. And a beautiful golden hue. It's so damn good!”
— HalfPint
Comment

So if you're thinking "laksa spaghetti" is a bastardization of a sacred Malaysian dish, then think again! In truth, laksa is a dish that transcends culinary definitions and cultural boundaries, transforming itself to suit the produce of the region. It isn’t such a stretch, then, to think that even if you’re nowhere near Malaysia, it’s possible to make a laksa at home. (Though you should book a trip for laksa, just sayin’.) And even if you don’t have access to classic Malaysian herbs, you’ll be able to recreate this dish. Because the spirit of laksa is really about making the best of the ingredients available to you in order to create a hearty, spicy noodle soup that warms the heart as much as it nourishes the soul.

With that in mind, here’s a recipe for a laksa that takes the core tenets of the dish and adapts it to a more Western pantry, using pasta in place of rice noodles, and a condensed list of herbs and spices for ease of cooking. And through it, I hope you’ll be able to appreciate the immense pride and joy we Malaysians have for this sultry, spicy, and undeniably spirited dish.

Have you ever had laksa? Let us know in the comments below.
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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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4 Comments

HalfPint February 20, 2019
I adore laksa. My Vietnamese mother made one that was very similar to Laksa Johor (using tuna or mackerel), but used rice vermicelli (bun). It was my favorite noodle soup when I was a little kid, even more than pho. We call it "bun kieng" (sp?). I've been looking around for the recipe for a while and Laksa Johor is the closest to what I remember. The flavor is spicy but not hot (if that makes any sense) with the richness from the coconut milk. And a beautiful golden hue. It's so damn good!
 
Gwen February 19, 2019
In Singapore where I grew up we enjoyed a whole range of dishes and laksa was definitely one of favourite breakfast dishes happy days
 
Eric K. February 19, 2019
Loved how spicy this was! And comforting! Thanks for walking us through, Jun.
 
Author Comment
Yi J. February 21, 2019
Thanks for working on this piece with me Eric! :)