This month, our little group (The 4-Velveteers) is continuing the journey of exploring each others cuisines. Last month Alessio got us cooking Sicilian Eggplant Caponata, and this time, Pamela introduces us to Laksa which is traditional to Singapore which is where she comes from.
When Pamela first suggested “Laksa” for this month’s challenge, I didn’t even know what it was! She told us that it was a dish popular in South East Asian countries, especially the Peranakan culture of Malaysia and Singapore.
Originally brought into Malaysia by the Chinese traders, Laksa has taken on so many variations in the multi-ethnic population of Malaysia and Singapore and also the rest of South East Asia.
Apparently, there are many different types of laksa, but what is common to all varieties of laksa is a broth, spice paste and noodles of some sort. The most well known varieties of laksa are the slightly sour tamarind based Assam Laksa and the Curry Laksa which has coconut milk.
Being a South East Asian preparation, it is not surprising that this soup would be non-vegetarian all its versions with the addition of some form of fish or seafood.
Laksa, essentially a spicy noodle soup, is a very popular street food in Singapore and eaten either as a midday snack or for dinner. It turns out that the Laksa could have an Indian connection because that name supposedly comes from the Indian word “laksha” which means “a hundred thousand (as in 100, 000)”, signifying that no two are the same since so many different ingredients are used in it!
Another explanation is that it is a corruption of the Cantonese “La sha (pronounced latsa), meaning “spicy sand” referring to the sandy texture the sauce gets from the presence of ground dried prawns.
One more story attributes the name to a similar sounding word in Hokkien which means “dirty” referring to the appearance of this noodle soup!
One of my favourite food and recipe reads is Yotam Ottolenghi’s weekly column, The New Vegetarian. I find it interesting when people, who are not vegetarian as a norm, interpret vegetarian cooking, especially in the Western world.
Most of his recipes are unusual, inventive and also very “doable”.
So when I found his vegetarian version of Laksa, I knew that that was what I was going to work with for this challenge.
I made some changes to his recipe, of course, as I didn’t have some of the ingredients. I used onion instead of shallots because they’re hard to come by in Goa. If you can find shallots, please use them as they have better flavour than onions.
No galangal here, so ginger it is for this Laksa. No lemongrass either, though I had a stash of some the dry stuff. While that’s good for tea, I think you need fresh lemongrass and I’m going to see if I can find some to grow in a pot. I added some Thai basil to the spice paste which I felt added to the Laksa.
I have seen Curry Laksa recipes using mint along with fresh coriander and basil. I decided to leave the mint out, because I have a feeling that Indian mint is stronger than Vietnamese mint (which is what seems to be used) and didn't think it would do well here.
I added carrots to give the laksa some body, and kept my moong sprouts raw as I felt it added texture/ crunch to the soup. Curry powder, which is considered an Indian spice, is so foreign to us it is available only outside India! So I went with my own mix of spices here.
We do use thin rice noodles in my traditional cuisine, but I wasn’t sure we would like it in this soup so I chose to use thick wheat noodles. My daughter isn’t very fond of eggs though she loves meringues and egg noodles, so the choice of noodles was obvious for this Laksa.
It seems tofu puffs are an integral part of Curry Laksa, but since I have no idea what those are, I went along with Yotam Ottolenghi's suggestion to use deep fried flour coated tofu cubes.
While Laksa is a bit spicy for a soup, but not perhaps for Asian palates used to spice and fire, I kept my version a bit low on the spice. Instead, I chose to serve my Laksa with a spicy chilli sambal so that anyone who wanted more spice could choose to have it.
Here are my recipes for both.
