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Penang asam laksa

This happy marriage of rice noodles and spiced broth is perfect for summer, writes Tony Tan.

You'll need

1 whole white fish (about 1.5kg) such as bream, flathead, snapper or bream, gutted, scaled, cleaned 3-4 sprigs Vietnamese mint 3-4 slices galangal 150 gm tamarind pulp, soaked in 250ml warm water for 30 minutes, strained through a fine sieve (solids discarded) 3 slices asam gelugor (optional; see note) 1 tbsp white sugar, or to taste 400 gm dried laksa rice noodles, soaked in water until soft, drained ½ pineapple, thinly sliced 2 Lebanese cucumbers, seeds removed, thinly sliced 1 onion, thinly sliced 5 iceberg lettuce leaves, thinly sliced 1 cup (loosely packed) mint ¾ cup (loosely packed) Vietnamese mint 1 torch ginger flower, thinly sliced (optional; see note) 2-3 small red chillies, thinly sliced 2 tbsp hae ko, diluted in hot water to drizzling consistency (optional; see note)   Spice paste 35 gm fresh turmeric or 1 tsp ground turmeric 20 gm galangal, coarsely chopped 5 golden shallots, thinly sliced 4 small dried red chillies, soaked in hot water and squeezed dry 4 small fresh red chillies, chopped 2 lemongrass stalks, white part only, sliced 1 tsp belacan (see note)


  • 01
  • Combine fish, Vietnamese mint, galangal and 2.4 litres cold water, or enough to cover fish, in a large saucepan and bring to the simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until fish is cooked through (25-30 minutes).
  • 02
  • Meanwhile, for spice paste, pound ingredients in a mortar and pestle or process in a food processor to a fine paste, set aside.
  • 03
  • Remove fish from stock, cool slightly, coarsely flake (discard skin and bones) and set aside.
  • 04
  • Strain fish stock into a clean saucepan.
  • 05
  • Add spice paste, tamarind liquid and asam gelugor to stock, season to taste with sugar and salt, simmer until well flavoured (20-30 minutes), check seasoning and add some flaked fish (optional).
  • 06
  • Meanwhile, blanch noodles in a large saucepan of boiling water until just tender (2-3 minutes), drain, divide among serving bowls. Top with remaining fish, ladle hot stock over, top with pineapple, cucumber, onion, lettuce, mint, torch ginger flower, chilli and hae ko, and serve with extra garnishes on the side.

Note Asam gelugor (a tropical fruit), torch ginger flowers, hae ko (shrimp sauce) and belacan are available from Asian grocers.

If there is one Malaysian dish that beats rendang and curry laksa, it is asam laksa. A rice noodle soup flavoured with a heady fish broth made from tamarind, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric and ground chillies, topped with flaked fish, tropical herbs, tangy pineapple and crunchy cucumber, asam laksa has won the hearts and palates of Malaysians and visitors alike.

I suspect it is not as well known here in Australia.

Asam (also spelt assam) is the Malay word for tamarind, which is the main souring agent in the soup. Dried pieces of asam gelugor, a tropical Malaysian fruit also known as asam keping in Malay (and confusingly called tamarind skin in English), are also often added to enhance the tangy flavour. These key ingredients complement the strong-tasting fish: wolf herring and chub mackerel are favoured for the soup in Malaysia.

Another key ingredient is torch ginger flower (known to Japanese cooks as myoga), which is sold frozen in many Asian grocers, although I've seen it growing in the Northern Territory and Queensland. I've successfully served the dish, however, even to Malaysian friends, without it.

For asam laksa to be really authentic, hae ko (as it is known in Hokkien, or petis udang in Bahasa Malaysia) is added to the recipe. Made from shrimp, this pungent, molasses-like shrimp sauce, diluted with a little warm water, lends extra kick.

According to Alice Yong, one of Malaysia's top food writers, asam laksa should be served with laksa noodles - thick and springy noodles made from rice, sago and tapioca flours. But I think thin rice noodles are also acceptable. Yong also says there are several versions of asam laksa in Malaysia; most notable are those from the states of Kedah, Perlis and Perak, but the Penang version is by far the most popular. Sometimes also called Nonya asam laksa, Penang laksa is not particularly difficult to make but requires some perseverance.

The secret to making a great asam laksa is super-fresh fish; it needs to be gutted, scaled and cleaned, although I reserve the heads for added flavour. Put your chosen fish - my favourites are snapper, blue-eye trevalla, bream and flathead - into a stockpot of cold water along with large sprigs of Vietnamese mint and sliced galangal, and simmer until the fish is cooked through. Once it's done, remove the fish from the stock with a slotted spoon and set it aside to cool before flaking the flesh into large pieces, then strain the stock into a clean saucepan.

While the fish is simmering, pound the spice paste ingredients in a mortar and pestle or pulse them in a blender to a fine paste. Purists may insist on the mortar and pestle method, but I find that a blender or food processor makes light work of what can be a time-consuming task. If you go with the mortar and pestle, use a large, heavy-duty one and make the paste in batches. This is then added to the strained fish stock along with the tamarind liquid, with sugar and salt to taste. Simmer this mixture gently for about 30 minutes, letting the sweet, sour and spicy flavours develop and blend into a harmonious broth. At this stage, you may like to return some of the flaked fish to the broth for added complexity.

By now, you should have soaked your choice of rice noodles - one of my favourites is Twenty-Twenty Penang brand laksa rice noodles, sold in many Asian supermarkets. This is also the time to prepare your garnish - pick bunches of Vietnamese mint and common mint, slice onion and chillies, chop chunks of pineapple, and shred cucumber and torch ginger flower.

Lastly, dunk your noodles into a saucepan of boiling water, then drain them and divide them among serving bowls. Scatter the flaked fish over the noodles, add the broth and top with a selection of garnishes.

At A Glance

  • Serves 8 people
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At A Glance

  • Serves 8 people

Featured in

Feb 2012

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