Asam laksa is a deliciously flavorful Asian broth with a spicy fish-tamarind base. It's served over rice noodles with cucumber, pineapple and mint garnish for a full meal in a bowl.
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While our main reason to go to Malaysia was to visit friends, I'll be honest I was also pretty excited about two other things: seeing some sights and trying the food. I had a list of a couple things I was keen to try and our friends helped add to the list.
Particularly with a young kid in tow, it was hard to try too many, but I did a pretty good job of at least a few classics and a few less well known. While asam laksa may not be as well known outside the country, it's definitely a classic there and having tried it, I can understand why. Since my husband missed going to Malaysia, it was the first thing I wanted to make for him after we got back.
What's the difference between asam laksa and a 'regular' laksa?
Laksas are a common dish across Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore and come in a few variations. The exact origin is not clear, but in Malaysia it's often considered a Nyonya dish (like the Nyonya shrimp and pineapple curry I shared - that post talks more about Nyonya cooking too, if you're interested). Laksas have become more common globally, but for some reason not this kind.
What you probably know as laksa is what can be called 'curry laksa'. The base is a spicy broth made with a spice paste and coconut milk, with noodles and other additions such as chicken or fish. Well asam laksa is similar but the big difference is you don't add coconut milk. Instead, the broth has a sweet-sour flavor based on tamarind ('asam' is tamarind in Malay).
It is traditionally from the Penang area of Malaysia, which unfortunately I didn't have time to visit. However I tried it in Kuala Lumpar, which like most bustling capital cities has pretty much any food available you could ask for. I certainly wasn't disappointed.
The flavor profile
There is so much flavor going on in this dish - just see all the fantastic ingredients in the spice paste. There's (left to right below) chilis, lemongrass, shallots, turmeric root, garlic and ginger root. I have kept relatively traditional in the spice paste ingredients but with a couple of variations based on what I could get hold of and the flavors I was looking for.
I hadn't actually cooked with fresh turmeric root before, but as I was able to find it in my local supermarket and it was in a few recipes I found, I figured it was worth adding into the mix. Turmeric is, after all, very good for you.
The garnishes can vary, but you typically add cucumber, pineapple, mint and then maybe chili and/or ginger. In a restaurant they might be on top already, but you can also serve them separately, as is fun to do at home, so everyone can add as much or as little as they like.
Variations in assam laksa broth
As I was reading through variations on asam laksa and deciding how to make my own, the main tricky bit was choosing the best way to make the broth. To be honest, I don't think I made the best choice. I think you'll get a little more flavor to stay in the broth by not having to strain it, as so many recipes I saw did, and as I ended up doing.
True, it gives you a nice clear broth and avoids any issue of having bones, but at least with my strainer, it meant much of the spice paste was strained out as well. Personally I'd rather have all that in there too! OK, minus the bones, of course. That's not to say it wasn't flavorful - it definitely was - I just think what I've described in the recipe is better.
Like many Asian dishes, asam laksa might look a little scary from the number of ingredients. However, you blend most of them up, so it's actually quick and easy to make. There is so much great flavor going on in this dish, from sweet-sour tamarind to chili and herbs. Plus, who doesn't love slurping on noodles! So get chopping and make it soon.
Try these other Southeast Asian dishes:
- Nyonya shrimp and pineapple curry
- Beef massaman curry (slow cooker)
- Bo kho - Vietnamese beef stew
- Plus get more Southeast Asian recipes and other international recipes in the archives.
- 4 red chilis or more to taste
- ½ cup shallots diced, approx 3-4
- 2 stalks lemongrass
- 1 clove garlic
- ½ tablespoon turmeric root approx, a piece approx 1in/2.5cm length, ⅓in/1cm wide
- 1 tablespoon ginger approx, a 1in/2.5cm piece
- 2 teaspoon shrimp paste
- 12 oz mackerel 340g, approx, 1 fish
- 4 cups water 950ml
- 1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate or more to taste
- 1 sprig Vietnamese mint if available
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ lb rice noodles 225g, dried weight
- ¼ cucumber approx
- ¼ cup pineapple approc
- ¼ red onion
- 4 slices fresh ginger approx
- a few sprigs of mint plus Vietnamese mint if available
- 4 slices red chili approx, optional
- Prepare spice paste ingredients - deseed and roughly chop the chilis, peel and dice the shallots, remove outer layer of lemongrass and finely chop, peel the garlic, turmeric, and ginger and roughly chop. Place all in a blender along with the shrimp paste and blend until smooth.
- Place the cleaned mackerel in a large pot with the water and bring to the boil. Boil for 10 minutes then remove the fish.
- Add the spice paste, tamarind concentrate and Vietnamese mint (if using) to the fishy broth. Carefully remove the fish flesh from the bones and set it aside then put the bones in a piece of muslim cloth, tie it up and add back to the stock so they can infuse it without going into the broth. Reduce to a simmer and cook another 10-20 minutes.
- While the broth is cooking, cook the rice noodles according to packet instructions and drain.
- Prepare garnishes by cutting the cucumber, pineapple and onion into thin slices (typically you skin and remove seeds from cucumber but as you prefer).
- Add some noodles to the bottom of some bowls. Remove the muslim bundle of bones from the broth and the mint sprig. Add in sugar, salt and adjust seasoning to taste.
- Pour some broth over the noodles then top with some chunks of fish and your choice of garnishes, or allow people to add themselves. Serve immediately.
See some of my favorite cooking tools and ingredients in the Caroline's Cooking Amazon store.
Try these other Asian (and Asian-inspired) recipes from around the web:
- Bacon Miso Ramen by The Crumby Kitchen
- Bok Choy Gai See Tong (Bok Choy and Shredded Chicken Soup) by A Day in the Life on the Farm
- Cheese Korokke by Manu's Menu
- Ginger-Citrus Grilled Salmon by Palatable Pastime
- Grilled Tandoori Chicken by Cooking Chat
- Vietnamese Flank Steak by Bobbi's Kozy Kitchen
- Nam Sod (Thai Pork Salad) by Magnolia Day
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