Adam Liaw shares recipes for three street food favourites – okonomiyaki, noodles and laksa – from his globetrotting Destination Flavour cookbook.
Chicken and prawn laksa
We often think of laksa as just one dish, but travel through Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and you'll find dozens of different varieties – like the sour, mackerel-based Penang laksa, the curry-thick Johor laksa made with dried spaghetti noodles, or even Singapore's home-grown Katong laksa, made with short-cut noodles and eaten as a soup with just a spoon, a little like a minestrone.
The classic coconut milk laksa that we know and love goes by a few different names – Nyonya laksa, laksa lemak, curry laksa or even curry mee – but the key to making it is always the same: rich fragrance from a long-cooked rempah, the slightly gritty texture of ground dried shrimp, a light creaminess from the coconut and a flavour punch from a spoon of sambal.
1 kg chicken carcasses
1 kg raw, unpeeled large prawns
½ cup (40g) dried shrimp, soaked in 2 cups (500ml) hot water for about 20 minutes
¼ cup (60ml) vegetable oil
2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1 tsp fish sauce
2 × 425ml tins coconut milk
250g fried tofu puffs, halved
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 kg fresh Hokkien noodles
200g dried rice vermicelli noodles
200g fried fish cakes, sliced
3⅓ cups (300g) bean sprouts
1 cup loosely packed Vietnamese mint leaves, finely shredded, to serve
1 Lebanese cucumber, shredded, to serve
Laksa rempah (makes double)
15 dried chillies, seeded and soaked in hot water for about 20 minutes
4 large red chillies, seeded
1 tbsp belacan (shrimp paste)
6 shallots or 1 large brown onion, peeled and roughly chopped
10 garlic cloves, peeled
5cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thickly sliced
5cm piece of fresh galangal, peeled and thickly sliced
5cm piece of fresh turmeric, peeled and thickly sliced
3 lemongrass stems, tender inner core only, roughly chopped
2 tbsp ground coriander
6 candlenuts (or macadamia nuts)
5 dried chillies, soaked
3 large red chillies
2 eschalots or ½ small onion, roughly chopped
1 tsp belacan (shrimp paste)
½ cup (125ml) peanut oil
a pinch of sugar
1. Start with the stock. Put the chicken bones in a large saucepan, cover with 10 cups (2.5 litres) water and bring to a low simmer. Gently simmer for about 2 hours, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface.
2. Peel the prawns, leaving the tails on. Add two-thirds of the shells to the stock and simmer for a further 20 minutes. Stand for at least 10 minutes, then strain, discarding the shells and bones (or reserve for making more stock); reserve the stock. De-vein and butterfly the prawns and refrigerate. Grind the dried shrimp to a wet, coarse powder in a small blender, or pound using a mortar and pestle. Set aside.
3. Blend all the laksa rempah ingredients into a smooth paste.
4. Heat a large saucepan over medium heat and add the oil. Fry the reserved prawn heads and shells until very fragrant, then remove the shells and heads, leaving the oil in the pan. Add half the laksa rempah (refrigerate the rest for another laksa) and fry for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the oil separates from the paste. Add the reserved chicken stock and bring to a simmer.
5. Stir in the dried shrimp and its soaking liquid, salt, sugar, fish sauce and coconut milk and simmer for about 20 minutes. Add the tofu puffs and chicken and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Remove the chicken, shred finely and set aside.
6. Simmer the prawns in the soup for 3 minutes, or until just cooked, then remove and set aside. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning as required.
7. While the soup is cooking, prepare the remaining ingredients. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and cook the noodles according to the packet directions. While different brands will vary, generally hokkien noodles will just need to be blanched for a minute or so, while the vermicelli will need about 5 minutes. Boil the fish cake for about 2 minutes, or until puffed, then drain. Blanch the bean sprouts for 30 seconds. Boil the eggs for 7 minutes, then refresh in a basin of iced water and peel. Halve the eggs. Keep all the ingredients separate, so that you can build your laksa as you like it.
8. For the chilli sambal, blend all the chillies together with the eschalot and belacan. Heat a small saucepan over medium heat and fry the paste in the peanut oil for about 10 minutes, or until very fragrant, stirring frequently. Stir in the sugar and set aside for serving.
To assemble each laksa, warm a noodle bowl (by pouring in a bit of the hot soup, then returning the soup to the pot). Add some hokkien noodles, vermicelli, bean sprouts, egg, fish cake, prawn and chicken to the bowl. Ladle in some soup, then garnish with Vietnamese mint, cucumber and a big spoonful of chilli sambal. Serve immediately.
