Navigating the Spicy World of Laksa

There are three basic kinds of laksa and each has its variants.

In the wonderful world of Malay cuisine, laksa is a spicy noodle soup served in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. "Spicy noodle soup" might sound like too much of a generic definition, but that's the most accurate definition for such a wide array of noodle soups. Laksa is, no matter the version and ingredients, a delicious and humble noodle dish.

Although there are so many variants of laksa, each falls under one of three types: asam, curry, or Sarawak

Contrary to the beliefs of some, however, it is not the kind of noodle nor the toppings that determine the type of laksa. The determining factor is the broth poured into the bowl of noodles. But whatever the type and variant, all laksas share one common ingredient—the laksa leaves, otherwise known as Vietnamese coriander or Vietnamese mint, easily found at Asian stores. Thick rice noodles are usually used, but there are variants that use vermicelli, also known as glass noodles or cellophane noodles, or other types of noodles.

  • 01 of 03

    Sour Fish-Based Asam Laksa

    Asam Laksa

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    Along with beef rendang and Vietnamese pho, Penang's asam laksa was named by CNN as one of the world's 50 best foods. In a 2005 CW Magazine article, author Kenneth Tan quoted Penang-born Chef Loh Hong Chye's description of asam laksa as follows:

    "The stock is made of sardine fish for the gravy. What we do is to boil the sardine fish, and then we take it out and put in some tamarind and pineapple juice, which makes it sour. There is also blended lemongrass, shallots, mint leaves, laksa leaves, and red chile, ginger flower, leng kuas (blue ginger) which we add and boil for at least three hours...Traditionally, the laksa is served without any meat or prawns. It is simply garnished with mint leaves, red onions, and sliced pineapple, and most importantly, you must put shrimp paste."

  • 02 of 03

    Coconut-Based Curry Laksa

    Curry Laksa

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    Curry laksa is characterized by two ingredients: curry (a blend of spices associated with South Asian cuisines) and coconut milk. Serious Eats writer Carey Jones opines: 

    "Curry laksa (also goes by: curry mee, laksa lemak, Nyonya laksa) is a much richer rendition whose broth has a coconut milk base, and it's poured over noodles and garnished with tofu puffs, shrimp, and egg. If you hear someone describe a dish as just "laksa," this is usually (but not always) what they're talking about. Like many Malaysian dishes, it starts with a blended spice paste of turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, and shrimp paste, and cooks down that blend to concentrate flavors; shrimp or chicken broth turns that thick paste to a broth, and the coconut milk is added toward the end."

  • 03 of 03

    Sambal Belacan-Based Sarawak Laksa

    Sarawak Laksa

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    Not yet as well known as asam laksa and curry laksa, Sarawak laska broth is red, made with prawn and chicken. According to food blogger Kelly Siew who was born and raised in Bintulu, Sarawak, Sarawak laksa paste recipe is "one of the most guarded secrets."

    From a 2011 blog post in 3 Hungry Tummies:

    "For years the productions of Sarawak laksa paste have been monopolized by a handful of families in Kuching. With no recipe of the laksa ever been published in any form and those with the recipe refusing to share even with their closest kins, most people have no choice but to continue buying the readymade paste that has quadrupled in price in the last five years."