I’ve never truly appreciated Asian food until I lived in Asia. I’m not saying that I have never eaten Chinese, Thai or Japanese take-out growing up; it’s just that my concept and understanding of what made good, authentic Asian food was not fully developed until I moved to Asia. Simply put – I had no idea how remarkable and varying Asian flavors were until I immersed myself in them. On a recent trip to Ireland to see my family; given my wife Cheryl and my boy’s Asian heritage, my family were very accommodating to offer Asian food alternatives when we were dining out. Cheryl learnt the hard way that authentic flavors were hard to come by. It is most definitely not the fault of the chefs’ or restaurant owners’; it is mostly due to the lack of some of the more obscure Asian ingredients and the recipe adjustments made to blend to local flavors, in short – pandering to the expectations of the “punters”.
Sichuan cuisine enamours me but I’d expect that if a talented chef was to open up a take-out shop serving truly authentic Sichuan food in Belfast, it would be closed within the month. It would be branded too far out from the “norm”.
Of late, there has been a bit of attention given to Western chefs offering their version of Singapore noodles. Singapore is a fiercely passionate nation when it comes to their national food and rightfully so – some of the best street food in the world can be found in the hawker centers and tze char (local, Chinese home-style eateries that cook a la minute) stalls dotted throughout the garden city. It is for this reason that you may see some colorful comments under these posts crying foul that these noodles are not an authentic Singapore dish and are only good for “angmos” (red haired – referring to Westerners as the genetic mutation for red hair is incredibly rare in Asian populations) and do not accurately display the deep cultural and culinary roots of Singapore.
The first time I ever tried “Singapore” noodles was when I was living and working in Hong Kong. It was a simple fried noodle dish of yellow noodles with some vegetables, prawn, egg and curry powder. It was highly forgettable and the only reason it even comes to mind at all is because when I moved to Singapore and encountered “Hong Kong” noodles – I found, to my surprise, that it was also a dish of this type: instant noodles, vegetables, prawns, egg and curry powder.
I don’t know for sure but I imagine that this dish exists all over Asia but from city to city, the name is changed as if no one actually wants to be credited with creating it. I reckon that it was probably created by entrepreneurial restaurant and hawker stall operators throwing out an accessible “dish-of-the-day” while utilising a basic understanding of popular ingredients available in those locals after which they are named after. This, in turn, helped feed into and conjure up a sense of intrigue and mystique at a time when air travel wasn’t as common as today. The closest some people ever got to tasting Singapore cuisine was via whatever plate of food someone put in front of them. Much like any Asian take-out in Europe, we need to suspend a certain amount of disbelief when taking these dishes at face value.
In the more connected world we live in today, with so many perspectives, and culturally accurate recipes available at a click of a mouse, blog posts promising “quick Asian noodles” are a dime in a dozen. There’s a lot to unpack there; as “Asian noodles” could mean hundreds of different things – i.e what type of noodle, what is the cooking style, what region of Asia are we talking about?
It is ambiguous enough to sell you the mystique of Asian flavors without commiting to authenticity. If you’re never going to travel to Asia, you would never know any different; and do people really care or do just want a diverse menu to show friends they’re hosting that they are gourmands. if it doesn’t taste any good, at least you could just blame the dish, “hmmm it’s not to my taste but maybe that’s just how people like it in Asia”.
Today, Singapore is very much in focus in the world for the steps they have taken to “circuit break” the grand ‘ol coronavirus and some well-known chefs ,with their ear to the ground ,have designed their social media content based on ‘trending’ Singapore and have tossed up their take on Singaporean food (think Singapore fried rice, fried noodles, etc). All it does is highlight how ingrained social biases are for all of us, how we love our comfort zones , what we know and how we also eat around those biases as well.
This post on laksa may polarise some as I’m offering up a closely Singapore version of Laksa without having a proper understanding of Malaysian laksa (or Nyonya, Penang and Sarawak laksa). I can only cook what I know and as always this isn’t a definitive recipe. Before people start becrying “chao angmo” (stupid Westerner), here’s a little disclaimer; this isn’t my recipe and neither was it prepared by me, all the credit goes to my Cheryl (who is of Peranakan descent so I am not coming in blind on this) for the hard work.
