The asam laksa misadventures – Part I

Polygonum leaves aka Vietnamese coriander

It all started about three weeks ago when we got wind that my mother-in-law was making a trip down for Chinese New Year. Nil reckoned that the Penang asam laksa would be a rather nice dish to introduce to them since he couldn’t remember if they had tried any. Now the last time I made this dish was in August last year with some Thai flat rice noodles and a handy packet of Hup Loong Asam Laksa spices. Since then, asam laksa has been a no-go at my place…until now…

Since he really had his heart set on this dish, we decided to start looking around for ingredients. This time, no more flat rice noodles. Instead, we want the real deal – laksa noodles or those used in the Vietnamese dish called Bún bò Hu? – together with some polygonum leaves (daun kesom/daun laksa), some proper honest-to-God belacan and hae ko or sweet shrimp paste.

Now they don’t have fresh noodles on sale here – it’s normal – but then I remembered seeing a packet of flour mix specially for making laksa noodles. So we bought one. Then there was the issue of looking for the darn belacan and shrimp paste. Remember how I said previously that they are both different even though the base is the same? Here, most people only sell one type and it’s the Viet or Thai version which is uncooked – salty, smells like chemicals and tastes like chemicals. I kid you not. I’m searching for the Malaysian type, which is dark, ultra pungent and seafoody. About two weeks ago, I came across an Indonesian online store here in Switzerland and voila – they had what I was looking for. The names are different but they are the same thing!

Belacan in Indonesia is known as terasi and hae ko is what they call petis udang. Terasi is used in a variety of Indonesian dishes specifically their sambals as well as sour soups, gado gado and peanut sauce for their salads. Petis udang on the other hand is reserved specifically for the rojak – a fruit salad with sweet licorice coloured sauce (excellent with pineapples, really)! YUM!

So I had my laksa noodles, my belacan and hae ko. The herbs are a bit of a problem as the store I usually go to stocks mostly typical herbs and vegetables, nothing out of the ordinary. By some stroke of luck, they weren’t open yet when I went hunting for spices yesterday, so I decided to check out the Thai take-away/grocery store right opposite. It was really my lucky day. They were stocked to the brim in a variety of herbs and vegetables from banana flowers, pandan leaves (YAY!), fresh pepper, Thai basil, and yes, my polygonum leaves among other things.

And tucked away on one section of the shelves were some very fine looking RED rambutans (click to see a pic and read more) from Thailand. Now this has nothing to do with asam laksa but RED rambutans are hard to find here in Europe. This tropical fruit, which is native to Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries, is usually available at night markets back at home around certain months of the year – it is a seasonal fruit and comes in two shades – red or yellow depending on the “breed” of the tree.

Exported rambutans don’t retain their vivid red colour; instead they look like shrivelled hairy brown balls which is a huge turn-off and a sign that the fruit is NOT edible by our standards. One alternative for people like me who are nuts about this fruit is to down those found in cans but nothing beats opening up this hairy fruit and chowing down on its tender, nearly translucent flesh. So when one finds RED rambutans in Europe, it’s really something to behold and in my case, a must-grab.

So with some laksa noodle mix, belacan, hae ko and polygonum leaves in hand (not to mention rambutans for dessert), what’s next but to start cooking up some fishy broth?

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