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Story of Penang Asam Laksa

penang road kek seng asam laksa

Penang is well known for its food ‘cult’-ure.

Tell a Penangite her favorite Cendol could be better and she’ll never speak to you again. Try to shut down a Penangite’s most-loved Hokkien Mee stall because it’s been operating illegally on the side of the road for 30 years, and he’ll tie himself to the hawker’s cart and go on a hunger strike. Double the price of a Penangite’s favorite Char Koay Teow and make him wait for an hour, and he’ll still smile for fear he might offend the cook.

If street food is your obsession, this little island is heaven.

balik pulau siam laksa penang
penang road teochew chendol
famous siam road char koay teow penang

Through its early development as a multicultural society, and more importantly, the resulting cross-cultural interactions, Penang not only became a place to experience a multitude of cuisines, but also a place to taste the fusions of these flavors. This is one of the many reasons Penang is home to the cultural UNESCO World Heritage site of George Town.

Penang has numerous iconic dishes, but only one truly represents its variety of cultures and deep layers of history and traditions.


how to make asam laksa

Long before CNN declared it is as the #7 World’s Most Delicious Food, asam laksa (or assam laksa 亚三叻沙) has been drawing tourists to Penang just for a taste. But for a local like me, asam laksa is a reminder of home. A spicy, flowery, minty, sweet, sour, fishy noodle soup that has no comparison. A dish that us Penangites should appreciate for its relation to our culture and history, but something we tend to forget as we slurp up the last noodle, and scoop out the last drops of the thick soup.

penang homemade assam laksa recipe

Smooth round rice noodles immersed in a broth of a seemingly chaotic mix of spices and flavors, thickened with mackerel fish and sour tamarind peel, and topped with heaps of fresh vegetables and herbs for added texture and color. Finally, a squeeze of zesty calamansi lime and a spoonful of sweetened shrimp paste (heh ko sauce).

Everything is included. Every one of the basic five tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (savoriness).

And the effect of combining so many flavors?

Harmony.

bunga kantan, fresh turmeric, onion, garlic, shallot, lemongrass

Who invented such a complex dish? How did someone think of stringing such a kaleidoscope of ingredients together to create asam laksa?

bowl of penang assam laksa

Many people provide a simple conclusion that the dish is of Peranakan Nyonya origin – a cross-cultural mix of Malay and Chinese. While that may be partly true, the explanation omits an important element of asam laksa. That the dish was never created by one person, or one generation, but it evolved over layers of history.

Variations of asam laksa can be found throughout northern Malaysia (e.g. Kedah Laksa), and on the east coast of Malaysia (e.g. Terrenganu Laksa). Therefore, it is clear that the humble beginnings of the dish came from the Malay coastal communities.

Imagine a Malay family in a fishing community centuries ago. After claiming the prize fish from the nets, they would be left with a random pile of small, bony fish. To avoid waste, they would toss the scrap fish into a noodle soup, add in tamarind peel to mask the oily taste, and finally whatever other bits of spices, fruits, and veggies around. Asam laksa ingredients were unique to each fishing family or community. As generations passed, specific flavors became associated with the soup, and it gained popularity outside of fishing villages. Later, Chinese arrived in larger numbers to the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, married Malay women, and a new culture developed called Peranakan Baba-Nyonya. Asam laksa found its way into Nyonya kitchens, where other flavors were added - possibly the essential spice of bunga kantan (torch ginger flower) - which led to the version of what we now call Penang Asam Laksa.

famous asam laksa on penang road across from komtar

Traditionally served in the late afternoon (too sour and pungent to eat in the morning or at night), my grandma would always cook up asam laksa for me before dinner at her village house in Butterworth. My mom continued the tradition, cooking in her kitchen in a pre-war shophouse along Siam Road in George Town. She never allowed me inside, but put me to work at the dinner table picking the mint leaves off the stalks.

