Make Me: Singaporean Curry Laksa

How time passes. It seems like just yesterday that I was sun-screened, sweaty and flip-flopped, searching out icy cold noodles to beat the sweltering July heat. Then, all of sudden, the sidewalks are lined with (rotten, smelly) leaves, scarves and coats are mandatory and all I can think about is how to get my hands on a steaming hot bowl of soup noodles. Pretty sure that’s all I’ll be eating (and probably writing about) from now until the beginning of March or so. Good thing there are about a million different kinds and variation. Broth + noodles + toppings = endless possibilities.

One of my first bowls of soup noodles this season was a Singaporean curry laksa prepared by my awesome friend Wilson. Slurping down that creamy golden spicy broth was a particularly enjoyable and memorable experience since (a) it was cold and rainy that day; (b) I had never tried laksa before; (c) it was cooked at home with TLC (not referring to the Honey Boo Boo network here) and shared amongst good friends; and (d) it was goddamn delicious! This is some seriously comforting food, people.

Wilson and I first bonded while talking about food. Food talk led to noodle talk led to laksa talk – a kind of soup noodle that’s ubiquitous in Singapore and Malaysia, where food is paramount and diverse, a convergence of Malay, Chinese, Indian and several other cooking styles and ingredients. To be clear, there are actually two main kinds of laksa: curry laksa, a coconut milk and curry based broth common in Singapore, and assam laksa, a fish and tamarind based broth that’s common in Malaysia. Both contain noodles (often rice noodles, though it may vary) as well as an assortment of fresh and cooked toppings. Raised in Malaysia but born in Singapore, curry laksa is the one that’s near and dear to Wilson’s heart (although he really likes assam laksa too and hopefully we’ll make some as a sequel to this post). His family didn’t actually cook it much at home since it’s so cheaply and readily available at the hawker stalls there – not to mention that most vendors have been perfecting their recipes for years if not generations, making their version of the dish hard to beat. Since living in Toronto though, where good Singaporean food is sparse, he’s come up with a recipe to satisfy his cravings.

Other than a mediocre version of the dish at the Cupnoodle Museum‘s “world bazaar” cafeteria in Japan, and some virtual trips to the hawker stalls with Anthony Bourdain (watch an excellent clip from his No Reservations here), I had never tried curry laksa before. Firstly, I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Singapore (though, internationally recognized as a street-food mecca, it’s definitely one of my top three travel destinations, along with Penang, Malaysia). Secondly, for some reason Toronto doesn’t have much to offer in the way of Singaporean restaurants – there are only a handful, and save for the new-fangled Hawker Bar on the Ossington strip, they’re located quite far from downtown and public transit. I’ll probably make the trip out to some of these places in due time (wanna come?), so that I can try different styles. But frankly, I’m pretty happy to be eating Wilson’s curry laksa at home. And guess what – you can too. No, he doesn’t do house calls. But I can share with you how we made it. Other than a few obscure-ish but definitely available in Chinatown ingredients, it’s actually not too hard to make. And it’s easily customizable depending on your tastes. In Singapore, some common toppings for laksa include chicken, shrimp, cockles, fish tofu, tofu puffs and hard-boiled eggs. We just used a couple of those. You could additionally or alternatively use any manner of blanched proteins and vegetables like maybe some tofu and baby corn, or green beans and crab.

The Ingredients:

(1) Laksa paste

Ok, the jig is up. We kind of cheated by using store bought curry paste instead of making our own. This is the huge time saver since there is a flurry of ingredients ground together in the paste. It typically includes things like shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, chilies, coriander, dried shrimp paste and maybe some other things, or maybe less. We used the Asian Home Gourmet brand.

(2) Dried shrimp paste (belacan)

It’s sold in a brick, about the size of a bar of soap. Wilson cleverly stores his in a tight-sealed glass jar because watch out – this stuff SMELLS, like as if you’re in waist-high rubber boots in the middle of a fish market at 4am. Don’t let the smell deter you though – its pungency is the reason for its amazing flavour. By adding this to our broth, we were able to add some depth of flavour that would otherwise be lacking had we used the spice paste alone.

(3) Dried shrimps

Aren’t they cute? You can buy these in Chinatown, either pre-packaged at the grocery store, or by weight from one of those shops that sells things by weight. They come in a variety of sizes and colours so it was kind of hard to decide which to get. I read an article recently, can’t remember where, that said the redder the better, but we just kinda chose the ones that looked the nicest and driest. Once again, these added some more depth of flavour to the broth as well as some good texture (they soften up).

(4) Laksa leaf/Vietnamese mint/Vietnamese coriander

I can’t express how much I love this herb. It was really the crowning glory of our bowl of laksa and in my opinion, a necessary element. It’s taste is kinda sorta like a cross between coriander and parsley, but with this note of light fresh citrus. It brightens up your palate and is a perfect complement to the creamy, spicy richness of the broth. The package we found was generically marked ‘herbs’ but look for long and pointy-tipped green leaves.

