Fan favourite and source of national pride, the laksa has not only been a treat for generations, it has also put Malaysia on the map, not least when Penang’s asam laksa made it to number 7 on CNN’s World's 50 Best Foods. However, the tangy Penang laksa isn’t the only one enjoyed in the country. In fact, Malaysia’s history with this spicy, saucy delicacy is more nuanced, dynamic and diverse.
Diverse styles and origins
The origin of the name ‘laksa’ is unclear. One theory traces it back to the Hindi or Persian word lakhshah, which refers to the type of noodles used in the soup. It may have also been derived from the Cantonese word lɐ̀t sá which literally means ‘spicy sand’, due to the sandy and gritty texture of the broth. Some say that it came from the Hokkien word ‘lup sup’ which means dirty, due to its appearance.
To date, there is no consensus on its origins or whether the word ‘laksa’ refers to the noodle or its soup or sauce. Preparations for the laksa have also evolved to suit local preferences and tastebuds.
Fish and prawn bases for laksa likely reflect a close connection to fishing communities, mainly along the coasts. For instance, the Penang asam laksa and laksa varieties from Perlis and Kedah all have a fish broth base. They all also use rice noodles. However, there are also significant differences.
The traditional Penang laksa uses lemongrass, galangal and fresh chilies in its broth. It also employs a lot of tamarind juice and shrimp paste (petis udang), giving it a distinctive sweet, sour and spicy taste. It is also served with cucumbers, pineapples, sliced torch ginger (bunga kantan) and mint leaves.
The Kedah laksa, on the other hand, uses only onions, dried chilies and tamarind slices in its broth, giving it a milder, salty and savoury flavour. It comes with more vegetables and leafy greens, along with a hard-boiled egg. The Perlis laksa is more interesting; featuring a fish and eel-based broth, and eaten with charred glutinous rice with spicy coconut and shrimp filling (pulut udang) in addition to the conventional rice noodles.
In Terengganu, the laksa kuah mentah (literally, laksa in uncooked sauce) is considered a Hari Raya delicacy. While the dish uses traditional rice noodles, its uniqueness comes from the sauce, which is made with mildly steamed round scad fish (ikan selayang), garlic, onions, black pepper and coconut milk, all mixed together without cooking. The dish is eaten with a traditional salad of blanched cucumbers and long beans, alongside condiments that include a chilli paste sambal, shrimp paste (belacan), salt and lime.
Kelantan’s laksam (a portmanteau of laksa and asam, indicating its tangy taste) is similar to its Terengganu counterpart, and comes with the same blanched vegetables and condiments. However, it differs in two key areas; the broth, which features fish, coconut milk and other spices is thoroughly cooked, and the rice noodles are made fresh to eat.
Down south, Melaka’s nyonya laksa (also popular in Singapore), also known as laksa lemak or curry laksa, is as the name suggests, doused in a rich coconut milk curry sauce, with generous lashings of chilli paste on top. It also often comes with succulent prawns, fish balls, tofu puffs and, sometimes, even chicken. In Penang, another Peranakan stronghold, the noodles have been replaced with yellow mee, and is referred to as curry mee.
Meanwhile, laksa Johor is a unique fusion of East meets West, nowadays using spaghetti as opposed to the traditional Asian noodles. Legend has it that Sultan Abu Bakar, the ‘Founder of Modern Johor’, and the first Malay ruler to visit Europe in 1866, instructed his royal chefs to use spaghetti instead of the regular rice noodles in his laksa, which led to this becoming a tradition for Johorians ever since. This drier, rich and creamy dish features a unique blend of curry-based spices and coconut milk, cooked with wolf herring (ikan parang) and served with torch ginger, calamansi, basil, long beans, and bean sprouts. Like a lot of laksa, it is also topped with sambal for additional flavour.
In East Malaysia, the soupier Sarawak laksa features a unique confluence of Malay, Chinese and native Sarawakian flavours. It consists of a flavourful chicken or shrimp-based broth that is seasoned with a thick laksa paste, not dissimilar to a mild curry, which includes more than twenty different ingredients. Instead of the thicker rice noodles, the Sarawak laksa is eaten with thin vermicelli noodles, or bihun, together with shredded omelette, shredded chicken, blanched prawns, and lime. The famously extra piquant Sarawakian sambal belacan crowns the soupy delight.
Regardless of style or origin, one thing is clear; the laksa showcases the very best of Malaysian flavours. With its varied bursts of colours, textures, aromas and tastes, trying them all will result in a gastronomical adventure like no other.