Taste test: Laksa essentials

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Laksa: One of the great Singaporean-Malaysian gifts to the world.
Laksa: One of the great Singaporean-Malaysian gifts to the world.  Photo: iStock

A fragrant bowl of laksa is one of the world's greatest joys and with a few simple ingredients you can replicate your own at home. Here we test which products are going to give you the most authentic results.

A fragrant bowl of laksa teaming with prawns and bobbing tofu is one of the great Singaporean-Malaysian gifts to the world. There are endless variations to the coconut-milk-rich dish, but they all involve the heavy punch of laksa paste, usually made from scratch. 

We get it, homemade laksa paste isn't always an option – especially mid-week and you're all out of dried shrimp and candlenuts. Here's a buyer's guide for laksa essentials when you're keeping things simple. I've taste-tested vermicelli as it's the most commonly used noodle in Australian laksa recipes, but egg or glass noodles are equally noble options.

Rice vermicelli 

Wai Wai Brand, 200g, $1.65

Score: 1.5/5

No need to put a pot on the boil for these ghoulish tresses – just cover in "cool or warm" water for two minutes and drain. The spindly strands have negligible taste, a rough texture and very little stretch, which means they snap easily against the might of gravy-soaked tofu.

Chang's, 250g, $1.99


Score: 3.5/5

There's a pleasant, bouncy stretch to Chang's gluten-free vermicelli (perhaps due to the presence of corn starch), which have long been my go-to in a cold salad, too. Can certainly recommend as an all-purpose noodle.

Trident, 125g, $1.99

Score: 2/5

Do you like the taste of cheap spaghetti? If yes, you're going to love these guys. Super-elastic noodles that won't break in a prawn fight, but that stretch comes at a cost, and they're also too chewy to properly enjoy.

Fish sauce

Squid, 700ml, $3.69

Score: 3/5

What Squid's nam pla lacks in pungency, it makes up for in salty intensity – a straight spoonful is like face-planting the ocean. A perfectly fine seasoning when you're chasing big flavour over balance and complexity.  

Chefs Choice Oriental, 300ml, $3.49

Score: 3.5/5

There's a clean aroma and sweetness to this slightly fancy fish sauce, which may have something to do with the 60 per cent anchovy extract content compared with Squid Brand's 70 per cent. Not bad at all.

Megachef Premium Anchovy Sauce, 700ml, $4.30

Score: 4.5/5

Endorsed by chef David Thompson, Megachef can be difficult to find but worth poking around Asian grocers and gourmet food stores for. The "blue label" anchovy variety has a rich golden colour and a complex, almost nutty flavour from two years of natural fermentation. The "brown label" Megachef is a little more savoury, but for laksa purposes the two can be used interchangeably.  

Laksa paste

Akam Malaysian, 185g, $3.30

Score: 3/5

Featuring a heady whack of dried-shrimp funk, Akam's stock-standard paste is a one-dimensional base ready to be enhanced with your own choice of flavours. Note that a medium level of heat means it doesn't require a lot of extra chilli.

Valcom Thai Style, 230g, $5.20 

Score: 2.5/5

Coloured with paprika oil for a vibrant rust-red tint, and fragrant with lemongrass, shallots and galangal, this is a paste that looks and smells better than it tastes. Salty, with a dull flavour profile and minimal chilli. Perhaps suitable for families with fussy eaters. 

Simon Johnson, 100g, $6.25

Score: 4/5

Gee, there's a lot of lemongrass on the nose with this entry from the providore king. The heat, funk and spice levels are well balanced and, when heated, the paste fills the kitchen with the sweet tang of garam masala. Worth keeping on standby.

Coconut milk

Ayam Premium, 270ml, $2.80

Score: 2.5/5

Not all coconut milks are created equal and the difference between tastes and textures across brands is staggering. Ayam's entry is slightly bitter with a woody aftertaste, but the not-too-heavy consistency makes it a perfectly fine canvas for bold flavours and citrus zing.

TCC Premium, 400ml, $1.50

Score: 3/5

Sweet. Thin. Mild. Your milk of choice for a lighter laksa gravy at only 53 per cent coconut extract (the rest is water). While we're talking texture, a note on coconut creams: they're best avoided. You're making seafood soup here, not pina coladas for a pool party.

Nakula Organic, 400ml, $3.66

Score: 4.5/5

About half the milk was solidified at the time of opening but also easy enough to stir down into liquid. Delicious and creamy with the sweet taste of fresh coconut and almost no bitterness. Made in Thailand by a family-owned Australian business.

Tip: Whiz up ready-made laksa paste with extra garlic, ginger and chilli to charge it with a fresher lease on life.