(5) Fish tofu

Is it fish or is it tofu? Minced fish cubes that look like tofu (there’s also some soybean oil and soy protein mixed in), they’re really similar in taste, and probably ingredients, to those uncomfortably neon-coloured fishcake rounds that you often find in udon and other Asian soup noodles. I love them but lots of people hate them. Load it up or leave ’em out. I don’t think they’re essential. We found them in the freezer at the grocery store.

(6) Tofu puffs

These little fried tofu puffs are a textural wonder. Light, spongy, and a little chewy, they deliciously soak up the flavours of the broth. Yums.

(7) Rice vermicelli/rice noodles

Figuring out the right noodles was a bit of a doozy. I always thought that rice vermicelli refers exclusively to those very thin strands used in Vietnamese bun dishes. Typically, however, laksa is served with a thicker, round noodle – also referred to as rice vermicelli – which is approximately the size and shape of spaghetti. It’s much easier to find the dried variety, which is what we used, but I’d love to try it with some fresh rice vermicelli (maybe at T&T). Other kinds of noodles could easily work well too, although for some reason I don’t think the yellow Chinese egg noodles would taste good in this.

(8) Fresh chilies

(9) Bean sprouts

(10) Coconut milk

(11) Chicken stock (or water if you don’t have any)

Method

No measurements involved here. You’re basically following the directions on the back of the laksa paste package and then added things in until it tastes good. We used two packages of laksa paste as there were 4 people eating, but you could just do one package and still have leftovers, which is really the best part. Like most one-pot cooking, it actually tastes even better the next day as the flavour have had more time to meld together.

(1) In a stockpot, heat up a couple tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Pour in the laksa paste and saute in the oil for a minute or two, until it becomes aromatic. Pour in a can of coconut milk and about two cups of stock. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat so it’s lightly bubbling.

(2) In a food processor, grind up a slice of shrimp paste (around the size of one of those perfect pads of butter you see melting atop a stack of pancakes in commercials/stock photographs like this) along with a couple tablespoons of dried shrimps and a tablespoon or two of water. Pulse it all together until the shrimp are broken down a bit and the paste is no longer in brick form. It won’t exactly be a paste. Add it all into the lightly bubbling stockpot.

(3) Pick a bunch of laksa leaves from the stems. Wash and pat dry. Stack about 8 leaves on top of one other, roll them up lengthwise, like a cigar, and slice horizontally into fine shreds (aka chiffonade). Reserve for later.

(4) Finely chop a chili or two, or more depending on your taste, and add it to the stock pot. Throw in some fish tofu and some tofu puffs. Let it all simmer together for awhile.

(5) While it’s simmering, boil some water in a separate pot. Add a couple handfuls of bean sprouts to the boiling water. Let them boil for a minute, then remove them with some tongs and put them in a bowl of cold water (to stop the cooking).

(6) Now use that same pot of boiling water to cook your noodles, according to the package instructions. Within the last few minutes of cooking, keep on testing the noodles to make sure you don’t overcook them. Mushy noodles suck. Drain the noodles and rinse with cold water.

(7) Divide the noodles into your serving bowls. Divide the bean sprouts as well.

(8) Taste the broth. Too bland? Add some fish sauce and/or more chili. Too creamy? Add more stock/water. Not creamy enough? More coconut milk. Once you get it how you like it, let it simmer a bit more. Then spoon it over the waiting bowls of noodles.

(9) Garnish each bowl with a heaping pile of the shredded laksa leaves. Enjoy!

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Make Me: Cold Sesame Noodles

It seems I’m a bit obsessed with cold noodles these days. When it’s this hot outside, the last thing I feel like doing is cooking and spending a lot of time in the kitchen. The Chinese noodle dish liang mian/ma jiang mian, cold sesame sauce noodles, is perfect for preparing during the summer since it requires minimal cooking and is best served chilled or at room temperature. You just boil some noodles, slosh on some sauce and the whole thing comes together in about 20 minutes. It’s also really, really delicious. Jonathan, my wonderful test-tasting boyfriend, is a big fan.

One bite of this dish and I’m instantly transported back to Taiwan. While you can get fresh ma jiang mian at many road side noodle stands there, my memories are actually of the 7/11 version. In Taiwan, and in many Asian countries, 7/11s are everywhere, dotting nearly every other street corner (it’s actually a Japanese company dontchaknow). They are literally convenience stores – not only can you find all sorts of goods there, from potato chips to stationery to face wash, and a baffling variety of beverage options including alcohol, but you can even pay your bills and parking tickets there. Quite unlike the Canadian stores, however, where the meal offerings are limited to taquitos and some questionable looking hot dogs, Asian 7/11s sell an astounding assortment of fresh and actually tasty food – sandwiches, rice balls, curries, burgers, fried chicken, noodles. It’s quite a common option for hungry foreigners who aren’t up for tackling language barriers at a local restaurant. It seems like almost everyone eats there though as it’s quick, cheap and tasty. My friends and I used to eat their liang mian once in awhile and I remember it being pretty good.

