Growing up in Penang, I'd only known of one type of laksa for most of my life - the Penang asam laksa. Only when Laksa Shack opened its doors in Queensbay Mall circa 2006 did I realise there were at least three other types of laksa out there.
Ranked 7th in CNN Travel's '50 Best Foods In The World' list in 2011, the Penang assam laksa's main distinguishing feature is its spicy-sour soup base made from shredded ikan kembung or mackerel fish and asam (tamarind). It is usually served with thick rice noodles and garnished with finely-sliced vegetables including cucumber, onions, red chillies, pineapple, lettuce, common mint, "daun kesum" (Vietnamese mint or laksa mint), pink bunga kantan (torch ginger), and optionally, "hae ko" (a thick, sweet prawn/shrimp paste).
A popular dish in Peranakan cuisine, which is a combination of Chinese and Malay cooking, the origin of the name 'laksa' is unclear save for the following theories:
2. Derived from the Chinese phrase la sha (辣沙), which directly translates to "spicy sand" due to the sandy or gritty texture of the soup from ground dried prawns.
3. Derived from a similar-sounding Hokkien phrase "la sam", meaning dirty due to the dish's appearance.
While the Penang variant seems to be the most well-known to foodies, check out some of its equally (if not more) delicious Malaysian siblings:
1. Curry laksa
Curry laksa has a coconut-based curry soup with ingredients such as bean curd puffs (tau pok), sliced fish sticks, prawns, and cockles thrown in. It is typically garnished with Vietnamese coriander (daun kesum in Malay) and topped off with a spoonful of sambal chilli paste.
The curry laksa is called "curry mee" in Penang, as it is served with yellow mee and/or beehoon as opposed to white laksa noodles. Congealed pork blood may also be added to the dish.
2. Laksa lemak a.k.a Nyonya laksa
Heavily influenced by Thai laksa, the laksa lemak is made with strongly-spiced coconut gravy, giving it a distinctively rich and slightly-sweet taste. The dish is usually served with rice vermicelli, prawns, onions, mango slices, chicken strips, and chilli.
3. Sarawak laksa
Sarawak laksa is actually very different from the curry laksa as the soup does not contain curry at all. The base is usually made from sambal belacan, sour tamarind (asam), garlic, galangal, lemongrass, and lightly thickened with coconut milk. It is usually served with rice vermicelli topped with omelette strips, chicken strips, prawns, bean sprouts, fresh coriander, and lime.
4. Johor laksa
Johor laksa is a little bit more Western compared to the other variants; it is served with spaghetti instead of the normal rice noodles or vermicelli. The curry-like gravy contains coconut milk, kerisik, dried prawns, lemongrass, galangal and other spices, while garnishing comprises of onion slices, beansprouts, mint leaves, Vietnamese coriander, cucumber, and pickled white radish. Sambal belacan is also placed at the side along with a slice of lime.
A specialty dish in Kelantan, Terengganu, and Kedah, no curry paste is involved in making laksam. Thick, flat white rice flour noodles are served in a rich and full-bodied white gravy made from boiled fish or eel and coconut milk. The dish is traditionally eaten with hands rather than with eating utensils due to the gravy's consistency.
6. Terengganu laksa
The main ingredient of Terengganu laksa is ikan kembung (round scad mackerel) which is boiled and then minced before it is fried with onions, garlic, ginger, datil pepper, belacan, 'kantan' flower, Vietnamese coriander or 'daun kesum', lemon grass and dried tamarind slices. Coconut milk is then added in until the mixture becomes thick. The gravy is poured over white laksa noodles and served with 'ulam' (raw vegetables) and blended chilli o the side.
7. Kelantan laksa
The little-known Kelantan laksa is a very simple bowl of thick rice beehoon in gravy and topped with julienned cucumber, laksa leaves, and chilli paste. The main star in this dish is its tasty and chunky gravy, made with boiled, minced mackerel, thick coconut milk, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, dried tamarind, palm sugar and salt.hungrygowhere.com