Early one morning in 1976, I was seated at an open-air food stall in Kuching, the riverside capital city of Sarawak, East Malaysia, with breakfast on my mind. Unfamiliar with the local breakfast food, I ordered what everyone else was eating: a steaming bowl of noodles in a brownish broth with boiled shrimp and a few bits of shredded chicken on top. It looked unremarkable. But the flavors that soon exploded in my mouth, making my eyes water and my nose run, were unlike anything I had ever tasted. My face flushed and my heart pounded as wave upon wave of impossibly hot, rich, fragrant spices and complex aromas mingled in my mouth. Perspiration ran down my neck, and when the bowl in front of me was empty, I sat back on my stool, took a deep breath and asked myself out loud, "What…was…that?"
"Laksa," replied a stranger sitting across from me.
He went back to reading his morning paper. Glancing around at the people seated at the nearby tables, I realized that I was taking part in a local eating tradition that was as well developed and well patronized as the café-croissant breakfast culture of Parisian cafés. When I got up to pay the bill, I also realized that eating laksa can be a messy affair: The ends of the noodles tend to flick bits of the brown, oily soup onto one’s clothing, and my shirt front clearly displayed what I had eaten for breakfast.
For many Malaysians, the only proper way to get the day going is with a bowl of laksa. This fiery, chile-infused coconut-milk broth with egg or rice noodles is prepared with belachan (a pungent dried-prawn paste), shrimp, lemongrass, shredded chicken, fresh coriander sprouts, a few slivers of omelet or a hard-boiled quail’s egg, and sliced wild-ginger buds. Laksa is served with a side dish of chile paste called sambal oelek and a slice of fragrant musk lime, or limau kesturi. The lime is squeezed over the laksa and some or all of the chile paste is added to the broth, according to one’s tolerance for hot spices. Laksa is eaten with chopsticks and a large spoon; the first searing, fragrant mouthful is guaranteed to clear your mind and sharply focus your culinary thoughts.
Malaysians love to discuss the subtle variations of this dish, but all agree that the best are served not in restaurants or homes but in open-air coffee houses or by street-side food vendors who operate from wheeled carts. Laksa is difficult for the home cook, for there is a long list of hard-to-find ingredients, and to do the job properly one must carefully grind the spices by hand in a very specific order, preferably with a granite mortar and pestle called a batu lesong. In addition, the recipe doesn’t lend itself to making small quantities: To get the seasonings properly balanced, you need to make a lot of laksa. Ambiance and socializing are also important parts of the laksa-eating experience, so most diners prefer to patronize the bustling coffee houses.
Despite many years of eating laksa, I only recently got around to thinking about the origins and culinary history of this unusual dish. It is a commonly held belief that laksa takes its name from one of its most important ingredients—the pungent, mint-like laksa leaf, from the herb Polygonum hydropiper, variously called "marsh pepper," "knotweed" or "Vietnamese coriander" in English. According to Alan Davidson’s authoritative Oxford Companion to Food, the word laksa comes from lakhsha, the Persian word for "noodle." Prominent food scholars speculate that Persian merchants introduced noodle-making to China during the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). Davidson also points out that Arab traders or Indian Muslims brought pasta noodles to Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula, possibly as early as the 13th century.
No one is quite certain when laksa as we know it today was first prepared, but it probably dates back to the early 1600’s, when the Chinese were establishing trading centers along the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. In the early 1400’s, the Chinese admiral Cheng Ho led an armada of ocean-going junks, manned by more than 25,000 men, on an exploratory and trading mission from the south coast of China to Southeast Asia. The trade winds blowing to and from China and between the Arabian Gulf and India meet in the narrow, protected waters of the Strait of Malacca, and for this reason warehouses and commercial trading centers were established in this area. These entrepôts soon attracted the attention of the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British East India Company. Originally known as the Straits Settlements, they grew into the cities of Malacca, Penang and Singapore.
The Chinese dominated early trade in the Strait of Malacca, and they brought their culinary traditions with them. However, only men were permitted to leave China to set up businesses on the Malay Peninsula. This policy naturally led to intermarriage with Malay women, and with Bugis, Javanese and Batak women from the island of Sumatra—and it resulted in culinary unions, too. The businessmen’s Malay wives were known as nonyas (also spelled nyonya), a Malay honorific denoting a woman of prominent social standing. Unlike their husbands, many of whom adopted European dress and manners, the nonyas maintained close ties with Malay culture.
