Thursday, July 19, 2012

Curry Laksa

One of my favorite dishes ever from back home is Laksa.  There are many different kinds of laksa,  but in my opinion they can be broken down into two main types - the coconut curry broth laksa,  and the sour, pungent Assam laksa.  I prefer the first type,  but maybe that's just because I'm a fattie who loves the rich, creaminess of the coconut curry broth.  Yum.  My mum always favors Assam laksa - a fish and tamarind-based broth with finely julienned cucumbers, pineapples, onions, mint and fresh buds of ginger.  Altogether too much freshness for my tastes!
Curry laksa is a deep bowl of delicious comfort,  easily found in hawker centers and coffee shops all over Malaysia.  Each laksa stall has it's own version of the dish,  and one could make it their life's work trying to find the best one.  Every time you think you've found your favorite,  someone's telling you about another place they've discovered that you just HAVE to try.
I remember a stall on a quiet street in the back of town where my parents would take my brothers and I for curry laksa.  This particular hawker had her own brilliant rendition of the dish and her sign referred to it as "curry mee".  She used fresh won ton noodles that she made daily from scratch,  and served them with her very coconut-ty broth topped with Hainanese chicken.  I'm guessing that her laksa broth was made even tastier than most by all that chicken schmaltz that she saved each night from cooking the chickens.  The schmaltz and stock was used the next afternoon in her cauldron of laksa broth for that evening.   A pretty brilliant way to not waste the by-products of cooking, she was definitely ahead of her time when it came to cutting down on food waste and being green.  Considering that in the US,  we throw away 98 billion pounds of food each year,  it is now every chef and home cook's duty to learn how to use every part of the produce that they purchase.  Here's an article about just that!
I digress - back to the laksa.  We went to this particular laksa stall regularly.  We'd sit on the rocky wooden stools,  at the rocky plastic table and my dad would order 2 large and 3 small bowls of noodle goodness.  The noodles and broth were slurped up using chopsticks and before you knew it,  there was the bottom of your bowl!  The mild spiciness of the curry was washed down with a colorful fruit-flavored soda called Fanta - do they have them here?  My favorite was the green one - I guess that must have been "apple"!  I believe my brothers' favorites were the "grape" and "cherry" versions!  Those are in quotes because we know there was nothing apple, grape or cherry about them - they might as well have just called them green, purple and red!  Ah,  I wish we could time-travel back to the days when brightly colored fizzy sugar water brought us so much joy!
Alas,  our friend the curry mee hawker is no longer there.  The row of stalls is no longer there either,  and have given way to municipal "improvements" over the years.  What to do about this?  I guess make my own. 
The main part of cooking a laksa meal is making the large pot of laksa broth.  Once you've done that,  you can let each person assemble their own bowls based on their own tastes or if you're a complete control freak assemble each bowl yourself.  I usually offer two types of noodles,  various seafood toppings,  shredded chicken and  a few different garnishes to complete the bowl.  Here's how to make laksa:

Laksa (serves 6 - 8)

Spice paste:
1/4 cup peanut oil
10 garlic cloves
20 Asian shallots
10 dried chillies - soaked in hot water for 20 minutes
10 fresh chillies (or to taste) - de-seeded if you want less heat
1" piece galangal - peeled and sliced
6 candlenuts or macadamia nuts
2 tbsp shrimp paste
3 tbsp dried shrimp - soaked in hot water for 20 minutes
3 tbsp curry powder

2 tbsp peanut oil
12 cups chicken broth - preferably homemade
6 cups coconut milk
2 stalks lemongrass - bruised
1 tsp palm sugar (substitute with brown sugar or regular granulated sugar)
1 package fried tofu puffs - sliced or cut in triangles

1lb Chinese egg noodles
1package thin rice vermicelli - soaked in lukewarm water for 20 minutes

1lb jumbo shrimp (heads and shells removed and set aside for the broth, tails left on) - boiled
2 packages fish balls - these come already cooked,  but I like to put them in boiling water just until they float
1 package fish cake - sliced and dunked in boiling water for a quick minute
6 squares fish tofu - ditto the fish cake
1lb mussels - cooked
1lb scallops - seared
2 chicken breasts - boiled in salted water,  then shredded
12 quail's eggs - boiled and peeled
Flowering chives - woody ends chopped off and blanched in boiling water until bright green
2 cups of bean sprouts

2 scallions - sliced diagonally
Fried Shallots
Laksa leaf - Vietnamese coriander or Rao Ram (optional)
Thai Basil (optional)
Regular mint

1.  Place all spice paste ingredients in a blender and blend to a fine paste.  This can be done up to a week in advance and stored in a tightly-closed jar in the refrigerator until ready to use. 
2.  In a large stock pot over high heat,  heat two tablespoons of peanut oil.  Add the shrimp heads and shells, turn your burner down to medium high and sauté to flavor the oil with the essence of the shrimp.  Add about 1/4 cup water and cook for about 5 minutes,  taking care not to let it burn.  Using a slotted spoon,  remove the heads and shells.
3.  Add the spice paste,  stir continuously for about 3 minutes,  then turn down to medium and let this cook for about 15 - 20 minutes,  stirring occasionally.  Once the oil separates from the spice paste and you can see that the oil is colored reddish-orange (see picture on the right),  add the lemongrass, chicken broth and coconut milk.  According to your taste,  feel free to change the proportions of chicken broth and coconut milk.  Some people prefer a thick, creamy broth and some prefer it lighter. Stir to combine,  turn the heat up and let this come to a gentle boil then turn it down to simmer.  
4.  Add salt to taste, sugar and tofu puffs.  Cook for another 20 minutes or so. 
 5.  In a separate large pot,  boil about 6 cups of water.  Blanch the yellow noodles,  soaked rice vermicelli (2 minutes), flowering chives, fish balls,  shrimp, mussels separately.  Feel free to add or leave out any toppings as you prefer.
Fish tofu
All the fixins for an exquisite bowl of laksa

6.  Assemble a bowl:  Add handful of noodles (either kind, or both),  and some beansprouts to a bowl.  Add whatever toppings you like - chicken,  fish balls, mussels,  etc.  Pour the laksa gravy with a couple of pieces of tofu puff over everything.  The tofu puffs soak up all the goodness of the broth and are my favorite part of this dish.  Garnish with sliced scallions,  fried shallots,  cilantro etc.  
7.  Remember to go back for more before it's all gone!

Here's a bowl of laksa I made last Saturday.  Happy cooking!  
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