Introducing a semi-regular feature in which I describe a Singaporean dish I’ve eaten recently.
What it is: A rice noodle dish made with a variety of spices (including chilli, galangal, garlic, and belachan – shrimp paste), shallots, dried shrimp, seafood stock and coconut milk. Toppings may include cockles, shrimp, chicken, fishcake, and beansprouts. (While most of the laksa I’ve seen follows this model, it is also called curry laksa, to differentiate it from asam laksa – a fish-based soup made with tamarind.)
The dish comes from Peranakan (also called Nonya/Nyonya or Straits Chinese) cuisine, which has a mixture of Chinese and Malay influences. Centuries ago, Chinese traders arrived in Malacca and later in Penang and Singapore. As there were no Chinese women to be found, the men married Malay women and a type of “fusion cusine” was born, back before such things were popular. This style of cooking is also affectionately known as Nonya cooking after the term for Peranakan women; the equivalent term for men is Baba.
While the dish is widely recognized as Peranakan, no one seems to know where the term “laksa” originated. The most popular theory seems to be that it comes from the Chinese “la sha,” meaning spicy sand, as it is made with a number of spices and the ground dried shrimp gives the soup a sandy texture.
Laksa is generally viewed by Singaporeans as one of their national dishes and is promoted as such by the Singapore Tourism Board and its annual Food Festival. However, in September the Malaysian Minister of Tourism “claimed” laksa (along with chili crab and chicken rice – other “Singaporean” foods) as Malaysian dishes and declared she would later unveil a strategy to label them as such. I’m looking forward to watching what happens during this food fight!
Where I had it: Roxy Laksa, Stall 48 at East Coast Lagoon Food Village (1220 East Coast Park Service Rd)
What I thought: Overall, delicious. I can see why the Malaysians want to claim it for themselves. The sweet richness of the coconut milk was nicely balanced by the seafood stock so that one didn’t overpower the other. However, I ordered it with cockles since I like to try dishes the way the locals eat them. (Ironically, I later realized that using cockles is not the “traditional” Peranakan way.) The cockles added a little too much sea to my food. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed it and look forward to more laksa – next time without the cockles.