Laksa
Nyonya Laksa.jpg
A typical serving of Peranakan-style laksa, with a coconut soup base
TypeNoodle dish
CourseBreakfast, lunch or dinner
Place of originMaritime Southeast Asia
Associated national cuisineIndonesia, Malaysia, Singapore
Created byPeranakans
Serving temperatureHot
Main ingredients
  • Noodles
  • herbs
  • coconut milk
  • tamarind
  • spice paste

Laksa is a spicy noodle dish popular in Southeast Asia.[1][2] Laksa consists of various types of noodles, most commonly thick rice noodles, with toppings such as chicken, prawn or fish. Most variations of laksa are prepared with a rich and spicy coconut soup or a broth seasoned with sour asam (tamarind or gelugur).

Originating from Peranakan cuisine, laksa recipes are commonly served in Indonesia,[3] Malaysia,[4] and Singapore.[5]

Origin

Laksa is one of the most popular dishes of Peranakan origin, with a diverse variety of ingredients and preparation processes that vary greatly by region. Because laksa has different varieties across the region, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the dish. Nevertheless, numbers of laksa recipes has been developed along the trade channels of Southeast Asia—where the ports of Penang, Medan, Malacca, Singapore, Palembang, and Batavia (now Jakarta) are the major stops along the historic spice route. The intensive trade links among these port cities enables exchanges of ideas to take place, including sharing recipes.[6]

There are various theories about the origins of laksa. One theory is that the word laksa is theorised to come from an ancient Persian word for "noodles".[7] According to Denys Lombard in the book Le carrefour Javanais. Essai d'histoire globale II (The Javanese Crossroads: Towards a Global History, 2005), one of the earliest record of the word laksa to describe noodles was found in the Javanese Biluluk inscription dated from 1391 of Majapahit era that mentions the word hanglaksa. Hanglaksa in Kawi means "vermicelli maker".[8] In Sanskrit, laksa means "one hundred thousand", referring to numerous strands of the vermicelli. The term laksa or lakhshah is also believed to have come from Persian or Hindi which refer to a kind of vermicelli.[8]

Another theory about the dish's origins goes back to the 15th century Ming Chinese naval expeditions led by Zheng He, whose armada navigated Maritime Southeast Asia.[7] Overseas Chinese migrants had settled in various parts of Maritime Southeast Asia, long before Zheng He's expedition. However, it was after this that the number of Chinese migrants and traders significantly increased. These Chinese men intermarried into the local populations, and together they formed mixed-race communities called the Peranakans or Straits Chinese.[7] In Malaysia, the earliest variant of laksa is believed to have been introduced by the Peranakan Chinese in Malacca.[9]

In Singapore, the dish is believed to have been created after interaction between the Peranakans with the local Singaporean Malays.[10][6]

In Indonesia, the dish is believed to have been born from the mixing of the cultures and cooking practices of local people and Chinese immigrants.[11] Historians believe laksa is a dish that was born from actual intermarriage.[6] In early coastal pecinan (Chinese settlement) in maritime Southeast Asia, it was only Chinese men that ventured abroad out from China to trade. When settling down in the new town, these Chinese traders and sailors set out to find local wives, and these women began incorporating local spices and coconut milk into Chinese noodle soup served to their husbands. This creates the hybrid Chinese-local (Malay or Javanese) culture called Peranakan culture.[6][12] As Peranakan Chinese communities have blended their ancestors' culture with local culture, Peranakan communities in different places now demonstrate diversity according to the local flavour.[13]

Ingredients

A wide variety of laksa exists in Southeast Asia, with regional and vendor-specific differences. Laksa can be broadly categorized by its two main ingredients: noodles and soup. Most preparations of laksa are garnished with herbs. Two of the most widely used herbs are mint and Vietnamese coriander, known in Malay as daun kesum or by its colloquial name daun laksa "laksa leaf". Another popular garnish used for many laksa recipes is the unopened flower bud of the torch ginger, usually sliced or shredded.

