theboywhoatetheworld cooks: Penang Assam Laksa

Laksa is undoubtedly one of the most popular dishes in Malaysian cuisine. You will find many different versions across the country, each with their own intricacies. The ‘Assam’ version here hails from my mother’s home town of Penang in the North of the country. Penang Laksas tend to be more spicy and sour than other Laksa varieties found in the south of Malaysia which have a milder and creamier flavour. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do a series of live cooking demos of this Nyonya favourite at the BBC Good Food Show in the NEC Birmingham this year on behalf of the lovely folks at Malaysia Kitchen UK. Thanks so much to everybody who dropped by the stand yesterday to show their support!

The secret to all great Laksas is in the spice paste which forms the core of the fish-based broth. An authentic Laksa spice paste contains anywhere between 10 -15 different spices and components. Get the balance right in the initial spice paste and all there’s left to do is to add Fish Stock and Laksa leaves to yield that perfect broth. Here’s my take on this street food favourite and Nyonya classic.


Penang Assam Laksa (Photography by Hugh Johnson)

Ingredients (serves 2 – 3 people)

  • 200g Thick Rice Vermicelli noodles (dried)
  • 1 Mackerel (300g) – filleted  (or alternatively 200g of Boneless Tinned Mackerel Fillets)
  • 200g Raw King Prawns (Shelled, reserve prawn heads and shells for stock)
  • 750ml Shellfish Stock (or alternatively 1 Anchovy / Fish Stock Cube + 750ml water)
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Spice Paste:

  • 3 fresh chillies
  • 3 dried chillies
  • 4 shallots
  • 1 stalks lemongrass
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 tbsp palm sugar
  • 1/2 tbsp fermented shrimp paste (‘belacan’)
  • 2.5cm length galangal
  • 1.5cm turmeric
  • 1.5 tablespoon tamarind paste
  • 4 Candlenuts


  • 3 Stalks Laksa Leaves (also known as Hot Mint or ‘Praew‘ leaves)
  • 1 tablespoons of Prawn Paste (“Heh Koh” or “Petis Udang) – dilute in 1 tablespoon of hot water
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons Brown Sugar (to taste)
  • 1 – 2 tablespoons Light Soy (to taste)
  • 1/2 – 1 tablespoon Dark Soy (to taste)
  • Pinch of Salt (to taste)


  • 30g Mint – finely shredded
  • 3 stalks worth of Laksa leaves – shredded (discard stalks)
  • 1/2 ripened Pineapple – julienned
  • 1/2 cucumber – deseeded and julienned


  1. Set the shellfish stock to cook: Heat up 1 tablespoon of oil in a large saucepan. Lightly brown the  prawn head / shell trimmings in the oil. Cover with water, add a pinch of salt, then bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook out the fish stock for 20 minutes until infused. When ready, pass the stock through a sieve and set aside.
  1. Cook / Soak the dried Vermicelli noodles in hot water per the packet instructions until soft and edible. Refresh in Cold Water and set aside.
  1. Prepare the vegetable garnish: Julienne the cucumber and pineapple. Finely shread the lettuce, mint and Laksa leaves. Chill in the fridge until needed.
  1. Prepare and cook-out the spice paste: Process all the spice paste ingredients in a small food processor to form a paste. Saute the spice paste in 2 tablespoons of oil for 8 – 10 minutes until fragrant. Next, add the fish stock, Laksa leaves & 1 tablespoon Prawn Paste and bring to a simmer for 10 – 15 minutes. Remove and discard the Laksa leaves when they have wilted and infused the broth.
  1. Poach the fish and shell-fish: Add the Prawns and Mackerel fillet to poach in the simmering broth for 4 – 5 minutes. When the mackerel has cooked, flake the fish meat and mix through – this will give the broth a meaty texture.
  1. Construct the Laksa: In a large soup bowl, add a bed of cooked vermicelli noodles. Ladel over a few measures of the hot Laksa broth (including the prawns and mackerel. Next, top as desired with the vegetable garnish elements (pineapple, cucumber, lettuce, mint and laksa leaves).  Serve immediately with a side bowl of the prawn paste for people to help themselves to (generally one teaspoon of prawn paste is all I put as it’s quite strong stuff!)



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