Time always for Laksa

Penang Laksa © Adrian Cheah

Penang Assam Laksa is amongst the best known and loved of hawker fare in Penang. A bowl of steamed spaghetti-sized rice vermicelli is first generously garnished with finely sliced vegetables including onions, cucumber, red chillis, pineapple, lettuce, mint and pink bunga kantan (ginger buds).

Penang Laksa © Adrian Cheah

Onto the mixture is poured a steaming hot curry soup that is sour and thick with fish meat. A spoonful of fish paste is provided for those who favour the addition. While for decades, Penangites and visitors only knew this variety, a lemak (coconut milk) version was subsequently introduced as an alternative.

Penang laksa © Adrian Cheah

Apart from breakfast, laksa time is almost every time for some Penangites – lunch, tea, dinner or supper. And whilst this ubiquitous meal is available at most of the hawker complexes or coffee shops in the city centre of George Town and in the suburbs, the discerning enthusiast would prefer to go to one of three places.

If you are in the city, the stall at Lorong Selamat off Macalister Road is a premium choice. It sells laksa at tea time and both the sour and lemak varieties are available.

The sour variety is piquant yet "sharp" while the lemak alternative is rich yet not too heavy on the stomach. A generous spray of chilli powder and/or a spoonful of cut chillies is available upon request for those who enjoy the hot challenge.

For years, the market- place in Ayer Itam, next door to the famed Kek Lok Si Temple, has been the place locals congregate to enjoy their laksa. The quality has been consistently the same through the years, the inevitable hot surroundings adding perhaps to the challenge of the flaming hot laksa.

True to an old tradition, only the sour variety, perhaps enhanced by many slices of tamarind. Visitors and tourists are sometimes known to have slurped up this laksa with relish, go for an extended walk at the Temple grounds, then return for a second round.

Penang laksa © Adrian Cheah

No visitor who "knows" his laksa would miss that in Balik Pulau for the world. The corner coffee shop opposite the T-junction leading into the main and only street of Balik Pulau houses the most popular laksa stall in the village. Both varieties match in quality. The sour variety has maintained its sharp yet exciting flavour and aroma over the years and the fish content is thick yet smooth.

If the lemak variety is not so popular, it could be because the patrons, especially those from the village, have been too used to the original sour recipe which is so much a trademark of Balik Pulau laksa as it is known over the years and as it was known decades back. If you are in a quandary about what to choose, either take one of each or simply have a half and half.

While consistency is the hallmark of excellent food, the introduction of extra frills may only serve to heighten the spicy sensation on the taste buds. Hence, the spray of chilli powder and the spoonful of cut chillies are recent arrivals but they may well be the subtle and ultimate oomph for some.

As garnishing goes, the pickled white onions and gherkins have yet to make a permanent mark – most likely because they are rather expensive – but who knows what tomorrow's food gourmet might relish and demand?

2019: Penang Asam Laksa Ranked 7th in CNN's World's 50 best foods.

Written by Josephine Choo
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated 18 August 2020