Sunday, 9 February 2014

Penang Assam Laksa (Nyonya Rice Noodles In Spicy, Tangy Fish Broth)

As temperature falls, there's nothing like indulging in a big bowl of hot steaming noodles soup to keep yourself warm, is there? For me, slurping on some thick rice noodles glistening with rich, tangy fish broth sounds just about heavenly right now.

Penang Assam Laksa has always been the less well known cousin of the more widely popular Curry Laksa. The strong tasting fishiness of the dish might be the  reason. It is an acquired taste.

To the unfamiliar taste buds, the pungent fish stock would be hard to bear. With additional toppings like the strong-tasting black shrimp paste, it does take a brave palate to even contemplating on giving it a go.

But once you get past all that pongy façade, you will be greeted with the most complex but perfectly balance of sweet, tangy and spicy flavours, all working together in harmony. The kaleidoscope of  fresh toppings such as cucumber, pineapple and mint etc, make this a truly refreshing and unforgettable dish. It is also a beauty to look at. Once you tasted and fall in love with it, you will never go back.

The ingredient list below does look intimidating but the actual construction of the dish is pretty easy and straight forward.

The stock is made by boiling fresh (it's got to be fresh) mackerel with onion, celery and bruised galangal. Once cooked, the flesh is delicately flake off the bones. Aromatic spice paste is then cooked until fragrant, the reserved stock added and gently simmers away to make the most fantastic fishy gravy. All the rest of the accompaniments can then be prepared in advance and other then some chopping and slicing, there's really nothing more to it.

Some ingredients might be slightly trickier to get hold of but a trip to Chinatown should procure most of them.

Do not confuse the black shrimp paste (hae ko) with fermented shrimp paste(belacan) as the former is a black, treacle-like gunge. (This is also a vital ingredient in making Rojak dressing, click on the link to see a pic of this).

The daun kesom or laksa leaves can also be found in most good Chinese supermarkets, often in the Vietnamese food section as it is more commonly known as Vietnamese mint. I'm rather fortunate as I do have pot of this peppery, zingy herb growing healthily in my garden. Getting my hands on this is a doddle. Just a matter nipping out into the garden with a pair of scissors and *snip snip*. They grow surprisingly well in British weather.

The only tricky ingredient to procure will be the torch ginger bud. I have been searching for this fiery bright pink blossom for years and have yet to come across them here in London. I have included them in the recipe as for those of you who are lucky enough to be able to find them, you must add them to the toppings. Their floral aroma and subtle gingery taste are a wonderful addition to finished dish.

If you happen to know where I can find them here in London, please drop me a line.


Ingredients (serves 4)

300g dried thick rice vermicelli
1 tbsp oil
1 tbsp tamarind pureé
2 pieces asam gelugor (dried sour fruit slices)
1 sprigs of daun kesom (Vietnamese mint/ polygonum leaves), leaves picked and finely chopped
1tbsp sugar (add more to taste if necessary)
salt, to taste

For the stock:
2 medium sized fresh mackerel
1l water
1 medium onion, peeled and cut into halves
1 celery stalk
5cm length galangal, lightly bruised 

For the spice paste:
7-8 dried red chillies, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes
2-3 fresh red chillies
5 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 stalk lemongrass, finely sliced
1 tsp ground turmeric
2cm square piece or 1 tbsp belacan (shrimp paste), toasted on a dry pan or in a hot oven

For the toppings:
1/2 cucumber, halves, soft core removed and cut into matchsticks 
200g pineapple, cut into matchsticks
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 fresh red chillies, cut into thin rings
1 lime, cut into quarters
a small handful of fresh mints, leaves picked
1 torch ginger bud (optional ) , thinly sliced
2 tbsp black prawn paste (hae ko), mixed with 1 tsp warm water


Start by preparing the stock. Put all the ingredients in a pot and bring to the boil over medium heat. Simmer for 5 minutes, until the fish is cooked. 

Gently lift out the fish with a strainer and leave to cool. When cool enough to handle, flake the flesh off the bones. Try to retain them in large chunks if possible. Double check for any odd pieces of bones. Set aside.

Return the bones to the pot and continue to simmer for 1 hour. Strain and reserved the stock.

Pound all the ingredients for the spice paste into a smooth paste with a mortar and pestle. Alternatively, blitz in  a food processor. 

Heat up the oil in a pan and cook the spice paste over medium heat for 3-4 minutes, stirring constantly, until fragrant. Add the tamarind pureé and assam gelugar and cooked for another 2-3 minute before adding in the reserved stock and the chopped daun kesom. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes, adding more water if the gravy become too thick.  Season with sugar and salt to taste. 

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and cook the rice vermicelli according to instructions on the packet, about 5-6 minutes. Drain and rinse in running cold water. 

To serve, bring the gravy to the boil and add half the reserved mackerel flesh. This will help to thicken the gravy. Put some vermicelli into individual serving bowls. Top with the some mackerel flesh and the toppings (except for the black prawn paste) before ladling over some piping hot gravy. 

Serve with the  diluted black prawn paste on the side for the diners to drizzle over the noodle soup according to their taste.


  1. Ana @ maninas.wordpress.com9 February 2014 at 14:13

    oh yum penang laksa!!! i had a fantastic one in georgetown: herby, sour, fragrant, fishy - utterly addictive!
    I've also got a laksa leaf plant, and it seems to survive this winter outdoors just fine.
    Have you tried growing kaffir lime leaves here, by chance?

  2. No I haven't. But I've been told that they grow well over here too so that will be next on my agenda, might have to try growing my own ginger plant too.

  3. Great Blog Post there! Sounds mouthwatering! And I am very intrigued about this Mint! Sounds wonderful, Well done! :-)

  4. Hi J, I am from Penang and would like to cook the assam laksa as I am craving it. Could you please tell me where can I get the Vietnamese mint? Thanks!

  5. Hi Ele, you can get hold of them either from New Loon Moon in Chinatown or Longdan Express in Elephant and castle. :)



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