What is Laksa?
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A simple-worded question that can have multiple and competing answers depending on who you ask. To understand why this is the case we need to explore its origins, types, and regional variations. This article will explore these areas. But if a simple answer is demanded, laksa is a spicy noodle soup.
When and where did Laksa originate?
We simply do not know the true beginnings of laksa. There is more than one ‘type’ and a plethora of regional varieties. It is therefore tricky to determine the precise origin of the dish. That said, there are various theories that all tend to focus on the etymology of the word laksa.
One such hypothesis is that the name of the dish derives from the Hindi/Persian word ‘lakhshah’, which refers to a type of vermicelli noodle. Another perspective is that the word laksa stems from the Cantonese Chinese word 辣沙 (la sha), which means “spicy sand” – reference, perhaps, to the fact that the ground dried prawns give laksa its typical sandy texture. Similarly, there is the Chinese Hokkien word, lup sup, which means ‘dirty’ due to the soup’s messy appearance, and ‘luak sua’ that, as in Cantonese, also means “spicy sand”.
In truth, we cannot differentiate the theories of origin from the ‘type’ of Laksa.
What types of Laksa are there?
The answer to this question is neither straightforward nor without controversy. We are aware of Ipoh friends who have visited, for example, Johor in the south of Malaysia and ordered laksa, only to be served something quite different to what they expected.
It is certainly true that most of the laksa variations come down to simple geography. For instance, Sarawak Laksa (consisting of rice vermicelli, prawns, omelette strips, shredded chicken and beansprouts) is very much associated with this Borneo state on Malaysia’s East Peninsula. Likewise, Johor Laksa (yellow noodles with a gravy derived from herring and prawn) is linked with Malaysia’s southern state bordering Singapore. Similarly, other laksa variations are connected to geographical locations such as Laksa Kedah, Laksa Kuala Perlis and Laksa Kuah Putih.
Furthermore, Nyonya Laksa is strongly associated with Malacca and its historical Peranakan ancestors. This dish is often cited as the original laksa and has many similarities to both Thai and Curry Laksa (more on this later). Equally, Laksam (with its rice noodle ‘rolls’ is usually observed in the East Coast of Malaysia or in the northern state of Kedah.
Nevertheless, despite the many regional versions of laksa, it could be argued that there are two broad types: Asam Laksa and Curry Laksa. In Ipoh, this distinction is easy: “Curry Laksa” is simply “Curry Mee” (or Curry Noodles). Curry Mee is an entirely different coconut-based curry dish that is normally prepared with yellow noodles and vermicelli (beehoon). So, in Ipoh, Asam Laksa is Laksa. Hence the confusion for Ipoh locals who order laksa in some other Malaysian states!
This is the most well-known Laksa but, once again, it is confusing as you might find it called Penang Laksa, where it originated. This is very much a mackerel (ikan kembung) noodle sour broth, which varies in degrees of spiciness. Besides the fish, the key ingredient is asam (tamarind), which gives the soup its sour taste.
Other ingredients that give Asam Laksa its characteristic taste include a blend of shallots, lemongrass, galangal (a piney flavoured ginger), chillies and turmeric. Combined with the shredded mackerel and asam, these ingredients are boiled for a few hours to produce the delicious laksa broth.
Ladled over a bowl of thick rice noodles, the laksa soup is garnished with mint leaves, thinly sliced onion, pineapple slices, red chillies, shredded lettuce, and cucumber strips.
Ipoh laksa (or Laksa Ipoh in Malay) is basically the same as Asam Laksa but tends to be more sour (rather than sweet like in Penang). Furthermore, a spoonful of prawn paste is served as an optional side for those who would prefer a stronger sweet flavour. Penang people are more partial to sweetness than Ipoh people. Lastly, the garnishes used in Ipoh can differ slightly to those used in Penang.