Noodles

Laksa Johor is notable for its use of cooked spaghetti.
Laksa Johor is notable for its use of cooked spaghetti.

Thick rice noodles, also known as "laksa noodles" are most commonly used, although thin rice vermicelli (米粉 "bee hoon") are also common. Some laksa variants might use fresh rice noodles handmade from scratch, other types of noodles; Johor laksa for example uses wheat-based spaghetti,[14] while Kelantanese laksam is served with wide strips of rice noodle rolls similar in texture to shahe fen.

Soup

The type of Laksa is generally based upon the soup base employed in its recipe; either rich and savoury coconut milk, fresh and sour asam (tamarind, tamarind slice), or a combination of those two.

Coconut milk adds a distinctive richness or lemak quality to laksa broth.
Coconut milk adds a distinctive richness or lemak quality to laksa broth.

Laksa with a rich and strongly spiced coconut gravy is typically described in Malaysia and Singapore as Laksa Lemak or Nyonya Laksa (Laksa Nyonya). Lemak is a Malay culinary description that specifically refers to the presence of coconut milk which adds a distinctive richness to a dish, whereas Nyonya alludes to the dish's Peranakan origins and the role of women in Peranakan cuisine. "Laksa" is also an alternate name used for curry mee, a similar coconut soup noodle dish widely popular within the region which is sometimes known as curry laksa.[1] The most common toppings for the various versions of coconut soup laksa include eggs, deep-fried tofu, beansprouts, and herbs, with a spoonful of sambal chilli paste on the side as a relish.

The Malay word asam refers to any ingredient that makes a dish taste sour (e.g. tamarind (Malay: Asam Jawa) or tamarind slice (Malay: Asam Gelugor), which comes from a different tree despite its name). The main ingredients for tamarind-based laksa typically include shredded fish, normally mackerel (ikan kembung), and finely sliced vegetables including cucumber, onions, red chillies, pineapple, mint leaves, laksa leaves, and shredded torch ginger flower. Preparations for tamarind-based laksa usually produce tangy, spicy, sour flavours. This type of Laksa is normally served with either thick rice noodles ("laksa") or thin rice noodles ("mee hoon") and topped off with otak udang or hae ko (蝦膏), a thick sweet shrimp paste.[1]

In Indonesia, most laksa variants are coconut milk-based soups. Common spices include turmeric, coriander, candlenut, lemongrass, garlic, shallot, and pepper cooked in coconut milk. Widely available daun kemangi (lemon basil leaf) is commonly used instead of daun kesum commonly used in Malaysia and Singapore. Thin rice vermicelli ("bee hoon") is most commonly used, instead of thick rice noodle ("laksa"). Some recipes might even add slices of ketupat or lontong rice cake. [15]

Regional variations

Indonesia

Banjar Laksa, a specialty of Banjarmasin
Banjar Laksa, a specialty of Banjarmasin
Betawi Laksa served with emping cracker
Betawi Laksa served with emping cracker
Lakso, a specialty of Palembang
Lakso, a specialty of Palembang

Malaysia

A bowl of Penang Laksa from the Air Itam area.
A bowl of Penang Laksa from the Air Itam area.
A typical bowl of curry laksa in Kuala Lumpur
A typical bowl of curry laksa in Kuala Lumpur
Laksa Sarawak, a specialty of Kuching
Laksa Sarawak, a specialty of Kuching
Laksam, a variant dish found in the northeastern states of Malaysia and Southern Thailand
Laksam, a variant dish found in the northeastern states of Malaysia and Southern Thailand
Laksa Kelantan, a specialty of Kelantanese cuisine
Laksa Kelantan, a specialty of Kelantanese cuisine

Summary table

The general differences between types of laksa in Malaysia; Sarawak Laksa, Nyonya Laksa, Curry Laksa, Laksa Kuah Merah, Laksa Kuah Putih and Asam Laksa are as follows:

