I am almost too scared to write this review for fear of insulting all the legions of laksa fans from Singapore and Malaysia. But the truth is, you ask the average Asian American, much less any American, to tell you what is laksa. Most, wouldn’t know where to start. Quite simply, laksa in the United States, hasn’t reached the religious aspect that flaming hot cheetos have achieved. Most likely due to the fact that we simply don’t have that many Singaporean and Malaysian restaurants.
I’ve always had a hunch that the word laksa may have been derived from the Cantonese pronunciation of garbage(垃圾), since the dish is like a mish mash of randomness that just comes together. But according to many sources, the origins of laksa is unclear, we just know that its damn friggin good.
There are two types of laksa. Asam laksa is a fish-soup based version that has its roots in Malaysia. Whereas, curry laksa is more prevalent in Singapore as well as Kuala Lumpur. Fundamentally speaking, laksa is always comprised of rice noodles, either in thick form or as vermicelli. Although I am not a huge fan of Vietnamese pho, I do believe that if given a chance, laksa’s unique flavor, ingredients and “butcherable” name should allow it exceed the popularity of pho here in the United States.
Pasar Air Itam Laksa (Penang, Malaysia)
Address: Jalan Pasar, 11500 Ayer Itam, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia
Pasar Air Item Laksa is a world famous institution that serves one of the very best asam laksa in the entire world. Frankly, what can you say about the world famous Air Itam Laksa that hasn’t already been said. Anthony Bourdain has been here during his run as the host of No Reservations. If it is good enough for Anthony Bourdain, I’m pretty sure it is good enough for me.
Pasar Air Itam Laksa is situated in the Air Itam area of Penang, right at the base of the largest Buddhist temple in the world – Kek Lok Si. While locals have flocked to Pasar Air Itam Laksa, bloggers, travelers and Anthony Bourdain have made it a must-stop destination in recent years. Being proprietors of this travel+food site, we had to try it for ourselves.
If you have ever eaten Malaysian food, you realize that most Malaysian cuisines are heavily sauce based. As a noodle soup, laksa sits in stark contrast to most dishes as its a much lighter fare that can act as any meal throughout the day. This laksa is undoubtably, beautiful. Colorful red onions, red chili peppers and sprigs of basil light provide contrast to the dark, rich fish broth that sits.
You have red onions, red chili peppers and basil that not only add a light contrast to the heavy soup base, but lightens up the mood of the dish with some spring coloring. A pungent mix of fish sauce and lemongrass dot the soup base to give it a really complex sour and savory flavor. The lemongrass really comes through and only gets stronger as you eat more of the noodles along with the soup. Frankly, this is a messy experience and I highly suggest you don’t wear a white shirt when eating this laksa.
But how good is the laksa in Penang and more importantly, how does it compare to the Singaporean style of laksa? The Penang version is definitely more sour in comparison to the milder base of the Singaporean version. The reason being is that the Air Itam Laksa uses a refined soup base that is coated with fish sauce and lemongrass and has been simmering and cooking for a really really really long time. Some even say, the pot that the soup is cooked in, has taken on the flavors of all the soup that has ever been made.
328 Katong Laksa (Singapore)
Address: 53 E Coast Rd, Singapore 428771
Initially, I have never heard of 328 Katong Laksa. It was only after my local friend told me about this place and later confirmed by a taxi driver, that I discovered 328 Katong Laksa is indeed the best laksa in Singapore. Situated in a rather ritzy and upper class neighborhood, 328 Katong Laksa is an oasis of deliciousness amongst the residential buildings that surround it. With plastic stools, loosely arranged tables and its hurry-up-and-leave attitude, 328 Katong Laksa definitely has that “authentic” hole in the way ambiance that only a local can love.
The version of laksa that is served here is a curry laksa with prawns. The broth is made with generous amounts of coconut milk, chopped dried shrimp and shrimp paste, thereby forming a thick and hearty soup that satisfies with each slurp. Shrimp/prawns along with strips of fishcake adorn the laksa and provide a much more substantial bite when complimented with the rice noodles. Although, now that I think about it, its seems almost insane that I would be eating a hot bowl of noodle soup in a country where it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit with 100% humidity. But damn, was that sweaty t-shirt worth it.
The difference between Penang laksa and Singaporean laksa really comes down to the broth. While all the garnishing and additional ingredients can change according to the vendor, the composition of the broth changes the actual taste of the dish. In simple terms, Malaysian laksa is sour whereas the Singaporean is more savory+sweet.
So how does this laksa compare to Air Itam’s laksa? Well, I think it comes down to personal taste. For me, I am a huge fan of curry, so naturally, I gravitated towards the Singapore curry laksa. Not to say that the Penang laksa wasn’t equally fantastic, I just prefer the milder soup base of the coconut in the Singaporean version. On the flipside, the Penang laksa was definitely more fragrant and has this I-can’t-put-it-down quality to it. Look, if you have a chance to travel, head to both and decide for yourself.
For others, please enjoy the Gordon Ramsey video as he visits 328 Katong Laksa.