The first time i had Penang Assam Laksa, i was in love. It was in a crammed little Asian shop in Melbourne that had barely ten tables. Business there is incredibly good so there’s always a queue regardless of the time. It was rowdy with people talking on top of the noise, kids screaming to be heard and really warm for lack of air circulation but when i tasted my first spoonful of assam laksa, it was like everything just stood still, everyone fell silent . It was just me and my bowl of assam laksa- i was in heaven.
So when i flipped through a Nonya cookbook and saw a recipe for it, i knew what was gonna be on the menu for dinner the following day.
Sourcing ingredients for this dish was no easy feat. The supermarket didn’t have any bungan kantan or mint leaves this morning so i had to make my way to the wet market.
Wet markets in Singapore are made up of stalls selling fish, meat and vegetables, usually divided into sections. The stalls are usually neatly lined up along narrow walkways and crammed with produce. Most of the stall holders, being middle aged, speak Mandarin and Hokkien fluently and few can speak really good English. So there i was, trying to explain in my very limited Mandarin what bunga kantan was in vain. It wasn’t till i associated it with rojak (a local favourite that’s made up of bite sized deep fried bread dough along with cucumbers, turnips, pineapples and sometimes cuttlefish tossed in a thick, black peanut sauce) that they finally got what i was trying to say. Can i at this point just say how much i love the wet markets in Singapore- the stall holders are so warm and friendly! They not only taught me what the Mandarin names of bunga kantan and mint leaves were but also, when out of mint leaves, directed me to various stalls they taught were likely to have the mint leaves. I walked out of the wet market this morning, just blown away by how warm the stall holders were and the variety of vegetables and fruits they have.
Bunga kantan, more commonly known as torch ginger bud, is used in Nyonya dishes for its flavour. It’s incredibly pretty in a beautiful shade of pink and has a lovely frangrance similar to that of Vietnamese mint. It is this ingredient that gives Rojak and Assam Laksas their distinctive and oh so inviting aroma. Kunyit, otherwise known as turmeric, is part of the ginger family. When used as a spice in curries, the turmeric is usually ground into powder form after being boiled for many hours then dried in a hot oven.
The thing i really love about asian cooking is how involved it makes you feel. I know it doesn’t quite make sense as all cuisine require you to get down and dirty with the ingredients but there’s just something about asian cooking that feels different. Maybe it’s working with herbs and spices that are familiar to the tastebuds and senses, the pounding of the ingredients to form pastes, the mouth watering aroma that conjures special memories that go along with each dish as the curries simmer on the stove. There’s just something about it i can’t quite put my finger on.
As with most Nyonya dishes, most of the effort for this dish comes from preparing the various ingredients and pounding them to form pastes. This dish calls for two separate pastes; a strong aromatic paste involving belachan (shrimp paste) and kunyit, amongst other ingredients and a much lighter one consisting of just a couple of laksa leaves, assam (tamarind) and bunga kantan. The paste, and the preparation of the garnish, is really all there is to this dish. Once they’re all prepared and ready to go, the dish comes together fairly quickly.
The selar, more commonly known as horse mackerel, is boiled till cooked before being flaked. The fish stock is then added to the belachan paste. Following that goes the assam paste, the flaked fish and some water into the pot. You will know the gravy is ready when the incredible aroma fills your entire house.
Served with rice vermiceli and topped with the garnish, this dish was exactly how i remembered it to be- a mind boggling combination of sour, salty and sweet flavours. I especially love how unusual the combination of garnish; pineapples, chili, mint leaves, onions and cucumber; is but they complement the gravy so damned well. Assam laksa wouldn’t be assam laksa with any one of the garnish lacking.
It’s not exactly easy work i know but trust me, you’ll be rewarded tenfold for all that effort :)
Assam Laksa [adapted from Cecila Tan's Penang Nyonya Cooking]
800g horse mackerel or chubb mackerel, cleaned
600g fresh coarse rice vermicelli
7 dried chilies, soaked in warm water for 15 minutes*
2 fresh red chilies, sliced thinly*
5 cm piece of shrimp paste (belachan)
2 stalks of lemon grass, thinly sliced (serai)
Thumb-sized piece of fresh young turmeric (kunyit)
2 pieces of tamarind (assam keping)
1 torch ginger bud (bunga kantan)
5-6 stalks of laksa leaves (daun kesum)
5 rice bowls water
1 cucumber, sliced thinly into matchsticks
1 bundle of mint leaves (daun padina)
1 big red onions, cut into rings
2 fresh red chilies, sliced thinly
1 small pineapple, sliced thinly into matchsticks
Black prawn paste, dissolved in a litter water (heh koh)
- Rinse rice vermicelli under cold water before soaking in hot water for a few minutes. Drain and divide into 4 bowls.
- Pound shallots, lemon grass, turmeric, fresh and dried chilies and shrimp paste to form a paste and set aside. Pound tamarind, torch ginger bud and laksa leaves into a paste and set aside.
- Add enough water into a pot to cover fish and boil till cooked. Remove, reserving fish stock, and flake fish.
- Put 3 rice bowls of fish stock into a medium pot. Add another 2 rice bowls of water and turmeric paste. Boil till gravy is fragrant. Add the tamarind paste, flaked fish and season with salt and sugar to taste. Boil for another 10-15 minutes at low heat, adding more water if necessary.
- Divide gravy into prepared bowls. Top with pineapple, cucumber, chilies, mint leaves, onions and prawn paste. Serves 4
*remove seeds before pounding to reduce spiciness