Curry Laksa is perhaps one of the most incredible soups that I have ever had. Laksa though now available world over is originally of Peranakan or Nonya origin. Nonya cuisine combines Chinese, Malay and other influences to create a truly unique, and wonderful mosaic of flavors, and it is my opinion that Nonya cuisine's incredible potential can be fully realized in a bowl of fragrant curry laksa.
The result of a masterful blending of Chinese ingredients and wok cooking techniques with the aromatic and sometimes fierce spices of the Malay community, Nonya recipes are tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal. Key ingredients in Nonya cooking include coconut milk, galangal (a rhizome similar to ginger), candlenuts which are used as both a flavoring and thickening agent (and it might be noted poisonous uncooked), laksa leaf, a dried fermented shrimp cake called belacan, tamarind juice, turmeric, lemongrass, ginger bud, jicama, kaffir lime leaf, rice noodles (rice stick) and cincaluk - a pungently flavored, sour and salty shrimp-based condiment that that is typically mixed with lime juice, chiles and shallots and eaten with rice.
The curry laksa soup base is stock, coconut milk and a generous but measured amount of laksa paste - a spice paste thickened with candlenuts, which must be boiled well before being eaten.
Peranakan or Nonya cuisine, and curry laksa haven't really be discovered in United States until recently. Laksa has begun to sporadically appear on The Food Network, the Travel Channel and other foodie programs and networks. Laksa made it's most recent appearance on last nights episode (episode 11) of Top Chef on Bravo, with a shrimp laksa made by one of the contestants. Bourdain, after announcing that he "took his laksa seriously" judged the entry to be too smoky for his taste. Interestingly, it might be noted that Bourdain presumably had his first laksa two seasons back on his traveling foodie show "No Reservations".
I discovered laksa on a trip to visit family in Australia several years ago, where the soup has become as familiar part of the Australian diet, as Vietnamese Pho has in big city America. After my initial introduction I returned with with several recipes for the soup - most notably a recipe from "Spice" by Christine Mansfield, the chef and founder of Paramount restaurant in Sydney. The recipe below is closely based on the Paramount recipe, changed mostly to accommodate for difficulty in finding Nonya ingredients in American groceries. The last time I made up a batch of the paste I ended up driving for 6 hours to an Asian super center in Denver for several of the ingredients.
I serve my Laksa piles high with bean sprouts, laksa leaves (sometimes Vietnamese corriander, or Thai Basil) and fried shallots. I find that the aromatics and texture of these toppings make the soup a wonderful meal in a bowl.
Laksa defines two different types of noodle soup dishes: curry laksa and assam laksa. Curry laksa refers to noodles served in coconut curry soup, while assam laksa refers to noodles served in sour fish soup, and nearly endless variations exist under the two core types. My preference is the curry variation, the Assam variations that I have had are very similar to Thai Tom Yum, though a bit less spicy, and while the soup is great it isn't as rich and fully satisfying as the curry version.
Wikipedia lists three main variants of Curry Laksa:
Laksa lemak, also known as nyonya laksa (Malay: Laksa nyonya), is a type of laksa with a rich coconut gravy. Lemak is a culinary description in the Malay language which specifically refers to the presence of coconut milk which adds a distinctive richness to a dish. As the name implies, it is made with a rich, slightly sweet and strongly spiced coconut gravy. Laksa lemak is usually made with a fish-based gravy and is heavily influenced by Thai laksa (Malay: Laksa Thai), perhaps to the point that one could say they are one and the same.
Katong laksa (Malay: Laksa Katong) is a variant of laksa lemak from the Katong area of Singapore. In Katong laksa, the noodles are normally cut up into smaller pieces so that the entire dish can be eaten with a spoon alone (that is, without chopsticks or a fork). Katong laksa is a strong contender for the heavily competed title of Singapore's national dish.
Sarawak laksa (Malay: Laksa Sarawak) comes from the town of Kuching in the Malaysian state Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. It is actually very different from the curry laksa as the soup contains no curry in its ingredient at all. It has a base of Sambal belacan, sour tamarind, garlic, galangal, lemon grass and coconut milk, topped with omelette strips, chicken strips, prawns, fresh coriander and optionally lime. Ingredients such as bean sprouts, (sliced) fried tofu or other seafood are not traditional but are sometimes added.