Laksa is one of Malaysia’s favourite signature (soupy) comfort foods. Comprises of yellow wheat noodles and sometimes a little “hand-pull” of rice sticks in a big soup bowl garnished accordingly. Very localised and the thirteen states of Malaysia and, Singapore, will champion to prove their version is best. I consider the base as a soup not gravy. One slurps the last drops.
As a Penangite I am most familiar with the true Penang Laksa or Assam Laksa, more akin to Thailand’s tomyam noodles, not to be confused with the ‘other Laksa’. Based on a humble fish, chilli, onion, secret combination of spices & herbs including Lemon Grass, Lengkuas (blue ginger) and tamarind soup base it is garnished with lots of fresh herbs including mint, daun kesum (laksa leaf), Bunga Kantan (bud of the Torch Ginger), fresh Lime, a few slivers of sliced Red Chilli, shredded Lettuce, julienne Cucumber and Pineapple, thinly sliced raw onion rings and anointed with the awesome HaeKo (the dark, creamy, umami filled salty-sweet prawn paste) diluted with a little hot water to finish off the dish. All flavours of the Penang Nyonya (Peranakan) cuisine. Nothing is simple in Malaysia’s food paradise. The Nyonya ladies spend hours preparing and cooking. Hot, spicy, aromatic, citrus like umami soup with flakes of oily mackerel intermingled with herbs, vegetables and the lye fun (a spaghetti like – thick rice noodle or spaghetti is sometimes used instead). Chopstick licking good. Feeling adventurous? The best Penang Laksa is a 20 mile drive round Penang Island to Balik Pulau where a little corner coffee shop empties its cauldron within hours. People stand around the coffee shop waiting like hawks to grab the next empty stool. All washed down with a cold icy glass of kopi-o-ping or barley swee kum (barley with fresh lime juice). Rumour has it that there is another stall in Ayer Hitam by the market. Of course, us Penangites cannot be outdone and we too have the curry beehoon-mee, our version of laksa lemak garnished with prawn, a few cockles, fried towfoo and a few obligatory cubes of congealed pigs blood usually hidden under a couple of mint leaves.
Penang done, we now look at all the other states and Singapore. The laksa soup is predominantly coconut based, what we call the Laksa Lemak. The soup base is more curry like with the use of garlic, onion, variety of spices including cumin, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric, etc, chilli and of course coconut milk. The garnish can be anything from prawns to chicken, seafood, vegetables, herbs and sometimes the final squeeze of some lime juice. Intricacies and differences can be found in various articles and worthy of a doctorate if anyone is interested on this topic. The comfort food of many, laksa is now common on most Malaysian menus be it in cafes, restaurants, international hotels round the world. Making my point, it’s become so popular, instant versions for the desperate, overseas, rich and poor have popped up creating the a Laksa war with diehards protecting their favourite brands. Today instant Laksa can be found easily in oriental supermarkets. Besides the older diehard brands like Maggi, Nissin, IndoMie, Mamie, Thai brands and Pot Noodles, the rage is now PrimaTaste, My Kuali and the newest incomer Ah Lai’s. Interestingly Penang is heavily marketed! Newer brands are being added daily.
The quest was to taste and compare three preferred brands and to see what the verdict was to be.
First up was MyKuali’s Penang white curry noodle which advertises Natural Ingredients Chilli Paste. Guessing no fake flavourings. The packet came with dried noodles and two further little packets one with the dark heavily spiced chilli paste and the smallest packet with powdered Santan – coconut milk/cream. First impressions was that it could have done with a little more coconut. The curry soup was heavy on Indian style heavy heady sweet aromatic spices – cinnamon, coriander seed, cumin, garam masala. Easy instructions and the noodles cooked to perfection.
Tastewise: Shirin commented, “ The soup looks substantial and not watery. She liked the curry flavour and it wasn’t too chilli hot. The mint and coriander garnish added to the aroma.” Lucy’s verdict was, “Good colour and taste though rather strong curry aromas. I would buy this”. For me the soup looked a little dark with lots of spice residues. Heavy on Indian style masala and lacking in coconut and creaminess. Needs the garnish and trimmings to make it look and taste good.
Easily available and one of the first instant packets on the market, My Kuali certainly gets a head start.
The second Laksa up for tasting was PrimaTaste’s Curry LaMian. One of Singapore’s high end manufacturer of sauces, spices and mixed boxed cooking ingredients. The packet is a lot bigger and with extra garnishing will feed two people happily. One point to make here is that it takes longer to cook these noodles and that the sell by date is imperatively followed as I think the noodles are made with a lot of oil. I sensed a slight rancidity in the noodles.
Shirin said, “Big noodles therefore feels more substantial a meal. Love the look of the sauce and the coconut taste. Milder chilli taste.”
Lucy thought it was, “ Milder and prettier. The spaghetti like noodles I liked less than the ramen style curly noodles. The Coconuttyness is very nice. An addition some a little chilli would round it off. I prefer this to the My Kuali.”
Et Moi, I did enjoy this LaMian very much. As Malaysians would say, very “lemak” (creamy). The slight prawn-y taste (guessing from the use of sambal pounded dried shrimp) gave it the authentic seafood umami sweetness. It certainly cost more and Singapore has better market research. This Curry Lamian has been on the market for about 18 months.
An finally the third tasting. Another Penang brand called Ah Lai’s. Talk of the town in Kuala Lumpur, I only managed to get a few packets in a few weeks ago. We all agreed it was very tasty, not to coconutty and not too spicy. The soup base was not thick and creamy, and neither was it runny and gritty.
It was Shirin’s least favourite, Lucy’s middle choice and my favourite.
Interestingly, it probably was the most akin to the Pulau Tikus Curry Mee stall that I frequent when I am back in Penang in terms of viscosity and texture of soup, colour and amount of chilli. One of best and oldest Curry Mee stalls in Penang is situated in a coffee shop on the corner of Pulau Tikus and Bangkok Lane. I remember as a child on a sunday morning queueing and waiting for a vacant table. The most fascinating observation being how the two frunatically busy ladies take orders, serve up and still remember to collect the exactly money for everyone after their meals. Memories of a long forgotten childhood!
Thank you to Shirin and Lucy my partners in crime for this panel tasting!