Note: Vietnamese mint is known in Singapore and Malaysia as 'laksa leaf', and it is a natural accompaniment for laksa. The chilli sambal is necessary to really enhance the flavour of the dish, so don't skimp on it, even if you don't like too much heat. Laksa gets its name from the Hokkien or Cantonese for 'spicy sand' – a reference to the slightly gritty texture that comes from the addition of the ground dried shrimp.
You can add just about anything to this Japanese savoury pancake. Photo: Steve Brown
As close cousins, takoyaki (batter balls with octopus) and okonomiyaki are two of the most loved Osakan dishes, both in Osaka and around Japan. They use many of the same ingredients, and can be adapted to create new flavour combinations. This recipe plays with my favourite combination of fillings – pork, prawn and grated cheese – but you can use just about anything. Experiment!
½ head of cabbage (about 500g), finely chopped
200g pork belly, skin removed, cut into 1cm pieces
1 cup roughly chopped raw prawn meat (about 200g)
½ cup tenkasu (tempura batter bits)
2 tbsp red pickled ginger (benishouga)
½ cup (60g) grated cheese
1 cup (250ml) Otafuku sauce, to serve
½ cup (125ml) Japanese mayonnaise, to serve
2 tbsp aonori (dried bright green laver seaweed flakes), to serve
bonito flakes (katsuobushi), to serve
2 cups (300g) plain flour
½ cup (60g) potato flour or cornflour
1½ cups (375ml) bonito stock, other stock or water
1. For the batter, mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl and leave to stand in the fridge for 30 minutes before using.
2. In a large bowl, mix together the cabbage, pork, prawn meat, tenkasu and pickled ginger, pour the batter over and mix well. (Alternatively, you can make a few different flavours of okonomiyaki by dividing the cabbage, tenkasu, benishouga and batter mixture equally among four bowls, and mixing different fillings into each bowl separately.)
3. Lightly oil a hot teppanyaki plate or large frying pan. Scoop one-eighth of the okonomiyaki mixture onto the hotplate or pan and gently spread out to a circle, about 15-20cm in diameter. Sprinkle with one-eighth of the cheese, then top with another one-eighth of the mixture – but do not press the mixture down.
4. Cook over medium–low heat for about 10 minutes, until the bottom is browned, moulding the cake around the edges to create a circle.
5. Flip the okonomiyaki over, press it down firmly and poke a few holes in the top to allow steam to escape. Cook for a further 5 minutes, until the thick pancake is cooked through, then transfer to a serving plate.
6. Repeat the process three times, to create four okonomiyaki. (I will often cook one okonomiyaki at a time in each of two separate frying pans, and then repeat that process.)
7. To serve, brush each pancake liberally with Otafuku sauce, drizzle with lots of mayonnaise and scatter with aonori and bonito flakes.
Note: To create an attractive pattern with the mayonnaise, cover the okonomiyaki with Otafuku sauce first, then squeeze the mayonnaise from the bottle in parallel lines about 2cm apart. Draw a chopstick across the top of the Otafuku sauce in long strokes 2cm apart, perpendicular to the lines of mayonnaise.
Fried sauce noodles is one of China's favourite dishes. Photo: Steve Brown
Fried sauce noodles
This classic noodle dish is to northern China what spaghetti bolognese is to the rest of the world: a comforting home-style dish that has almost infinite variations. This simple version is the most common, but some others use different sauces (like a mixture of tian mian jiang and hoisin sauce), or add up to eight different toppings, such as raw sliced radish, salad greens and peanuts. Why not come up with your own family version of one of China's favourite dishes?
½ cup (125ml) vegetable oil
2 large spring onions, finely sliced, white and green parts separated
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
300g minced pork
¾ cup (185ml) tian mian jiang (sweet bean sauce, sometimes called brown bean sauce)
1 kg thick wheat noodles, such as Japanese udon noodles
2 Lebanese cucumbers, seeded and julienned, to serve
1. Heat a wok over high heat and add the oil. Add the white and light green parts of the spring onion, the garlic and ginger and stir-fry for 1 minute, or until fragrant.
2. Add the pork and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes, until lightly browned. Add the tian mian jiang and stir to combine. Fry for about 2 minutes, then turn off the heat.
3. Cook the noodles according to the packet directions and drain well, reserving about ½ cup (125ml) of the cooking water.
4. Bring the sauce back to a simmer and add the reserved noodle cooking water, stirring well to combine.
5. Serve the noodles topped with a small amount of the pork mixture and sauce, cucumber and a sprinkling of spring onion greens.
Note: Literally meaning 'fried sauce noodles', the sauce for these noodles was originally deep-fried with the meat. I don't go quite that far, but using a fair bit of oil is still necessary as it takes on the flavour of the aromatics, meat and sauce. Make sure you don't skimp on the oil, as it is key to this dish.
This is an edited extract from Destination Flavour by Adam Liaw, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $50 and is available in stores nationally.