These women spoke a patois of Malay and Chinese—mostly Hokkien—dialects. They dressed in the Malay style in a batik sarong with a long blouse. The distinctive cuisine they developed in Penang, Malacca and Singapore is known as nonya cooking, and laksa is its signature dish.
Nonya cooking is the result of blending Chinese recipes and wok cooking techniques with spices and ingredients used by the local Malay community. The food is tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal. Key ingredients include coconut milk, galangal (a subtle, mustard-scented rhizome similar to ginger), candlenuts as both a flavoring and a thickening agent, laksa leaf, pandan leaves (Pandanus amaryllifolius, or screwpine), belachan, tamarind juice, lemongrass, torch-ginger bud (Etlingera elatior), jicama, fragrant kaffir lime leaf (Citrus hystrix), rice or egg noodles and cincaluk—a powerfully flavored, sour and salty shrimp-based condiment that is typically mixed with lime juice, chiles and shallots and eaten with rice, fried fish and other side dishes. Even for Malaysians and some nonyas, cincaluk is an acquired taste.
The unique flavor of laksa and all other nonya recipes is determined by their rempah, the combination of spices that has been pounded into a paste, in a granite mortar, with a very specific texture and density. It is said that a nonya can determine the culinary skill of a new daughter-in-law simply by listening to her preparing rempah in a mortar. Nonya recipes are handed down from one generation to the next, and because of the time-consuming preparation of these dishes, it is a cuisine that is often at its best when served at home. Laksa is a notable exception to this rule.
Laksa served in Malay restaurants and food stalls is always halal—that is, it conforms to Muslim dietary regulations—but there are also Chinese restaurants serving halal laksa. Both Malay and Chinese establishments that cater to Muslim customers must have a license issued by the local Muslim authority, the Majlis Agama Islam, to certify that the food is properly prepared.
There are two basic styles of laksa: asam laksa (sour laksa) and laksa lemak (coconut-milk laksa). You find asam laksa, which uses a tamarind-pulp soup base and more chiles, in Penang. It reveals the influence of Thai cuisine and its emphasis on hot, sour, fragrant and pungent flavors. Laksa lemak originated in Malacca. This version is distinguished by its spicy, thick coconut-milk broth, similar in appearance and fragrance to south Indian curries. Both styles of laksa have ardent and steadfast supporters.
On a recent visit to Southeast Asia, I decided to revisit some of my favorite nonya restaurants and food stalls, and look for new establishments serving nonya dishes I had never tried before.
I started out by sampling laksa at the coffee shops in the Katong neighborhood of Singapore. I took a seat at a table along the shaded walkway of this nonya neighborhood and soon discovered that some of the good things in life never change. The laksa lemak, as served at the Hock Tong Hin Eating House, was just as I remembered it from 20 years earlier—a perfect balance of hot, sour, pungent, fragrant and aromatic flavors. The thin rice noodles were cooked perfectly, and there was just the right balance of coconut milk and chile to soothe and stimulate my taste buds simultaneously.
Moving up the west coast of the Malay Peninsula later that week, I arrived in Malacca, a well-known regional center of nonya cooking, where I discovered Restoran Ole Sayang, whose name is a nonya expression meaning "gift of love" in the culinary sense. Once I explained the purpose of my visit to the manager and the chef, there was no stopping the flow of nonya dishes that came out of the kitchen. I had ikan goreng cili, a butterflied deep-fried fish smothered in a pungent paste of fried chiles and finished with a generous squeeze of lime juice. Then there was sambal belachan, a small side dish of fermented shrimp paste that is first grilled and then pounded with chiles and a bit of oil before adding lime juice.
Nonyas—like nearly all Malaysians—are addicted to sambal belachan, and many would never consider traveling overseas without taking along a supply of this unique condiment to liven up the bland and flavorless cuisines (as the nonya perceive them) of such distant lands as Europe and the United States. On the road, they store their sambal belachan in airtight, unbreakable containers; it does not have the sort of fragrance you would want to have released in your suitcase.
At Ole Sayang I also tried itek tim—a translucent duck soup with braised, preserved lettuce. The dish looked more Chinese than nonya to me, but the chef pointed out that the slightly sour tamarind-based sauce clearly marked the dish as 100 percent nonya. My favorite Ole Sayang creation was udang masak lemak nenas—a bowl of grilled fresh prawns with chunks of locally grown under-ripe pineapple, served in a spicy coconut-milk broth. All of these dishes were eaten with steamed white rice.
