Penang Assam Laksa is a fishy, sour, spicy noodle soup, and is probably the dish that has had the most impact on my cooking experience. It’s also the first Malaysian dish that I expected to really dislike. The mix of oily fish, sour tamarind, pineapple and hot chilli was not something my western sensibilities were looking forward to when we first went out to eat it. Sat next to an open drain in the Air Itam part of Penang, the hawker served us bowls of a hot, pungent soup with chunks of fish, pineapple, chilli and other garnishes floating in it. But the flavour combinations turned out to be perfect for my tastebuds, and packed a hell of a punch. It’s no wonder that Penang Assam Laksa regularly features in top 10 lists of worldwide dishes to try.
I first tried to make this dish a few months after my first trip to Malaysia. The Malaysian restaurants near where we were living at the time didn’t serve it, so I went looking online and in a few Malaysian cook books I had to cobble together a recipe. There were many ingredients that weren’t easy to get ahold of, and others required a bit of searching in our local asian supermarkets. I even resorted to using smoked mackerel that came smothered in cracked black pepper. However, my wife and a few of our friends all liked it and finished the entire pot in one sitting. So I decided to try and improve on it and streamline the process, including finding sources for some of the more exotic ingredients. Since then I’ve probably made it a dozen times over the years, which always makes my wife happy, and is a good excuse to invite people over to eat. I even made a version while I was visiting my brother-in-law in Adelaide, Australia. I used chillies harvested from his garden, but these turned out to be extremely potent, and I accidentally created a dish that could be more aptly known as ‘Pengsan Assam Laksa’! The lesson here is to test your chillies before you use them.
Ang Moh’s Penang Assam Laksa Recipe
Serves 6, or 4 Malaysians
600g laksa noodles, udon will do
400g tinned oily fish, such as mackerel (make sure it’s not in tomato sauce or a similar condiment!)
2 litres water
10 (~100g) seeded fresh red chillies (leave some seeds in if you want it hot)
10 (~5g) soaked dried chilles
15g galangal, peeled, or can be substituted with 10g of fresh peeled ginger
10g tumeric, either fresh or powdered (fresh is always better!)
150g shallots (about 7 European-sized), peeled
2 cloves garlic
10g candlenuts, macadamia nuts or cashew nuts will also suffice, but try and use the unsalted ones
30g belachan, or similar prawn paste
3 stalks lemongrass, smashed
1 x 450g tub of tamarind paste, or 10-15 pieces of dried tamarind (asam keping)
6 tsp sugar (to taste)
1.5 tsp salt (to taste)
150g pinapple cut into small chunks
Half cucumber, cut into strips
1 large onion, cut into strips
200g lettuce, cut into strips
2 red chillies, thinly sliced (optional)
After roughly chopping the chillies, galangal, tumeric, shallots, garlic, nuts and belachan, blend them together in a food blender/mixer to make a paste. If you find that the ingredients aren’t getting mixed, you add a small amount of water to it to help loosen it up. Set this paste aside. Next, prepare your pot/pan that you will be preparing the laksa in. It will need to be able to hold around 3 litres of liquid. Heat your pot over a medium heat, and add a little oil (1 tbsp will do). Add the spice paste, and fry it until fragrant. Then, add in about 100-200ml of your water in to deglaze the pot. Stir the mixture until anything that has caught on the bottom has lifted.
Next, add the remainder of the water to the pot, and either add in the whole of the tub of tamarind paste, or the pieces of dried tamarind, depending on what you’re using. Whilst the mixture is coming up to boil, remove about half your fish from the tin and chop into small pieces, then add to the laksa. Smash your lemongrass stalks, so that the flavour can come out. When the laksa is boiling, add in the lemongrass, then turn down the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes.
Now it’s time to taste it. Remember it’s hot! Adjust the seasoning by adding salt and sugar to taste. This will vary from cook to cook, and the amounts listed in the recipe are only my usual amounts. I’d recommend adding the seasoning in at only 1/2 tsp at a time, so you can keep checking on the taste. If in doubt, and you think the laksa needs more flavour, add in some more tamarind paste or dried tamarind.
I personally now put a lid on the pot and leave it overnight. I find the flavour develops over time, but the laksa is still fine to eat fresh. Whether you let it age or can’t wait, bring the liquid back up to the boil. Take the rest of the fish out of the tin and chop it into bigger pieces. Carefully remove the lemongrass stalks and any dried tamarind from the pot, and add in the remaining fish to warm up.
Serve poured over the blanched noodles and garnish with the lettuce, pineapple, cucumber, onion and chillies.