Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Satun Revisited: Good (6) Gravy! It's Laksa

On my first visit to Satun back in May 2011, I visited a small restaurant called Mak Bee Laksa. Actually this is just a translation, her sign was fully written in Thai. Family owned, the shop sells laksa and a number of dessert such as bubur kacang. Unfortunately, the dessert items are usually finished by the time we get there, so we had the laksa for dinner.

Being a newcomer in Satun at the time, I was quite careless, I forgot to look around before ordering. The menu doesn't really work as it is also written in Thai. The owners do speak Malay but their children and young assistants don't. I had a plate of laksa, which is more or less tasted like Laksa Lemak or Laksa Siam we have at home. It was only on my way out, to my dismay, I found out that I could've chosen any of the 6 gravy available.

What is laksa? Laksa is a spicy noodle soup, believed to be a merge between Malay and Peranakan food culture. It can be found, in variations in Malaysia, Singapore, Southern Thailand and certain parts of Indonesia. There are dishes similar to laksa, such as:

* Mohinga, a Burmese fish noodle soup
* Ohn no khao swè, Burmese version of coconut chicken noodle soup
* Khao soi, a northern Thai noodle dish
* Khow suey, a noodle dish originally from the Shan state in Burma

In Malaysia alone, several versions can be found. Up north, the popular laksa dish would be the Assam Laksa, which itself has several versions:

1) Laksa Kedah - the most popular will be Laksa Telok Kechai. Laksa Kedah uses noodles made from rice, usually made fresh and wrapped in banana leaf. The soup is usually made of mackerel or some other sea fish such as tuna, garnished with boiled eggs and herbs.

2) Laksa Pulau Pinang or Penang Laksa - uses a different type of noodle, usually dried where it is rehydrated before serving. The noodle is a bit more robust in texture and taste. The soup is also made from fish with some versions adding pineapple to add the sweet and sour taste. The taste of the soup is more extended with the addition of galangal and lemongrass. The garnishing is a bit more elaborate with mint, torch ginger, onion and pineapple slices. This dish is usually served with prawn paste or otak udang.

3) Laksa Kuala Perlis - a crowd favorite, especially by those who travel to Langkawi via Kuala Perlis. Similar to Kedah and Penang Laksa, but differs in taste and garnishing where it uses catfish or eel.

4) Laksa Ipoh

5) Laksa Kuala Kangsar

(Note - my apologies, I have not tasted Laksa Ipoh and Kuala Kangsar, so I feel that it will be unfair if I comment on them)

The other variations that can be found in Malaysia are:

1) Laksa Johor - the noodle is similar to Penang Laksa, but the gravy has coconut milk, use kerisik, dried prawns, lemon grass, galangal and spices akin to curry.

2) Laksa Sarawak - I have not tried this but I was told by a friend that this laksa's gravy uses sambal belacan as its base.

3) Laksa Kelantan - the gravy is made from minced fish such as mackerel, fried with onions, garlic, ginger, datil pepper, belacan, 'kantan' flower, Vietnamese coriander or 'daun kesum', lemon grass and dried tamarind slice and coconut is also added. A condiment of ulam is served along with the laksa, making this dish quite close to the laksa I had in Satun.

4) Laksam - also from Kelantan, uses the same gravy as Laksa Kelantan but the noodles are broad and flat. (If I got this part wrong, please inform me)

I must admit that I am not a fan of Asam Laksa. I have always been more of a rich sauced laksa such as Johor Laksa, Laksam and Laksa Kelantan. Maybe that's the reason for being less-than enthusiastic when my mother told me that we were going to have laksa on the previous trip to Satun.

On this second trip, I laid my plans out properly, actually trying to pull a "Thomas Experience" for laksa at Mak Bee's. To my astonishment, the guy manning the shop (related to Mak Bee and speaks Malay too) actually suggested that he serve me a plate of laksa with 6 small bowls of the different gravy, or soup. I also made a bold decision not to ask whether the gravy are hot or not.

With reference to the soup or gravy in the picture above, let me list the types:

1) Not sure what it's made of, but the taste of cili padi and herbs are there. Mind you, this gravy is lava hot. Luckily I tried it last

2) This gravy is also very hot, with bamboo shoots and fish. I didn't get the chance to ask the type of fish.

3) This gravy is pleasantly spiced and taste more like the satay sauce. It is made of peanuts with coconut milk but not as thick as the satay sauce.

4) This gravy is mildly hot, made of fish with coconut milk. The taste is very similar to the gravy for Laksa Kelantan although it is smoother.

5) Believe it or not, this is green curry, one of Thailand's staple dish. Although there were no bits and pieces of meat, I recognize the chicken flavor. The gravy is quite hot.

6) Anybody who loves the northern laksa will recognize this instantly. It is the assam gravy. Although it is similar to the northern asam gravy, the taste of fish is not that strong and it is a bit more sour. The gravy is also a bit hot.

If anybody complaints that the laksa is not that hot, don't worry; there's always a bowl of cili padi available.

It is understandable why the people there choose to have the laksa for either lunch or dinner. A plate of laksa may not look much, but it is also served with a tray full of ulam and greens, such as eggplant, mint, terung belanda (tamarillo?), cabbage and others. Just like northern laksa where prawn paste is a condiment, my laksa dish was also accompanied by bean sprouts, cucumber, and some pickled vegetables. I swear that after a plate of laksa, each spoonful dipped into different gravy, with the fresh herbs and vegetable and condiments, I felt as if I had just finished hitting the buffet line. Gravy number 1 & 2, I think, scorched my tongue so much that tears were streaming down my eyes.

In Satun, my usual complaint is that the drinks I order, either Iced Coffee or Tea, is that they always make it very sweet. However, with the explosive gravy number 1 & 2, I just couldn't get enough of it.

There are times when I used to wonder how it would be when a simple dish is expanded in many ways. I guess the laksa I had in Satun was an extreme answer to that. I know now which gravy that I like should I return to the shop. I know I will not be choosing gravy numbers 1 & 2, but which should I choose between 3 - 6? I might have to pull another "Thomas Experience" then...

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