I hadn’t ever tasted assam laksa until I visited Penang in May 2017. I was travelling with a group and the numbers were polarised by this dish, with half of us loving it and the other half really not. It is a dish that divides: spicy, tangy and very fishy, it rushes up and smacks your tastebuds with a thick rubber band.
In Penang, it’s very popular and available everywhere – here in New Zealand, not so. Most Malaysian eateries don’t put it on the menu because there’s not enough demand for it; unlike curry laksa which has firmly entered our culinary lexicon in the West by now, assam laksa (or Penang laksa as it’s often called, they love it so), is yet to have its time in the limelight, but here’s why it should, and I hope will:
-It’s tamarind-rich, and anything with tamarind is just brilliant: that tartness that’s a bit deeper and richer than the tartness from citrus, and so beautifully cuts through other rich flavours to balance a dish like this.
-The chilli heat in assam laksas I’ve tried so far has always been spot-on. I’m not a big chilli fiend but I like a warming, tingling effect that kind of rides through a dish rather than peeling a layer of your tongue off. Again, the chilli in an assam laksa is one of the balancing flavours and tempers the rich fishiness.
-Assam laksa heroes the small oily fish – mackerel, traditionally. And if we want to keep enjoying seafood, we need to get our palates used to the more abundant small oily fish. They’re also, of course, high in Omega-3s.
-It’s a deeply satisfying bowl of soup. All those rich flavours, and some carb-action from the lovely al dente thick round rice noodles. You’d never walk away hungry!
So, I urge you, if you happen to spot assam laksa on the menu, ask the waitstaff or kitchen-folk about it, and if they seem keen on it, so should you. If they like it enough to put it on their, they probably make a pretty decent go of it. In Auckland, I can recommend the version at Mamak in Takapuna – which owner Geoffrey Ng tells me is becoming a surprising hit with non-Malaysian customers.