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 4)

  • 400g dried rice vermicelli noodles (1.8mm thickness)
  • 2 mackerels (250g – 300g each) – filleted, fish bones reserved for stock
  • 500g raw king prawns – shells and heads removed and reserved for stock
  • Prawn trimmings & fish bones from above (alternatively use 1L store-bought fish stock)
  • 1 litre of water
  • 6 stalks Laksa leaves (a.k.a. ‘Daun Kesom’, Polygonum or ‘Phak Praew’ leaves)
  • 2 tbsp of prawn paste
  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil

Spice Paste:

  • 2 stalks lemongrass (40g) – roughly chopped
  • 6 candlenuts
  • 4cm length galangal (25g) – roughly chopped
  • 2cm turmeric (10g) – roughly chopped
  • 5 fresh red chillies (75g) – deseeded and sliced
  • 5 dried chillies (5g) – soaked, deseeded and sliced
  • 8 shallots (150g) – halved
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar (or brown sugar)
  • 1 tbsp belacan – toasted before use
  • 2.5 tablespoon tamarind paste


  • 1 – 2 tbsp fish sauce (to taste)
  • Large pinch of salt (to taste)
  • 1 – 2 tbsp palm (or brown) sugar (to taste)


  • 50g lettuce – finely sliced
  • 50g mint – finely sliced
  • ½ cucumber – deseeded and finely sliced
  • 1/2 ripened pineapple – finely sliced
  • 4 stalks worth of Laksa leaves – finely sliced (discard stalks)


  1. Set the fish stock to cook: In a large saucepan, lightly brown the fish bones and prawn trimmings in 1 tablespoon of oil. Cover with 1 litre of water and simmer for 20 minutes. When ready, pass the stock through a sieve and set aside. If you don’t have time to make own fish stock, use 1 litre of store bought stock (or a fish stock cube).
  1. Cook the noodles per the packet instructions. Refresh in cold water and set aside.
  1. Process all the spice paste ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Sauté the spice paste in 2 tablespoons of oil for 8 – 10 minutes until fragrant. Add the fish stock, prawn paste and laksa Bring to a simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the Laksa leaves when they have infused the broth. Season with fish sauce, salt and palm sugar to taste.
  1. Poach the prawns and mackerel fillets in the broth for 4–5 minutes. When the mackerel has cooked, flake the fish meat and mix through to give the broth a meaty texture.
  1. Construct the Laksa: In a large soup bowl, add a bed of cooked vermicelli noodles then top as desired with the vegetable garnish (pineapple, cucumber, lettuce, mint and Laksa leaves). Ladle over a few measures of the hot Laksa broth (including the prawns and mackerel) and serve immediately. It’s traditional to have an extra side bowl of prawn paste for people to help themselves to (go easy on it though, its strong stuff!)