Hello, friends! I get one question in a lot of lunch hops that we do - "Where is the best laksa in Penang?" My answer to this question sometimes takes people by suprise. But they've all found it to be extremely helpful advice, so I've decided to put it into a blog post for you. And I thought it would make a great Part 2 for our Laksa Shootout series!
Wisdom of the Crowd
You've googled it. You've checked all the different travel blogs and booking sites. You've pinned locations on Google Maps. Most likely, you've heard about the famous Air Itam laksa out by Kek Lok Si that managed to melt even Anthony Bourdain's cold, cold heart. It's good laksa. Very good laksa.
Maybe even... too good. And that can be a bit of a problem if you aren't ready for the encounter.
Locals love our laksa intense. We love that bubbling aroma of mackerel broth, chili paste and tamarind to lovingly buffet us in the face like a boxer's glove as we approach the stall from miles away. We want to be able to smell it from the bus, if you know what I mean. That means if you're new to the dish or the ingredients, it can all be a little bit too much.
Laksa is a gorgeous dish that has a lot to offer, but you have to take some time to get to know it first. So, if you're looking to try laksa for the first time here's my advice:
Be Patient. Start Easy.
One of the best places to start your introduction to Laksa is in George Town. Because the city has been a hotbed of migration and trade for so long, vendors have developed different recipes for different palates. That means you're going to get a delicious laksa, but with a more subtle touch.
The Nyonya-style laksa in George Town uses garnish like mint and pineapples to sweeten the aroma and the taste of the broth. What you get is a complex interplay of sour, spicy, umami, sweet and even fruity flavours. More importantly, it's a gentle introduction if you're from a part of the world that doesn't do a lot of fish broths or pungent shrimp pastes. It's a great way to expand your palate and try something new without being overwhelmed.
In general, the kind of laksa you'll find in the suburbs or areas of the island like Balik Pulau tend to be more pungent and intense. It makes sense, considering the history of the dish. Laksa started out as a way for fisherman around South East Asia to make the most of their catch. In urban centres like George Town, the dish was adapted for city folk. It's a bit more mellow and nuanced.
Some would call this a more sophisticated laksa, but I try to avoid distinctions like that as they aren't very accurate. Food is a reflection of the place, people and history and it's simply that different times and economic realities call for a different kind of laksa.
Be Curious. Try a Few.
If you'd asked me just a year ago where the best laksa in Penang is, I'd have given you a very different answer. Back then, the inclusion of torch ginger flower (bunga kantan) in the laksa was one of my top criteria. But my point of view has changed. My co-founder and I still have long debates about this. The torch ginger flower gives the broth a spiciness and a nice kick to every spoonful. But not everyone likes that hint of spiciness. Others think it adds a nice note but isn't the make or break for the dish. Some still insist that it is the only way laksa can and should be made.
My point of view now is that everyone is slightly different, and why shouldn't we celebrate the diversity of laksa flavours we are blessed with? After all, diversity is one of the things that makes Penang so beautiful and so special.
I'll be back with more laksa dishes for you to try in our Laksa Shootout Part 3. In the meantime, try the laksa at Joo Hooi and let us know what you think. We'll be hard at work eating all the best food in Penang, for research!
Read Part 1 of our Laksa Shootout Series here!