Malay street food : Asam laksa (Spicy Penang style sour fish noodle soup)


After grazing our way through some other areas of Malaysia we made our way up to Georgetown, Penang (or Pinang), lauded as the food capital of Asia, street food mecca, whatever. We had high hopes. 

Penang is world famous for having a cultural melting pot of Indian, Chinese and Malay population who all contributed to the culinary landscape.
Penang did not disappoint, in fact it was probably better than expected – One thing; if you’re planning on eating like it’s your last week alive don’t visit during the lunar new year festivities.


Laksa is one of the dishes that comes to mind when I think of Malaysian food. Nasi lemak is considered the national dish, and it’s one of my favourites too, but Laksa always has you coming back for more.

Laksa is the word for a malay noodle soup dish, but it depends on where you are as to what you receive if you just asked for ‘laksa’. In Kuala Lumpur, for example, a request for laksa would get you a curry laksa – a deep rich curry soup with curried chicken on the bone, prawns and cockles. If you were to ask for a laksa in Penang however you would be eating asam laksa, one of many hawker dishes originating in Penang and a dish that bears little resemblance to curry laksa.
Just to confuse things further, a curry laksa in Penang is referred to as a curry mee, although it may be less soupy and have a thinner ‘beehoon’ noodle.

There’s quite a few kinds of laksa, usually with slight differences in taste or flavour and varying from state to state. Johor & Sarawak have their own laksa. Nonya laksa is another variation, from Peranakan culture and easily found in Melaka.  Other versions can be found in Indonesia and Singapore, too.

Asam laksa, a staple Georgetown hawker food and something everybody should try at least once.

Asam laksa - sour, fishy, spicy diliciousness

Asam laksa – sour, fishy, spicy diliciousness

The word asam, literally means tamarind and can also be spelled  as assam – A fruit with a sharp, sour flavour which is a main ingredient in making the soup base. It’s also used in Indian cooking to give chutney the sour, pickled taste.

The base is a slow cooking process involving fresh fish, usually mackerel or a something similarly strong and oily and cooking the sauce out until the fish breaks up into little flakes and the juice has a pungent, sour flavour.
The additional ingredients are seemingly odd, at least for a western palate but really work – Pungent belecan shrimp paste and aromats add depth to the broth. The noodles, fish and stock are all brought together with thinly sliced raw shallots, fresh chilli, julienne cucumber and pineapple finished with fresh mint leaves.
Fresh calamansi  – a type of small lime with orange flesh – can be added for extra tartness.

The blends of flavours are superb. The big blunt kick of chilli and the rich fishy stock with the belecan high-fiving your tastebuds with every sweaty, spicy mouthful. There is layer, upon layer of flavour to blow your mind.

Laksa is readily available all over Georgetown, and also in other cities – although, Georgetown is apparently the best – but, choose your laksa vendors carefully! I was told by a chef friend from Melaka that sometimes in order to cut corners and reduce costs some unscrupulous hawkers will use shredded tissue paper to pad out their broth, in place of the fish.

Phrases worth knowing 

Satu – One
Dua – Two
Tiga – Three
Hello  – Hello
Apa kabar – are you well/ how are you?
salamat pagi – good morning
Salamt tingal – goodbye
sila (see luh) – please
Terima kasih –  Thank you (people will often respond with ‘sama sama’ which means’ you’re welcome)
berapa harga – how much?
tidak pedas – no chilli
bungkus – Take away
Tidak – No
Ya – yes
Maaf – sorry


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