Friday, February 06, 2009

FOOD It’s not curry laksa!

JANET TAY waxes lyrical on food, not books, this time round. She embarks on a quest for the perfect bowl of Sarawak laksa in Kuala Lumpur

WHEN I MOVED to Kuala Lumpur some eight years ago, it didn’t take me long to adjust to the bustling city life. I’ve always loved cities and despite the traffic and maniacal road users, I never thought about leaving the haze-filled capital for cleaner water, quieter streets and lower crime rates in some imagined suburbia which PJ certainly isn’t. What I missed most, being Sarawakian, was the laksa that we take for granted in our local kopitiams (coffee shops). Kopitiams in Kuching, thankfully, still dominate the cityscape; there are probably still as many of them around as there are Starbucks and Coffee Beans in KL. I have nothing against RM15 coffees apart from the fact that I edge closer to destituteness each time I buy them, and certainly as consumers we must understand that we are paying not just for those exquisite beans but also the recreation of the ambience of our middle-class homes.

Kopitiams, on the other hand, don’t care about your comfort. One thing they do care about is serving enough bowls of noodles to make as much money as possible. And why not, considering consumers these days eat whatever rubbish that is served to them as long as it’s convenient and fast. This little fact is undoubtedly more relevant in KL than Kuching, simply because in smaller towns or cities, there’s more time to enjoy your food. The traffic in KL is so bad that our social, political and economic decisions revolve around the subject. Where to eat, where to go, who to vote for, whether to stay home or make a bomb hoax call to clear the streets. So in KL, time is a priority. At the end of the day, it’s just food, right? I tell myself that every time I complain about food in KL. Too bland, too salty, too hot, too soulless. Food in shopping malls are especially devoid of soul. Unsurprising, since it’s all mass-produced in a sterile, simulated environment, designed to deceive or sedate. Clearly, you don’t expect to eat Mama’s cooking in a food court. But during these times, when I’m having what I like to call a poor substitute for Sarawak laksa in a pristine food court in a KL mall—a bowl of curry laksa with vermicelli—I reminisce wistfully about a simple bowl of Sarawak laksa that no matter how hard stall and restaurant owners in KL try to recreate, still fail miserably to do so.

Having experienced one disappointment after another in my search for decent, authentic Sarawak laksa in KL, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’ve all been adulterated to suit the tastes of West Malaysians, or at least people who live in KL. Often I’ve heard complaints from West Malaysian friends who’ve had the real deal say it’s too “bland,” or “not spicy enough” or the ultimate blasphemy: “It tastes like curry laksa.”

However, even in Kuching there are varying qualities of laksa. When I’m in KL though, I’m desperate enough to wolf down anything that tastes remotely like authentic Sarawak laksa. But back on home turf, I’m more discerning, fussier. “The vermicelli’s too thick”; “the soup’s too bland”; “the prawns aren’t fresh enough”; “the servings are too small”—one becomes a connoisseur, spoilt for choice, and there’re many shops to vie for the title of the best, most authentic laksa in town. There are nevertheless many different opinions on where you can get the best laksa in Kuching but the choices only differ within a small group of the regular haunts. One of my favourites is an old kopitiam on Carpenter Street—very quaint, very old world, and it’s one of those places that have been around for a long long time. At first one might be fooled by the blandness of the broth, until one is alerted to the fact that the sambal has to be mixed into the broth to adjust its level of spiciness and taste. I’ve been told that the gentleman who cooks the laksa is very secretive about the ingredients of the homemade laksa paste he uses, but who wouldn’t be, if it results in a splendid specimen of the enigmatic dish?

It’s difficult to put in words the rich yet subtle taste of Sarawak laksa. It isn’t curry, it isn’t assam; I would love to be able to say that it’s a combination of both but it isn’t that either. I read the ingredients on the back of a laksa paste packet and but that doesn’t really tell me what the broth is supposed to taste like apart from the obvious, general adjective: “spicy.” The broth is a greyish tint edged with what looks like red streaks of chilli sambal and usually chicken or prawn broth is used, or both. It’s spicy as you want it to be by adding the sambal that’s usually served with it. Now these, and only these, are the ingredients that appear in a bowl of Sarawak laksa: vermicelli, bean sprouts, shredded chicken, de-shelled prawns and shredded omelette. And a decorative coriander leaf. Served with a side of calamansi lime and sambal. That’s it. No fishballs. No taupok. No cucumber, cut chilli, or anything else that you West Malaysians are thinking of throwing into the mix. These ingredients, however, are merely ancillary to the secret of good laksa. The ultimate in a good laksa, no matter what kind, lies in its broth. Once you’ve got the soup right, it’s easy to improve or improvise on the other ingredients.

Meanwhile, my search for the elusive authentic Sarawak laksa in KL continues. Until my next trip home, there will only be stalling moments of pushing around incongruous fishballs and taupok floating in a curry broth while imagining the breakfasts of home, family and childhood indulgences.

JANET TAY is a litigation lawyer by training, but decided to leave the legal profession to pursue her first love—books and writing. She is now a book editor at MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. She is also working towards a Master’s degree in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. She is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009).

Reproduced from the January 2009 issue of magazine


Blogger Buddhaphish said...

Cool - I didn't know Janet Tay's a Kuchingnite...

Janet - I'm sure you know of the laksa at Lucky Garden which isn't the greatest, I know!! However I was there during CNY, and the owner? was away and so there was a Burmese helper who I swear, made the best laksa I've had in KL so far. It was like the real thing! I was excited because I had thought she had improved her laksa skills but alas, when she came back, it was the same bland muddy laksa. Why oh why can't people in KL do Kuching laksa right????

Thursday, February 05, 2009 9:53:00 PM  

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