The Laksa diaries: the hunt for the best bowl of Penang Laksa
For me, no trip back home to Malaysia is complete without a visit to the hawker food haven of Penang. This was my second time back on the island this year and the more I revisit, the more I’m seriously considering upping sticks some day and moving here. When I last blogged about Penang’s hawker food scene earlier this year, it occurred to me in hindsight that I had missed out what is arguably one of Penang’s greatest, most synonymous street food delights – Laksa. Hence, I made it a point this time to seek out the best bowl of Laksa which the island has to offer.
After polling various Penang-ite relatives to get the low down on their favourite joints followed by 2 full-on days of some serious Laksa love, here is my shortlist of 3 of the contenders.
1. Nan Guang, Balik Pulau | Pekan Balik Pulau, T-junction of Jln Tun Sardon & Jln Balik Pulau
Located smack on the main T-junction of Pekan Balik Pulau, the Laksa stall at Nan Guang manages to pull in a large lunchtime crowd of Laksa lovers despite its off the beaten track location approximately 30-40 minutes drive from central Georgetown. They do 2 types here – the classic, tamarind-based piquant Asam Laksa as well as a more creamy, coconut-milk based Siam Laksa (or ‘Lemak’ as it is locally called). What I love most about this place is their generosity. Perhaps there could be a wee bit more vegetables in each bowl, but there is absolutely no stinging when it comes to their precious gravy, fish meat and laksa noodles. Every bowl is literally brimful of goodness.
The Asam is the lighter of the 2 gravies. Unlike other Laksas where there’s often an overload of zingy tamarind and savoury prawn paste (‘Heh Koh’), the Asam gravy here is incredibly well-balanced… a bit more sweet than sour. There’s also a nice background heat from the chilli that isn’t over-bearing so you can easily lap up an entire bowl without feeling too flustered or thirsty by the end of it.
If you are a fan of coconut-based gravies and curries, the richer ‘Lemak’ variety will be right up your street. Creamy, sweet, sour and spicy all at the same time, it’s a wonderfully complex broth that will tickle every taste bud on your palate.
You can even take it one step further and specifically request for a ‘Cham’ (literally meaning a ‘mix’) of both their Asam and Siam varieties – my personal favourite as it combines the best of both worlds. And at RM 3 per bowl, it’s the best bang for buck amongst the more famous stalls on the island.
2. Pasar Air Itam Laksa | Ayer Itam Market (‘Pasar’), Jalan Pasar, Pekan Ayer Itam
Located on the roadside opposite the hustle bustle of Pasar Air Itam – the neighbourhood’s main wet market – this particular Laksa stall is most likely to edge the others in a popularity vote amongst Malaysians. The old master who runs the stall here dishes out bowl after bowl of his Asam Laksa at breakneck speed. Just witnessing his raw energy and lightning quick hands alone is enough to justify the 20 minute drive out from Georgetown to this thriving local market.
The sweet, sour and spicy soup is full-on and there’s a very generous flourish of fish meat, shredded lettuce, mint and cucumber in every mouthful. Whereas in other stalls where you usually have the option to add prawn paste to taste, the gravy here is slightly darker, owing to a large amount of prawn paste already pre-mixed in. If there was a taste scale for Asam Laksas, this would probably measure off the charts. But it’s for that very reason that it’s many Penangites’ favourite bowl of Laksa. If you like your Laksa bold, then this is the one for you.
3. Famous Penang Road Laksa @ Joo Hooi | 475 Jalan Penang (corner of Lebuh Keng Kwee)
Georgetown has plenty of just average Laksa stalls. But if you don’t have the time or means to make the trek out to Ayer Itam or Balik Pulau, then Penang Road is probably your next best option if you are based in central Georgetown. There are several purveyors of the self-branded ‘famous’ Penang Road Laksa in close proximity, all claiming to serve up the original age old recipe. However, the two busiest stalls which customers flock to are the one located in Joo Hooi cafe itself or the one setup outside an un-named coffee shop just 2 doors down on Keng Kwee street (it’s operated by the green apron clad folks from the even more famous Cendul stall). We sampled a bowl from the latter.
The laksa gravy is admittedly a little more watery compared to the Ayer Itam and Balik Pulau stalls and there’s noticeably less fish. But taste-wise, the well balanced flavours still beats plenty of the other pretenders in and around Georgetown. Quench the heat and thirst with a bowl of Penang’s finest Cendul – a local dessert made from coconut milk, dark palm sugar, red beans and the distinctive, worm-like green jellies made from rice flour.
…the unmistakable queue for Cendul outside Joo Hooi (left) | Cendul (right)
p.s. Don’t see your favourite Penang Laksa stall on this shortlist? In that case, I’d love to hear from you to hunt it down on my next trip!