On the hottest days of March and April, when I’m brought low by Penang’s hot, humid weather, you might think a bowl of hot soup would be the last thing I’d want. But a round of assam laksa is an excellent remedy for sluggishness—and many other things. And like most Penangites, I always have room for this beloved local dish, a blend of thick, round rice noodles, tender fish, and spices drowning in a fiery-red, sweet, sour, and salty broth.
Of course, other parts of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and southern Thailand have their own versions of laksa, the broth heavier on the coconut milk or turmeric, but in Penang, assam laksa is king. (‘Assam’ is the Malay word for tamarind, which is what gives the broth the sour and tangy edge.) The foundations of assam laksa are chili, galangal (lengkuas in Malay, a ginger-like root spice), lemongrass, fresh turmeric, shallots, garlic, torch ginger flower (bunga kantan) and fermented shrimp paste (belacan). These spices are simmered for at least an hour before adding deboned mackerel, which is poached until it softens into a thick mush. Each bowl is prepared immediately before serving: first into the bowl go the thick, round, rice noodles, then diced cucumber, onion slices, mint leaves, more pink ginger flowers, pineapple slivers, and finally, a generous ladleful of the steaming broth.
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As a food writer, I know that taste is subjective, but I believe there is such a thing as a perfect assam laksa. The noodles should be silky, smooth, soft, and slightly chewy. The broth should be thick, fortified by the melted-down mackerel and flavored with a blend of tamarind and sweet shrimp paste. Add a hint of spiciness, a bit of acidity, and a mint-turmeric kick to finish. Sometimes, I’ll pair mine with a popiah, a crunchy vegetable spring roll, to dip into the broth. Wash it all down with a glass of fresh white nutmeg juice with sour plum, and you might just have the perfect meal.
Laksa is all over Penang, at roadside stalls, hawker centers, and food courts, but many Penangites swear that the best stuff comes from the small town of Balik Pulau, a 40-minute drive over the hills from George Town. In Balik Pulau, the fish is hauled in daily from the Straits of Malacca, and the herbs and spices—the torch ginger, lemongrass, and laksa leaf—are grown on the hillsides. In Balik Pulau, the laksa comes directly from sea and mountain to the bowl.
Kim Laksa is an unassuming stall inside Kim Seng Coffeeshop in Bandar Baru Air Putih, a small village outside Balik Pulau Town, and it stands out even among the area’s outstanding laksa joints. Laksa enthusiasts from all over Penang and the rest of Malaysia frequently make the trip over the mountains for their laksa. Despite its slightly out-of-the-way location, it always draws a big lunchtime crowd.
My first bowl at Kim Laksa was nearly 20 years ago. I had been having a bad day; I was a newbie reporter in my 20s, on one of my first assignments for a local Chinese newspaper. They sent me to Balik Pulau with a photographer to interview a visiting Hong Kong-based singer, who happened to be touring durian orchards in the hills. The weather was sweltering, and back then—before the new roads had been built—traveling to Balik Pulau was a long trip, especially on a motorbike. As the photographer powered the bike up the steep hillsides, I tried to calm my nerves about the impending interview.
It did not go well. The singer evaded my questions, and at times, she even mocked me. Mortified, I worried about what my boss would think when I got back to the office. It was late afternoon by the time we nosed the motorbike back down the narrow cement track from the hills. Hungry and frustrated, we decided to stop in Bandar Baru Air Putih and at least try the famous laksa.
I’ll never forget that first spoonful. The broth was a perfectly balanced medley of sweet, sour, and spicy heat. The fish flakes had melted evenly into the broth, lending each mouthful the perfect consistency. The laksa, warming my insides, had a calming effect, taking the sting out of my interview misadventure.
Now, I always make sure I stop at Kim Laksa when I’m in Balik Pulau. After all these years, it tastes just as good as that first time. Plus, their portions are generous.