Liang mian is also an extremely popular dish in the Sichuan region of mainland China, quite similar to the liang pi that I wrote about in a previous post, except that it uses wheat noodles rather than those jelly-like noodle skins. The dish also reminds me of my undergrad days in Montreal and the $2 chow mein slathered in peanut sauce that we used to get on St. Laurent on our late night walks home. For the record, I never really liked those noodles as the sauce was just straight up melted peanut butter, but who can argue with $2 at 3 am. Anyways, the recipe I made at home (below) is much tastier and probably costs less than $2 a serving.

There are about a million variations of liang mian. All of them typically include noodles – wheat, egg or buckwheat – tossed in a base sauce of sesame paste, vinegar, sugar and soy sauce, the measurements of which depend on the recipe and the cook’s taste preferences. The Sichuanese version also usually includes peanut butter, chili oil and crushed sichuan peppercorns in the sauce while the Taiwanese version does not. Some of the recipes call for minced garlic or ginger to be added. There is also great variety among toppings and garnishes, which may include shreds of cucumber, carrot, chicken and/or omelet, chopped scallions and toasted sesame seeds. Despite my memories of the 7/11 version of these noodles, I tend to prefer them spicy and so opted for a Sichuan style recipe from my favourite food blog, Rasamalaysia. I’ve made a ton of different recipes from this site, even non-noodles ones, and they’ve all been good. The recipe reproduced below is nearly the same as the one from Rasamalaysia, with some very minor variations.

A few quick tips about the recipe:

The base of the sauce is an Asian sesame paste (there are both Japanese and Chinese brands), which can be a bit tricky to find. I’ve bought it at T&T as well as the P.A.T. on Bloor and you can probably find it in most Asian grocery stores. If you’re unable or unwilling to find it though, some people, including Rasamalaysia, have suggested substituting it with the more common tahini – a Middle Eastern sesame paste – mixed with a bit of sesame oil. While tahini is made with hulled sesame seeds, the Asian paste uses the whole seed, lending it a more robust sesame flavour. I haven’t tried the tahini substitution myself and purists would probably turn their nose, but I’m sure it still tastes good.

Japanese sesame paste. There’s no English on the jar but there was an English label at the grocery store to help me identify it.

The sauce of liang mian plays on a balance of salty, sweet, sour and spicy. Precise measurements are not super important as it depends on your taste buds. You can make it as per the recipe below, and then play around with the ingredients a bit until you reach a flavour balance that suits you. I favour salty and am averse to overly sweet so I modified the original recipe a bit by using unsweetened peanut butter. I used seasoned rice vinegar because that’s what I had at home, but found it a bit too sweet rather than a punchy sour/acid and will probably try black vinegar next time. The recipe also calls for sweet soy sauce, which I happened to have, but you can use regular soy sauce and add a couple pinches of sugar to taste.

I used buckwheat (soba) noodles and think their flavour and texture goes really well with the sauce, but wheat or egg noodles would work well too. Whichever you choose, make sure to not over-cook them as the springy noodle texture is an important component of this, and almost every, noodle dish.

So here’s the recipe. Let me know if you make them at home and how it turns out.

Recipe for Cold Sesame Noodles

Ingredients

8 oz. buckwheat (soba) noodles (or fresh egg or wheat noodles)

2 small cucumbers

1 small carrot

Chopped scallions

Toasted sesame seeds

Sesame Sauce

2 1/2 tablespoons sesame paste (or 2 tablespoons tahini + 1 tablespoon sesame oil)

1 tablespoon unsweetened peanut butter

1 1/2 tablespoons sweet soy sauce (or regular soy sauce + a couple pinches of sugar, but just soy sauce will taste fine too)

2 teaspoons vinegar (rice, black or balsamic)

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon chili oil (or more or less )

salt and sugar to taste

Method

  1. Boil the noodles in salted water according to the package instructions. Drain and rinse in cold running water. Shake out all the excess water and set aside.
  2. Slice the cucumbers lengthwise, into two halves. De-seed each half using a small spoon. Slice cucumber into long, thin strands. Cut the strands into approx. 2 inch lengths.
  3. Peel the carrot (I actually used baby carrots which don’t require peeling and are easy to slice up). Slice into long, thin strands. Cut the strands into approx. 2 inch lengths.
  4. Mix all the sesame sauce ingredients together in a bowl. Taste and adjust according to your preference.
  5. In a large mixing bowl, spoon generous amounts of the sauce onto the noodles. Add the cucumber, carrot and scallions and mix it all together. Refrigerate for about 15 minutes (or if you can’t wait, just serve at room temperature).
  6. Portion the noodles into individual bowls. Garnish with some more cucumber, carrot and scallions (and some more sauce if you want). Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Eat!