A typical nonya meal at home is often followed by sweets made of glutinous rice flavored with pandan leaves; brown palm sugar, or jaggery, known as gula Melacca; and coconut milk. My favorite nonya dessert is pulot hitam, a dark purple-black glutinous rice cooked with pandan leaves and palm sugar and served with sliced ripe bananas and thick coconut milk. The addition of dried longan fruit lends a slightly smoky flavor to the dish. At home, on cold winter mornings, I have discovered that pulot hitam with warmed coconut milk makes an excellent substitute for hot cereal.
Farther up the coast in Penang, I was curious to know if the food-stall night market on Gurney Drive was still operating. I had not visited Penang in nearly 25 years, but Hajji Muhamad Aziza, the Malay cab driver who picked me up at the airport late in the afternoon, assured me that the Gurney Drive food stalls were still heavily patronized by people from all over the city. When I asked him if he could recommend a food stall for traditional Penang-style asam laksa, he glanced at his watch and told me that he was ready to quit work for the day. We drove straight to Gurney Drive, and then set off on foot to Asam Laksa Stall #436.
Following instructions from Hajji Muhamad, the stall owner set to work. The freshly sliced red onions and slivers of the uniquely flavored ginger bud blended perfectly with the thick, sour and fragrant tamarind-based broth that revealed just a hint of turmeric, shaved bonito fish, mint and sweet, ripe pineapple bits. Only after introducing me to several different subtle variations of Penang-style asam laksa served at different stalls did Hajji Muhamad agree to take me to my hotel, where I soon concluded that dinner that evening would be unnecessary.
A few days later I found myself once again in East Malaysia, on the banks of the Kuching River where I had first tried laksa and other nonya dishes in 1976. In the intervening years, the Kuching waterfront had been entirely redeveloped. Many of the old warehouses and food stalls were gone and a new, tree-shaded promenade dominated the south bank of the river. But that evening I was delighted to come upon River Café, a new open-air riverside restaurant specializing in a nonya version of popiah, or fresh spring rolls. The name comes from the Chinese po for "thin" and pia for "wrapper."
The restaurant was run by a formidable woman known as Auntie Yan, a nonya who prepared popiah according to an old family recipe. I ordered a plate for a small group of friends, but my attempts to look over her shoulder as she prepared our order met with a look of stern disapproval. I did my best to follow the deft movements of her hands and to estimate the proper proportions, but no amount of coaxing could encourage Auntie Yan to reveal the popiah secrets entrusted to her in her mother’s kitchen.
I returned to the table, and soon a half dozen perfectly wrapped and sliced popiah were set before us with small dishes of sweet plum dipping sauce. The finished result was a delicate and complex combination of textures, flavors, heat and pungent aromas. In homes, popiah is traditionally prepared by individual dinner guests or family members using fresh popiah wrappers, upon which they arrange their favorite combinations of grated jicama, lettuce, ground roasted peanuts, slivered omelet, chicken, prawns, parboiled and sautéed cabbage, bean sprouts, chile paste, fried bean curd, fried shallots, garlic paste and the dipping sauce.
My final stop in Kuching was a nondescript open-air coffee shop tucked away on a back street. I’ve patronized this establishment for nearly 20 years, yet I still don’t know its name, so when I arrange to meet friends here, I simply tell them it is the place just up from the wharf with the abandoned steam roller out front. Every morning, shortly after dawn, crowds of Malay, Indian, Chinese and nonya families can be found seated at the dozens of round, marble-topped tables. Beneath large overhead fans, families with children, couples, businessmen, teenagers and the elderly create an ebb and flow of customers that continues until mid-morning.
I sat by myself, lost in thought, listening to the clattering of bowls and the roar of gas burners. Shifting clouds of steam filled the air, partially obscuring the cooks at work. The murmur of conversation was frequently punctuated by orders for tea, iced milk coffee or fresh fruit juices. There is no menu because there is only one dish available: laksa.
I watched as a western couple cautiously entered the coffee shop and took their places at an empty table. Within minutes, they were served two bowls of laksa. They protested briefly, asking to see the menu, but then realized that everyone around them was eating the same thing. They picked up their spoons, took their first careful sips and looked at one another with wide-eyed expressions of disbelief. They laughed briefly. Then they shook their heads, blinked tears from their eyes and fell silent as they leaned forward and continued eating.
Eric Hansen ([email protected]) is a writer and photographer living in San Francisco who specializes in the traditional cultures of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Orchid Fever (Vintage Books), his most recent book, focuses on trade in rare and endangered orchids.