The Peranakans may have already known of cheat days when their culture formed around the 17th century. Otherwise Nyonya Laksa would not be born. These people, whose ancestry can be traced to immigrants from South China and marrying into the local Malay population, started a new cuisine that blends good things from the food of their origin and the tropical cupboard. Nyonya has been synonymous to Peranakan, but particularly refers to the women, while Baba are the Peranakan men. Among the food of their creation is the ubiquitous Nyonya Laksa found in Malaysian and Singaporean roadside restaurants, or hawker stalls as they call it, which can dislodge the multi-storey all-beef burgers or your deep-fried potato fries from the top of the grease list.
“Laksa” is etymologically vague, and may have poetically referred to the quantity of noodles in this dish as its suggested derivation was from the Sanskrit term for “one hundred thousand.” Fancying spaghetti bathed in curry sauce? Or more appropriately, a soupy immersion of thick rice noodles in coconut milk with spicy curry? The coconut milk base is the reason for its other name, laksa lemak – lemak being the Malay word for fat, therefore “fatty laksa.” Chicken and prawn stock goes into the coconut milk. Now let’s see the roster of the curry paste ingredients: dried red chillies, shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger-like galangal rhizome, candlenuts (occasionally used in Pacific island cooking), turmeric rhizome, leaves known as daun kesum in Malay, dried shrimp paste called belican, and cooking oil. Another round of chillies if you prefer, this time fresh ones. To sum up, it’s decadent and aromatic. And well, hot.
A great challenge would be to search for the best Nyonya Laksa. Many hawker stalls in Singapore offer a commercial version when it comes to toppings, usually fish cakes, tofu, a hard boiled egg, cucumber slices, and bean sprouts. The more orthodox (but not necessarily the more expensive) ones will have seafood as add-on – it comes as prawns and blood cockles. An Asian favorite, blood cockles are clams found in muddy shores and have acquired its name because of having a reddish compound which similarly makes our blood red – haemoglobin. Chicken pieces, on the other hand, are a very rare complement. Add another round of sambal chilli with chopped daun kesum and it’s ready for the table.
Like pizzas within Italy and beyond the laksa has undergone geographic variations, but put the blame on which garnishes are locally available that suit taste preferences. Penang will have it sour through tamarind juice and haeko, a pungent black prawn paste. Cucumber, pineapple bits, and mint leaves are the final garnish in this dish called Assam laksa, translated as “sour laksa.” Johor will have fried grated coconut, basil leaves, and turnip alongside the more common toppings. Sarawak will lessen the spiciness but is equally satisfying with coriander leaves, candlenuts, and fried egg joining the regular add-ons.
I begin sampling my bowl of Nyonya laksa, moving the ceramic duck spoon at and to a little bit below soup level in a series to gently mix contents. I scoop a spoonful of the hot broth and slightly blow on it to make the temperature more acceptable. The first sips deliver the rich flavor of the curry-laden coconut milk so strong it conjures up images of the Malay countryside. Hot is an understatement – the dish while steaming hot, is more than that with its generous share of capsaicinoid stings. The attempt to immediately down the whole mélange is inhibited as several of the long, slippery noodles slide off from each snap of the chopsticks. My table is under a big ceiling fan, so important a place because very soon I am feeling perspiration. No table napkins, and I have no wipes either that should have managed the sweat and the tiny mischievous splashes of oily laksa broth. Suddenly I remember the Buddhist saying of valuing each moment greatly, of taking time to feel happiness from even the most mundane things of all.
This holds true with the happiness that is Nyonya Laksa.
Text and photos by Skippy