Snapshots from Malaysia: How to Make Curry Laksa (Nyonya Laksa)

Carey Jones

Carey's trip was arranged by Malaysia Kitchen for the World, an arm of MATRADE, the country's trade promotion agency.

The noodle soup laksa is one of Malaysia's iconic dishes—but it takes many names and even more forms. Today, we're talking curry laksa: coconut milk and prawns all the way. Debbie Teoh (food writer, caterer, and cooking instructor) taught us how to make Nyonya-style curry laksa in her family's kitchen in Melaka.

A little laksa primer? If we're going with broad strokes, there are two basic laksa genres: asam laksa and curry laksa. Asam means "tamarind," and asam laksa is a tart, sour fish soup made from that fruit as well as shrimp paste and various aromatics, producing a thin broth; it's generally served with rice noodles, large chunks of white fish cooked in the broth, and shredded cucumbers, pineapple, and torch ginger flower, a bright pink and somewhat bitter garnish. (Similar versions, with slight regional difference, go by Penang laksa and Ipoh laksa.)

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.

Of course, it's not always that simple. In Penang, in the north of the country, you'll find more asam laksa, and it's likely to be a little more tart and spicy, thanks to their proximity to Thailand and affinity for those flavors; there, too, curry laksa is called curry mee, and is often topped with congealed pork blood. (I loved it, but some of my traveling companions couldn't quite stomach anything bloody at nine in the morning.) In Johor, laksa uses coconut milk but also the toasted coconut kerisik, while using fish as well. In other parts of the country, curry laksa incorporates fish into the broth, or eel might be used as a garnish; in Singapore, Borneo, and Indonesia, you'll find even more wildly different forms.

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