If there is a signature dish for Penang nyonya cuisine, it would be the tangy, sour yet salty and superbly fishy asam laksa. The base for this dish calls for fish stock, specifically made with mackerel or sardine (in Malaysia, it would be the ikan kembong) followed by a healthy dose of spices and an assortment of garnishing ingredients.
It is a labour intensive dish as the fish is first boiled in hot water, then taken out to have its flesh removed before putting the bones (and head) back into water; as the stock is cooking away, there are the spices that need to be mixed up and the garnishing ingredients – cucumber, pineapple, onion, mint and chillies – to be sliced up. Food processors can be used but no real Nyonya would ever use this modern invention; the taste would simply be different AND I can attest to that. Finely slicing garnishing ingredients by hand allows you to taste each ingredient and its crunchy texture instead of the pulpy mess which only changes the flavour of the broth.
Since spices needed for this dish can be difficult to obtain in Switzerland, Mum thought of another solution – pre-mix assam laksa spice packs. So she bought a pack of Hup Loong Asam Laksa (more info on the ingredients and the packaging here) over with her when she came, just so I could try it out. Instructions at the back ask for an addition of ground onions, a can of sardines to normal boiling water and salt for taste. While it is certainly easy, I found the initial taste to be somewhat bland. There just wasn’t enough “oomph” and after having had many asam laksa meals, yes, you could say I knew what I was talking about. Even Nil found it a bit on the “no flavour” side. So some adjustments were made (as usual) in the form of tamarind pulp, fish stock granules (and a quick attempt at making some fish stock with fish bones and etc), sugar and shrimp paste.
Garnishings that are a must are cucumbers, pineapples, mint and chillies plus a sprinkling of onions; don’t forget a good dose of dark liquid shrimp paste or hae ko. Do not confuse this shrimp paste with its salty sister, the belachan. Two fundamental differences – hae ko is sweet and nearly black whereas belachan is salty and grey. Some people also sprinkle fried shallots for that added crunch. Note, only sweet pineapples ought to be used to offset the sour and salty taste of the broth. If fresh pineapples aren’t available (like in my case), use those from cans.
The result? Asam laksa that is, frankly, to die for! 8)
Penang asam laksa
1 pack Hup Loong Asam Laksa
500 gms mackerel
200 gms rice noodles or rice vermicelli (beehoon)
400 gms ground onions
1 medium sized cucumber
1 can pineapple in syrup – drained and finely sliced
1 can of sardines in oil
3 heaped tsps fish stock granules
3 heaped tsps sugar
1 heaped tsps shrimp paste
A handful of chillies
A few sprigs of mint
Tamarind pulp (add water)
Salt to taste
- Clean the mackerel by removing the fins, innards and gills before placing them in hot boiling water to cook. After five to 10 minutes, remove from the water and separate the flesh from the bones (spine namely), tail and head. Put the flesh aside in the fridge and place the remaining pieces (bones, head and tail) back into the water to simmer for at least an hour or more.
- In the meantime, finely sliced the cucumber, pineapples and chillies; set aside in the fridge once done.
- In a pot, prepare the broth as per instructions on the Hup Loong pack (minus about 500 ml of water; the fish stock will make up for this) – this includes adding in the sardines together with ground onions. Don’t forget to add the fish stock by straining and removing the bones.
- Add the tamarind pulp water by straining the liquid followed by the fish stock granules, sugar and shrimp paste. Taste the pulp and adjust by either adding more sugar/salt/fish stock granules/tamarind pulp. The broth should be a balance of salty, sour and fishy. Add about 1/4 of the fish flesh to the broth and simmer gently for at least 30 minutes – the longer, the better.
- When it’s time to serve, prepare the noodles as per instructions or by either cooking them in hot water until they are soft and strain before placing in a deep bowl. Add a handful of fish flesh, pineapples, cucumber, mint and chillies before pouring a healthy serving of broth.
- Serve hot and as is or garnish with fried shallots and a spoon of hae ko.
NOTE: When serving asam laksa, the broth must be bubbling hot to maintain its flavour. Cold asam laksa IS NOT a joy to eat.