Ingredients Sarawak Laksa[50] Nyonya Laksa
(Malacca version)[51]
Curry Laksa (Klang Valley version)[52] Laksa Kuah Merah (Terengganu version) Laksa Kuah Putih (Terengganu version)[53] Asam Laksa (Penang version)[54]
Coconut milk Used Used Used Used Used Not used
Curry powder Not used Not used Used Used Not used Not used
Bean curd puff Not used Used Used Not used Not used Not used
Egg Omelette Hard-boiled egg Hard-boiled egg Not used Not used Not used
Topping (Vegetables) Bean sprouts and coriander Bean sprouts and cucumber Bean sprouts and long beans Bean sprouts, long beans and other ulam Bean sprouts, long beans and other ulam Torch ginger, cucumber, mint, pineapple, onions, and chillies
Topping (Protein) Shrimps and shredded chicken Shrimps Fish stick, shrimps, cockles None None Shredded fish
Noodles Vermicelli only Laksa noodles, vermicelli or yellow noodles Laksa noodles, vermicelli or yellow noodles Laksa noodles only Laksa noodles only Laksa noodles only
Broth Chicken and shrimp-based Shrimp-based Shrimp-based Fish-based Fish-based Fish-based
Condiment Sambal belacan and lime Sambal belacan None Sambal belacan Sambal belacan Otak udang
Laksa variants of similar type
(none)
  • Siamese Laksa
  • Johor Laksa
  • Siglap Laksa
  • Pahang Laksa
  • Laksa Pulau Kuah Kari
  • Laksa Kelantan
  • Laksam
  • Laksa Pulau Kuah Lemak
  • Kedah Laksa
  • Laksa Ikan Sekoq
  • Teluk Kechai Laksa
  • Perlis Laksa
  • Ipoh Laksa
  • Kuala Kangsar Laksa
  • Sarang Burung Laksa
  • Pangkor Mee Laksa

Singapore

A typical bowl of Katong Laksa in Singapore
A typical bowl of Katong Laksa in Singapore

Popularity

Several laksa variants have gained popularity in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia; and subsequently international recognition. In July 2011, CNN Travel ranked Penang Asam Laksa seventh out of the 50 most delicious foods in the world.[56] A later online poll by 35,000 participants published by CNN in September 2011 ranked it at number 26th.[57] Singaporean-style Laksa on the other hand ranked on CNN "World's 50 best foods" at number 44th.[57][58] In 2018, the Kuala Lumpur variant has been named the second-best food experience in the world on Lonely Planet's Ultimate Eat list.[59]

In Indonesia, laksa is a traditional comfort food; the spicy warm noodle soup is much appreciated during cold rainy days. However, its popularity is somewhat overshadowed by soto, a similar hearty warm soup dish, which is often consumed with rice instead of noodles. In modern households, it is common practice to mix and match the recipes of laksas; if traditional laksa noodle is not available, Japanese udon noodles might be used instead.[60]

Laksa is a popular dish in Australia. First appearing on the menus of eateries in cities like Adelaide, Australia during the 1970s, the coconut soup laksa variant is considered to have been normalized as one of Australia’s ‘borrowed’ foodways since the 2010s.[61] The Darwin International Laksa Festival was first held in November 2019.[62]

Malaysian Tourism Board controversy

In 2009, as part of a national food branding exercise, Malaysian Minister of Tourism Ng Yen Yen attempted to claim ownership for regional dishes such as Laksa, Hainanese Chicken Rice, and Bak Kut Teh, claiming that others have "hijacked their dishes". This led to discontent with its regional neighbours.[63][64][65] Ng later clarified that she was misquoted on her intention to patent the foods, and that a study on the origins of the foods would be conducted "and an apology conveyed if it was wrongly claimed." To date, the results of the study have not been made public.[66]

See also

References

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