Laksa is one noodle based dish that people and whole countries seem primed to fight over for the bragging rights. The first time I tried laksa it was here in Singapore and it was the classical rich coconut based soupy noodles associated with the area so that is the recipe I will share today. For me at least laksa is as Singaporean as the Merlion as I know and I love the dish from Singapore where I first experienced it. So please excuse my bias and accept my apologies if I do not do justice to the rich heritage of South East Asian cuisine from which this dish originated.
A word of caution – this is not an easy recipe; it takes time and commitment to make, this is not an instant packet laksa noodle recipe. It’s as legit as can be and you need to commit and set aside at least half a day; that won’t be a problem I reckon as we’re all staying at home. Now is the perfect time for us to challenge ourselves and be authentic (in other words, cook #slowfood).
- 1 kg large prawns, raw and unpeeled
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- ½ cup dried shrimps , soaked in hot water (keep the water you will need it later)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons rock sugar
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
- 800 ml coconut milk
- 250 g fried tofu puffs sliced (blanched 1 minute in boiling water)
- 1 kg fresh Hokkien noodles (cook according to packet before serving)
- 200 g sliced fish cakes (blanched 1 minute in boiling water and reserved)
- 100 g bean sprouts (blanched 30 secs in boiling water and reserved)
- 8 pc eggs (boiled 7 minutes and peeled)
- 1 cup loosely packed laksa leaf finely shredded (a.k.a. Vietnamese mint leaves)
Sambal (the chilli paste)
- 5 dried chillies, soaked
- 3 large red chillies
- 2pc shallot shallots,rough chopped
- 1 teaspoon fermented shrimp paste (belacan)
- ½ cup peanut oil
- a pinch of sugar
- Blend the hydrated chillies together with the shallot and belacan.
- Heat a small saucepan over medium heat and fry the paste in the peanut oil for about 10 minutes, or until very fragrant, stirring frequently.
- Stir in the sugar and set aside for serving.
- Reserved prawn heads and shells
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 litres water
- 6pc garlic cloves
- 1 pc star anise
- 1 tsp white pepper
- Peel the prawns and reserve the shells.
- Heat a pot on the stove top and fry your prawn shells with a ¼ cup of vegetable oil till the shells turn a rich red colour 8-10 minutes.
- Add the tomato paste and cook out till it starts to catch on the bottom of the pan, add your sliced garlic cloves and star anise and fry 1 minute till fragrant.
- Add the 2L of water and simmer for about 1 hour. Strain and reserve.
Laksa paste (Rempah)
- 7 pc dried chillies, de-seeded and soaked in hot water (please do yourself a favour and wear gloves. Cheryl learnt that the hard way)
- 2 large red chillies, seeded and rough cut
- ½ tablespoon shrimp paste (belacan)
- 4 shallots peeled and roughly chopped
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled
- thumb size piece of peeled old ginger
- thumb sized piece of fresh peeled turmeric
- thumb size piece of peeled galangal
- 2 lemongrass stems, white part only
- 1 tablespoons ground coriander
- 3 candlenuts (if this is hard to come by you can substitute with macadamia nuts)
- For the laksa paste (rempah) Blend all the ingredients into a smooth paste, this is going to be very hard on your blender so add the reserved liquid from the soaked shrimps till it forms a smooth paste (see photo)
- Heat 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large pot, add the laksa paste and fry for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the oil separates from the paste. Add the prawn stock and bring to a simmer.
- Stir in the salt, rock sugar, fish sauce and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the coconut milk and simmer an additional 10 minutes.
- Blanch the tofu puffs in boiling water for 1 minute, remove and reserve. just before serving your going to add to the laksa gravy (see below photo)
- In the same pot, blanch the sliced fish cake for 1 minute and remove. Similarly, blanch the beansprouts for 30 seconds and reserve.
- Meanwhile simmer the prawns in the prawn stock for 3 minutes; remove and set aside.
- Bring a large pot of water to the boil and cook the noodles according to the instructions on the packet.
- Add the noodles to your bowl with the tofu, prawn and ½ cut egg. Pour in the laksa gravy and garnish with beansprouts, shredded laksa leaf and a dollop of sambal chilli.