In Lonely Planet's The World's Best Spicy Food, writer Tienlon Ho describes laksa lemak as "a reassuring hug followed by a pinch in the cheek; it's creamy and smooth with a lingering spice kick." Indeed, the seafood-rich coconut and noodle soup is a bowl of warm, gently spicy comfort. Ho's recipe also includes plenty of Southeast Asian funk—dried shrimp, fish cakes, and sambal belacan all make an appearance. But from the first slurp, one tastes not a cacophony of ingredients, but a rounded, fragrant, and transportive bowl of soup.
Why I picked this recipe: I'll dive into a bowl of laksa any day.
What worked: The soup requires a lot of hands-on stirring time, but it's worth it.
What didn't: I thought the soup needed a generous squeeze of lime juice right before serving—a problem that was easily solved.
Suggested tweaks: This laksa calls for a number of hard-to-find ingredients. If you're close to a large Asian grocery store, you should be able to find everything. If not, here's my best guess for substitutions: in place of the galangal, use more ginger; in place of the fresh turmeric, use 1 teaspoon dried; in place of the dried shrimp, use fish sauce to taste; in place of laksa leaves, use equal parts mint and cilantro; in place of fish cakes, use extra shrimp; in place of cockles, use small clams; in place of sambal belacan, use a mix of fish sauce and chili-garlic sauce.
Reprinted with permission from The World's Best Spicy Food: Where to Find It and How to Make It by Lonely Planet. Copyright 2014. RRP: 19.19 Published by Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.
- 12 dried red chiles, soaked to soften, coarsely chopped
- 16 shallots, minced
- 7 candlenuts, macadamias, or chashews
- Medium knob fresh galangal, minced
- Small knob fresh ginger, minced
- 3 stalks lemongrass, just the tender parts, sliced
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground
- Small knob fresh turmeric, peeled
- 200 mL (1 cup) vegetable oil
- 60g (2 oz) dried shrimp, soaked to soften, ground
- 750 mL (3 cups) water
- 750 mL (3 cups) coconut milk, not stirred
- 4 tablespoons minced laksa leaves
- Fish stock or water, as needed
- 275g (10 oz) dried, round rice noodles, soaked to soften
- 2 fish cakes, sliced
- 275g (100 oz) shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 kg (2 lb) fresh cockles
- Salt to taste
- Sugar to taste
- 4 slices dry, firm tofu
- 100g (4 oz) bean sprouts
- Sambal belacan
- Extra chile, chopped
- Laksa leaves, coarsely chopped
Combine chiles, shallots, candlenuts, galangal, ginger, lemongrass, coriander seeds, turmeric, and salt in a mortar and pestle and pound into rempah (a smooth paste). Or use a food processor, adding a few drops of oil as needed.
Heat oil in a large pan and add the rempah. Stir continuously over a low heat until fragrant, about 30 minutes.
Add dried shrimp powder, stirring for about 5 minutes, then add water and simmer for another 30 minutes.
Add half of thick coconut milk, a teaspoon at a time, stirring continuously.
Stir in laksa leaves.
Add thin coconut milk a teaspoon at a time, stirring continuously.
Add rest of thick coconut milk as before, and simmer at medium heat for another 30 minutes. Broth should be thick but still soupy. Add fish stock or water to thin, as needed.
Add fish cakes, shrimp, and cockles to broth, and simmer until cockles open and shrimp are cooked, about three minutes. Season with more salt and sugar, as needed.
In a separate pot, cook rice noodles according to package directions, then drain.
Fry slices of tofu in vegetable oil until golden, about two minutes, and season with salt. Set aside.
To serve, divide noodles and bean sprouts among four large bowls. Fill each with broth, then top with even portions of fish cakes, cockles, shrimp, and tofu.
Garnish with laksa leaf, chile, and a spoonful of sambal.