Sunday, September 26, 2010

Penang Assam Laksa

Day 196 Monday 9/6/2010

Nur, my Southeast Asian food go-to person, sent me this penang laksa recipe to try out. According to Nur, it's authentic! How do I know it's authentic? It contains strange sounding ingredients. Let's take a break from my streak of dessert making and go into some real food.

Laksa is a sort of spicy noodle soup and it comes in several types. There's curry laksa and assam laksa. Curry laksa is self-explanatory. Assam laksa is a sour fish base laksa.

As it turned out, penang laksa is very much similar to Vietnamese sour soup with cat fish. What I discovered after making laksa is that Malaysian food is very similar to Vietnamese food but it is different enough that it's interesting to eat.

The ingredient list at RasaMalaysia looks pretty intimidating, no? Don't you fret, I thought it was crazily hard, too, but as it turned out, it wasn't so bad.

I got one mackerel which was approximately 1 lb and cut it in half because I didn't have a pot large enough to fit the whole mackerel. Actually, that was a lie. My mom did have a pot large enough but I didn't want to haul it out. So the mackerel got boiled with 8 cups of water for 10 minutes.

laksa spices
While the mackerel was boiling, I made the spice mix. It included 5 teaspoons of dried chilies, 3 fresh bird eye chilies, 1/2 medium red onion - chopped (I did not have shallots on hand), 1 stalk of lemon grass, and 2 teaspoons of shrimp paste. Because I was at home, all of the ingredients were either in the garden or in the cupboard. No effort there.

saute spices
I gave them a few rounds in my mini-chopper and then a quick saute with some oil for 10 minutes. I also started to prepare my vermicelli.

While the spice paste is being saute, the fish should be done. Fish out the fish, haha, and let it cool. Keep the fish stock. If there are any impurities floating around, scoop them up and discard.

fish broth and mint
One sprig of Vietnamese mint was added to the fish stock and 2 wads of tamarind. Okay, 2 wads? Really, man, really? Yes, 2 wads. That is how my family keep dried tamarind. By the wads.

A wad is about the size of a ping pong ball which contains about 3 actual tamarind fruits. But why by the wads? It's because that's how they are sold in Vietnam. When I was little, my grandparents had a plot of land where there were plenty of tamarinds and they harvested, processed, and sold them in bulk. The processing work is actually peeling the tamarinds and removing the seeds. As a little kid, my job was to peel and remove the seeds. Then we kept the seeds for roasting or for playing bingo.

Back to cooking. So 2 wads of tamarinds is about 5 dried tamarinds. I added in the sauted spice paste and kept the broth simmering on low heat.

cooked mackerel
I dipped my hands in a bowl of water and picked apart the mackerel into pieces and discarded the bones. You want to keep your hands constantly wet because the skin will stick like crazy to your dry fingers.

extract tamarind
Move back to the broth, I used a ladle, scooped out the tamarind pieces and transfered it to a small bowl. Then I ladled out some of the broth into the tamarind bowl. Using the ladle, I smashed like crazy at the tamarind pulp to extract all of the juices. Returned the juiced up broth to the pot and repeated 3 more times. This is the exact same method when you make Vietnamese sour soup.

When that was done, I seasoned the soup with some fish sauce to taste. You can season it however you want!

noodle bowl
Almost done! In a large bowl, I added vermicelli, julienned cucumbers, a few dices of pineapple, and the mackerel.

Ladle the broth over everything in the bowl.

vietnamese mint
Grab some fresh mint leaves and garnish away!


Laksa, like almost all of Asian recipes, the recipe was not complicated, but the timing of all of the different components have to be coordinated so that it's efficient.

Penang Assam Laksa
Adapted from Rasa Malaysia recipe


1 lb of mackerel
8 cups water
a few sprigs of Vietnamese mint
2 ping pong size tamarind
1/2 medium red onion
1 stalk of lemon grass (just the bulbous white part)
2 teaspoons shrimp paste (Wandering Chopstick has a photo)
5 dried chilies
3 fresh chilies
1 or 2 rings of pineapple (diced)
1 small cucumber (julienned)
1 package of vermicelli (cook per package instructions)

fish sauce


The mackerel should be gutted, scaled and cleaned.
Boil the mackerel in 8 cups of water for about 10 minutes.

In a mini chopper or food processor, make a paste consisting of lemon grass, onion, shrimp paste, dried chilies, and fresh chilies.

Remove the mackerel but keep the broth.
Add to broth a sprig of mint and the tamarind. Keep broth on very low heat.

Saute the spice paste in a pan with some vegetable oil for about 8 minutes.
Add the sauted spice paste into the fish broth.

Dip hands in water and pick out the bones from the mackerel. Keep hands wet constantly to prevent skin from sticking to your hands.

Remove the tamarind and put in a small bowl. Ladle out some broth and pour into tamarind bowl. Use the ladle to squish tamarind pulp to extract the juice. Return broth and juice to the pot. Repeat 2 or 3 more times. Discard tamarind pulp.

Season broth with salt, sugar, and fish sauce to taste. Bring broth back to a boil.

Prepare bowls of vermicelli, julienned cucumbers, mackerel pieces, and pineapple cubes.

Ladle broth over vermicelli and the other stuff. Garnish with some mint and more sliced fresh chilies if you wish.


  1. my vietnamese cook book says that shrimp paste is a "must have" in the pantry at all times!

    and the pineapples totally took me for a loop. so unexpected!

  2. Your photo skills are improving.