Laksa is such a universally comforting dish. Its rich, coconut-creaminess leashed by warm, florid spice alone makes tackling the tangle of slippery noodles worth the curry-flinging wrestle. And then, there are all those lovely ingredients crowning the surface and sunk within. But laksa, thought to mean ‘spicy sand’ for the dish’s typical grit of ground shrimp and resonance of spices, is much more than the sweet coconut-curry soup for which it’s widely known.
Laksa could generally be described as a spicy, noodle-based Peranakan soup. Peranakan (or Nonya) cuisine is a merging of Chinese and Malaysian cultures that goes back at least 500 years to the spice-trading port of Malacca, on the Malay Peninsular. Peranakan style categorises architecture and ceramics, but most notably food that’s rich, intricately spiced and labor intensive to prepare.
There are three main types of laksa, each linked to the region from which it hails.
Curry laksa is the type we all know and love. It’s typically served with both rice vermicelli and egg noodles, and has a thick, rich, curry broth redolent with galangal, garlic, belachan, lemongrass, spices and chillies - tempered with sweet coconut milk.
Assam laksa (or Penang laksa) bears little resemblance to its curry cousin. It has a tamarind-based tang, and fishy flavour, usually from mackerel (rather than belachan/shrimp). It’s an almost translucent broth and has thick rice noodles. The inclusion of prawn paste and pineapple pieces makes it a sophisticated sweet-and-sour.
Sarawak laksa is a rare little number – not easy to find in Melbourne. It’s from Sarawak, the Malaysian state on the lush jungle island of Borneo. It has grit and creaminess from coconut milk but is not as rich as curry laksa.
Even within these general styles, there are endless variations dependent on a particular chef’s family tradition or whim, which means that wherever you go, no two laksas are the same.
Here are five places to try for laksa; pick your style.
Among the 10 noodle soups on cash-only Grand Tofu’s 100-dish menu are three laksas: two traditional curry style and an assam, or Penang, laksa. The seafood curry laksa is a bumper-value bonanza of seafood, with whole prawns, mussels, calamari, fishcakes, tofu and vegetables. The assam laksa is a delight: it’s a lighter, tangy (tamarind) broth, with shredded mackerel, red onion slices, matchsticks of zucchini and pineapple pieces. They’re big serves, with generous amounts of ingredients as well as noodles.
The Grand Tofu, 314 Racecourse Road, Flemington, 9376 0168. Laksas: $9.80-$12.80.
The other laksa – Sarawak
This tiny handmade noodle shop does just one laksa, Sarawak style. While the elusive Sarawak laksa has coconut milk, it doesn’t have the same sweetness as a curry laksa, rather a particular pungency that’s deeper, but more one-dimensional. It’s a murky brown colour and comes with ribbons of omelette, headless prawns, chicken and chunks of chewy BBQ pork. There’s a heap of house-made rice vermicelli, too, with a few beanshoots mingling.
Kitchen Inn, 469 Elizabeth Street, City, 9328 2562. Laksa: $10.90.
Served in outdoorsy camp-tin pots, this hep new hawker joint (with street-art mural and window-front grilling station) does curry laksa ‘with a twist’. Chef Travis Long says his food is founded in Malaysian food but with little additions that he thinks customers would like. The vegetable laksa comes unconventionally with wong bok, pickled cabbage and carrot ‘to cut the richness’, and the chicken version has tasty wings and drumettes (use your hands) in a choice of noodle: rice or egg – not both, as is usual, so the dish can be gluten free.
Masak Masak, 230 Smith Street, Collingwood. Laksa: $10 (lunch only). masakmasak.com.au
The house curry laksa is a dance-like-nobody’s-watching kind-of laksa – a freeform interpretation that purists may baulk at. It comes in two sizes, and five flavours: chicken, fish, seafood, veg and soft-shell crab. (There are even ‘laksa variants’: a low-fat version, and a tom-yum version.) Laksas crowned with starchy fried wonton skins are creamy and mildly spiced – ask for a spicy version (which comes with a side of sambal). The veg version has mushrooms, tofu, some fried egg and slightly bitter eggplant pieces, as well as babycorn spears, crunchy green beans and fresh tomato wedges.
Laksa + Bar, 108 Little Lonsdale Street, City. Laksas: $10.90-$15.90. facebook.com/LaksaBarMelbourne
Old Raffles Place is a kind of relic to grander times. Operating for 20 years, the dining room has character-worn concrete floor, four styles of chairs (bought over the decades) and walls virtually tiled with framed black-and-white prints of Colonial Singapore. Old Raffles’ five varieties of curry laksa are named after Singaporean suburbs. The Bishan vegetable version has a viscous broth that’s big (commanding flavours) but not cloying. It is packed with tasty vegetables (okra, cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, eggplant, green beans, broccoli, capsicum), tofu and mixed noodles.
Old Raffles Place, 68-70 Johnston Street, Collingwood. Laksa: $16-$23. oldrafflesplace.com
Where's your go-to spot for laksa in Melbourne? Jump on the comments and let us know your top picks.