Vegetarian Curry Laksa
(Adpated from Ottolenghi’s The New Vegetarian)
For the spice paste:
1 medium red onion or 5 baby shallots, sliced
1/2 tsp garlic paste or 2 to 3 garlic cloves
2” piece ginger, sliced
1 1/2 tsp dried lemongrass (or fresh, soft white stem only, sliced)
2 tsp coriander seeds
2 large dried red chillies
small handful fresh coriander (leaves and stems)
a few leaves of Thai basil
For the broth:
3 tbsp vegetable oil
the spice paste from above
4 cups vegetable stock
3 sprigs curry leaves (or laksa leaves, if you can find them)
2 tsp curry powder
(I used 1 tsp sambhar powder + 1 tsp garam masala + 1/4 tsp turmeric powder)
salt to taste
2 tbsp brown sugar
400ml thick coconut milk
200 gm thick wheat noodles
(I used egg noodles)
1 to 1 1/2 cups moong sprouts
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced french beans
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced carrot sticks
For the fried tofu:
250g slab of firm tofu, cut into cubes
1/8 cup all purpose flour
1/8 cup cornstarch
Oil for deep frying
3 or 4 limes, quartered and some chopped fresh coriander for serving
First make the spice paste. Grind the first eight ingredients in a small food processor bowl, adding a couple of tbsps water, into a reasonably smooth paste.
Heat the oil in a largish pan and fry the spice paste on medium heat, stirring all the time – ensuring it doesn’t burn, till the raw small of the onion and garlic is no more. Add the vegetablestock, curry leaves, curry powder, the salt and sugar and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat and simmer the broth for about 20 minutes.
While the broth is simmering, cook the noodles in salted water till just done. Drain and keep aside.
Put the moong sprouts in salted boiling water for about 30 seconds, drain and refresh in cold water. Drain and keep aside. You can also use the moong sprouts raw like I did, if you prefer.
In the same boiling water, blanch the beans for about 3 minutes and then the carrots for about 30 seconds. Refresh both in cold water, drain and keep aside.
Now fry the tofu cubes. Heat the oil in a wok. Mix the all purpose flour and the cornstarch and toss the tofu cubes in the flour till they’re well coated.
Drop the cubes in the hot oil and fry them till they’re golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towels.
Once the broth is done, turn off the heat and remove the curry leaves and discard. Now add the thick coconut milk and mix well. Do not heat the broth once the coconut milk has been added or it might curdle. If you’re planning to serve the soup a little later, do not add the coconut milk. Add it just before you assemble the soup.
To serve the laksa, place the noodles in the serving bowls. Put half the sprouts over this and ladle the broth into the bowls. Now add the beans, carrots, remaining sprouts and fried tofu cubes. Garnish with chopped coriander.
Serve with lime wedges for squeezing into the laksa, and chilli sambal on the side.
This recipe serves 4 to 6.
(My version, adapted from too many sources to mention)
4 tbsp red chilli flakes
2 heaped tsp ginger paste
1 tsp garlic paste
2 tbsp powdered vegetable stock cubes
2 tbsp sesame oil
2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp coconut (or plain) vinegar
1 tsp jaggery
salt to taste (if necessary)
Heat the oil in a small pan and add the chilli flakes, ginger and garlic pastes. Over medium heat, fry this until the oil surfaces, taking care to see it doesn’t burn.
Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.
This sambhal is quite spicy and will stay for a couple of weeks, if stored in an airtight container in the fridge.
We loved it, and my daughter came asking for seconds so that should say a lot in itself! Of course, there are a lot of very “Indian” elements in the Curry Laksa whether it is the spice, the herbs or the coconut milk, so a lot of the flavours were very familiar.
A very warming and filling soup with the creamy richness of coconut milk, and as usual the perfect balance of salty, mildly sweet and sour, and spicy that always makes for the perfect dish.
The four of us (Alessio, Asha, Pamela and I) go velveteering, as we like to call our kitchen adventures, with a new dish/ style of cooking/ cuisine every month. Each of us will share our recipes, experiences and verdicts on our blogs.
If you would like to join us, please leave a comment at this post or send me a mail and we’ll get back to you.
This month our group has been joined by one more member, Lindsay of Rosemarried. I will link to the other members' challenges as when they are posted.
This month's Velveteer recipes:
Alessio: Fragrant Almond Laksa
Asha: Laksa Lemak
Lindsay: Laksa - Curried Moules Frites
Veena: Vegetarian Laksa
Sarah: Light Chicken Laksa