In a “food paradise” like Penang, variety may indeed be the spice of life, as the cliche goes.
Practically no two versions of a single dish are alike here. That’s something that always strikes me about places where pride and regional identity are inextricably linked to its food culture.
In Penang, every bowl of prawn mee, and every sizzling wok full of slick, seared char kuey tiao tell their own stories about human migration and intermingling cultures, evolving traditions; even changing physical landscapes - with the arrival of not only people, but also crops from across the globe. Every recipe is an intensely guarded family secret. Don’t even think about trying to suss one out of the local hawkers!
Of course, it’s their unique recipe that is their livelihood, and often a treasured family heirloom. I’ve had quite a few friendly standoffs with poker-faced uncles and aunties, trying to figure out what the heck is in here that makes this taste so good? What separates the contenders from the pretenders?
This week, I began a completely subjective investigation into Penang’s most famous bowl of noodles - the inimitable Asam Laksa.
I’ve brought fellow food-geek friends to local laksa vendors, promising some sort of transcendental experience, some stroke of gastronomic alchemy that occurs when the syrupy black hae koh is stirred in, the pineapple has married its sweetness to the tamarind, and the mint starts to cut through the rich mackerel stock with its refreshing fragrance.
But sometimes I arrive to find that my favorite, go-to Asam Laksa guy has taken the day off.
“Oh, that’s fine. I’m sure this other, lonely laksa vendor hidden in the back of this dark alley probably knows what he’s doing,” I think to myself.
But by the time everyone has ordered, it’s too late. You’re not quite sure somebody didn’t just dump a can of sardines into a bowl of water with a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce and some noodles. Thin, watery broth (Are those canned sardines?!), lonely threads of pineapple that are barely detectable, and the cardinal sin: no bunga kantan, aka “torch bud ginger”. Nope.
The popularity of Asam Laksa and the proliferation of new stalls means that you will get a few unscrupulous folks popping up here and there, especially in tourist zones, who dilute the stock, skip the herbs, and sling some seriously sad laksa just to make a buck.
So, to help spare you some disappointment, I’ll furnish you fellow addicts of Penang laksa’s asam-pedas punch with a few hard-earned tips, as we look at some of the island’s legendary laksa-slingers.
My first recommendation is found in the suburb of Air Itam. It is known around the region for two things: Kek Lok Si, one of the largest Buddhist temples in all of Southeast Asia, and the famous asam laksa at the nearby wet market. The ascent through the colorful, eclectic temple complex up to the grand hilltop Guan Yin statue is quite rewarding, but don’t miss the chance to fuel up with a bowl of the wet market’s legendary laksa. Paired with a cooling glass of freshly pressed sugarcane juice in the Malaysian heat, it’s a refreshing meal and drink that go perfectly together.
But what is it about this laksa that has the crowds lining up? Well, it has some of the thickest, richest asam laksa broths around. Maybe I’ve just had good luck in the 4 times I’ve been here - the broth has been simmering long enough where the flavors are in perfect harmony and balance, and the crowds haven’t been too overwhelming so that nothing is rushed or over-looked.
I’ve hawked my fare share of grub before, and I can tell you it takes real talent to hit all of these notes with the consistency these folks have.
All of the flavors are there, especially that essential, je ne sais quoi, that elusive X-factor that makes it stand out.
Or maybe it’s because it’s unabashedly fishy. Pungently fishy. Sure, the tamarind’s sweet-and-sourness, the heat of chili, the astringently pleasant herbs are all there. But the heart and soul of this dish is fish, and if you don’t enjoy the one these guys make, then well, maybe asam laksa isn’t your thing. That’s ok, we can still be friends.
But is it The Best Asam Laksa? Well, my friends, that is completely subjective, and I’m far from done with my grueling research. Until next time!
Read Part 2 of our Laksa Shootout series here!