Jan 16 2013
As the culinary capital of Malaysia, Penang is quite literally bursting with flavour. Many of its famous dishes have almost become synonymous with the island itself, but none more so than Penang laksa, which found international fame in 2011 when it came seventh on the CNN ‘World’s Fifty Most Delicious Foods‘ list.
Otherwise known as asam laksa, this tangy fish dish is deliciously distinct from its coconut-based cousin, curry laksa, and is an absolute must if you are keen to experience Penang’s food culture and its inimitable blend of culinary influences.
Penang’s version of laksa mixes both Chinese and Malay elements and is distinguished through its use of tamarind, known in Bahasa Malay as asam, which gives the dish its slightly sour flavour. The fish-based broth is made from mackerel or kembung, which is poached together with tamarind, chillies and lemongrass, then flaked into the stock, and finally served over thick rice noodles.
The sharp flavours of the broth are tempered by a garnish of cooling cucumber and mint leaves, as well as sliced raw onion, finely chopped ginger flower bud and, if you like extra spice, fresh red chillies. It is finished with hae ko, a sweet prawn sauce that balances the tamarind tang and is often served separately in the spoon.
Just about every hawker centre in Penang offers their own version of this classic dish, and that’s great if you have limited time and want to sample some of the island’s other culinary offerings, too. The asam laksa stall at Northam Beach Cafe (58 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah; T: (04) 229 0362) adds a pineapple garnish — when in season — to their version, which is one of our favourites. The food court is a short ride out of central Georgetown, and the sea breeze and views over to the mainland are an added bonus.
The Red Garden (20 Lebuh Leith; T: (016) 769 9585) and Gurney Drive Hawker Centre (far end of Persiaran Gurney) are also good options. The latter has several asam laksa stalls but number 79, nearest to Gurney Plaza, came top of our recent taste test. Expect to pay around three to five ringgit for a bowl at any of the above, and note that they are only open in the evenings.
However, if you have a bit more time during the day, it is worth going in search of what is commonly held to be Penang’s best asam laksa, at the Joo Hooi Cafe on the corner of Lebuh Penang and Lebuh Keng Kwee in Georgetown. This version, with its complex blend of flavours and sweet, sticky hae ko, has the locals queuing up in droves. Rather than sitting down straight away, go to the Lebuh Keng Kwee entrance and watch them assemble the dish right there in front of you. Don’t be afraid to ask for extra garnishes and broth: you will want to savour every last drop.
Joo Hooi Cafe
475 Jalan Penang, Georgetown
Open daily Mon-Sat, 10:30 to 17:30
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