After shopping trips in George Town, my mom would treat my sister and I at Kek Seng Coffee Shop along Penang Road, by starting with dessert of Ais Kacang with durian ice cream, and then to balance the sweetness with a bowl of sour asam laksa. A tradition that Mark and I continue today.

kek seng coffeeshop on penang road

But nothing beats homemade asam laksa. Even with an hour spent at Chowrasta wet market sourcing all the ingredients and a few hours in the kitchen – cleaning fish, sitting on the floor pounding spices, cutting vegetables, and cooking over a steaming wok – the taste alone is worth the effort. Carrying on the tradition my grandma and mom passed to me is just the icing on the…no, wait, that saying doesn’t work here…how about, just the “extra mint leaf on top of a bowl of asam laksa".

Continue on to my family recipe of asam laksa...

21 comments:

Rosa May said...

A interesting place to visit and definitely a dish to oder when in penang! I really love Laksa and this version just looks amazing.

Cheers,

Rosa

BiteMyCake said...

I love how you introduce us to this place. Looks really interesting!

Sue K said...

ayiihhh, really missing my Penang food now! Can't wait for my next trip home!

Tripleyen81 said...

the Penang Laksa is a bit different from Laksa Johor.... Laksa Johor didn't add in prawn paste.... but both laksa taste damn delicous.... i can't forget the 1st time i tasted the penang laksa at one of the hawker center in penang.... i miss it until now.....

SY said...

I'll cook for you the next time you visit Penang!! :)

seasonwithspice said...

Glad you enjoyed reading it. Thanks Tamara!

seasonwithspice said...

You can make some Penang food at home before you come back:) I'll be sharing more Penang/ Malaysian recipes..

seasonwithspice said...

That's right Yen. Each Malaysia state has its own version of laksa. Asam laksa refers to Penang laksa because of the use of tamarind (asam). Do come and visit Penang soon for a bowl of heavenly laksa!

seasonwithspice said...

Thanks Rosa! Asam laksa will be the top dish to try out if you visit Penang.

jo said...

Oh yummy! Penang assam laksa is one of my fav and where else to get the best but in Penang!

Rene said...

I'm leaving for Penang soon and will definitely check out these places you have mentioned here. Thanks for the heads-up.

Dee said...

The place looks like a super cool place to be :)
Love the dish, it looks so delicious! I'm drooling hahah :)

Esef Ong said...

Assam Laksa It's got to be Penang Assam Laksa! Even my East Coast relatives aimed for it when they visited me and even said Penang's version Siam Laksa / Laksa Lemak tasted better than the East Coast :-D

seasonwithspice said...

Thanks Dee:) It's all because of the spices and the garnish that makes people drool over asam laksa..

seasonwithspice said...

Do come for a visit and have a bowl of laksa here!

peiyun said...

Ahh... balm for an overseas Malaysian's homesick heart (and stomach). Thanks (:

seasonwithspice said...

I missed asam laksa too when I was living outside of the country...food is always the best way to cure homesickness.

ChopinandMysaucepan said...

This bowl of assam laksa looks really good with all the different colours. We were a little disappointed with this dish when we visited Penang last year but I think perhaps there are so many stalls that sells it and we could have just gone to the wrong one.

seasonwithspice said...

Hi Rene, check out CapturingPenang.com for more ideas on what to do in Penang.

seasonwithspice said...

Thanks Esef, I haven't tried the East Coast laksa yet. Will have to have a taste test sometime.

seasonwithspice said...

Hi Chopin, you bring up an important point. Penang has some of the best street food in the world, and some of the worst. Especially when it comes to the famous dishes like Asam Laksa or Char Koay Teow. Many Penangites - many of whom have never cooked before - know they can make money by selling these famous dishes, so they open a stall and sell very bad quality food. Just one of the unfortunate consequences of being a foodie destination.

Hope you have the chance to find a good asam laksa place during your next trip to Penang. Or better yet, try out my family recipe:)

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