Laksa asam – Penang hot and sour noodles

After a truly hectic end to my first semester in grad school, I finally have some time to get back to cooking and other important things in life, like marathoning episodes of Breaking Bad and reading all of the food magazines that accumulated in my mailbox during the last few months. Break hasn’t been all fun and games though – in all my studiousness, I actually have been doing some semi-serious reading. One book I’ve been going through is Ricelands by Michael Freeman, which surveys the food and foodways of southeast Asia. Although Freeman’s writing often comes off as more of a personal travelogue than an in depth study, he makes it clear how the cuisines of the region are the products of centuries of cultural intermixing and international trade.

Ricelands ends with a small collection of recipes, which is where I found this version of laksa asam (I consulted Rasa Malaysia as well). Laksa refers to a wide variety of noodle dishes, all of which cross elements of Chinese cuisine with regional ingredients. Although I was already familiar with the coconut milk based curry laksa, I had never before encountered this one, which uses tamarind juice (asam) as the main ingredient in the broth. Actually, the spice base for it is not too far off from that of red curry. But when a sour ingredient like tamarind replaces the basic creaminess of coconut, the flavor profile becomes much more challenging. As it was stewing, the unpleasant smell that emanated from the pungent ingredients had me worried that it wasn’t going to work out. But when ladled over starchy noodles (I used some homemade wheat noodles rather than the traditional rice noodles), it all came together brilliantly. This might not be a dish to serve in polite company – you can see in the photo that it has raw onions and chiles, as well as mackerel, a very fishy fish. Laksa asam’s funkiness demonstrates though how Malaysian food combines seemingly incongruous influences into surprising expressions of culinary fusion.

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