A Warm Bowl from the Seas: Penang Laksa Origins

Penang, being an island surrounded by coastal waters, means that there is certainly an abundance of fresh fish and other seafood. Aquaculture in Penang has been spearheading the state’s economy — a powerful source of income and employment to its people. Making good use of one’s resources, the people of Penang figured to pour in the abundance of the seas and made a bowl of good soup.

So what is this soup that we’re yapping about? Let me introduce to you one of the best lovechild of intermarrying of cuisines: Laksa! So let’s talk about the love story of this dish: Way back then, in the times of maritime trading, it was only Chinese men that ventured across the seas abroad out of China to trade. When settling down in a new town, these oh-so-mighty Chinese traders and sailors had an important mission (aside from trading of course): to find local wives.

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Penang Asam Laksa Ayer Itam

Right, so this isn’t really a romantic love story but, hey, with their intermarriage, the women began incorporating local spices and coconut milk into Chinese noodle soups and fed it to their husbands. So basically and literally, Laksa was really born out of intermarriage and probably a little romance. Thus the creation of the hybrid Chinese-local (Malay-Javanese) turned Peranakan Culture/Cuisine. I really want to hand it out there for the local women for thinking outside the box and starting their own fusion cuisine (You go girls! You go do your thaaaaang!)

There are three types of Laksa:

Curry Laksa

A coconut-based curry soup. There are three main ingredients that you will usually find in this kind of laksa which are: bean curd puffs, fish sticks, shrimps and cockles. In Penang, this is usually called as Curry Mee rather that curry laksa because of the different kind of noodles used which is the yellow mee or bee hon rather than the usual rice laksa noodles. The one I tried in the Chulia Night Market wasn’t too bad!

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Penang Asam Laksa Ayer Itam

Asam Laksa

A sour fish and tamarind-based soup. Asam is the word for any ingredient that makes the dish sour in Malaysia. Main ingredients of the dish includes: shredded fish, finely sliced vegetables and daun kesum (laksa mint). Asam laksa is normally served with thick or thin rice laksa noodles and topped off with shrimp paste. It is actually one of Penang’s famous staple dishes and street food; with its sour broth from the tamarind base, it brings out the subtle flavor the fish and prawns which surprisingly is a good combination.

I have been to Malaysia a few times, twice in Penang, as of writing. On my first visit, I wasn’t able to go to Ayer Itam because it was a bit far from my hostel. After several attempts on both visits, I finally tried it!

SO. WORTH. ALL. THE. TROUBLE.

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Penang Hill

Actually, it wasn’t a trouble in the end because the place was a stone’s throw away from Penang Hill, which I didn’t know about until after the hike my local friends and I did. They asked where I wanted to eat and that was the first thing that came to mind.

It was a lot of trouble finding a seat, though. It’s so good the place was PACKED and you had to fight your way through (sort of) to find seats. I was lucky to ask a table of friendly locals who promised to give me their table once they were done.

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Penang Asam Laksa Ayer Itam

But it wasn’t easy. I had to go through mean people who didn’t want to even hear my question or they had reserved it for others already. It dampened my spirits – – not gonna lie. But I found us seats! After 30 mins or so maybe.

It wasn’t the laksa I expected because I had imagined a curry laksa somehow. It delivered, though. The tangy laksa hit just the spot. I loved it.

Location: Jalan Pasar, Paya Terubong, 11500 George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia

Sarawak Laksa

The mighty combination of curry and asam laksa with coconut milk and tamarind, fish, chicken and prawns. I tried some over in Imbi, Kuala Lumpur in Win Heng Seng — the same area I got those delicious, to-die-for Pork Noodles from.

I am pretty biased with Penang food, in all honesty. I love everything this city has. Depending on my mood, my taste in laksa changes so if you’re wondering which one is best or which one is my favorite, it’s everything. Such an annoying answer right? But being someone who is a big fan of sour dishes, I’d probably lean more into the Asam Laksa.

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