Wednesday, January 26

Laksa Lemak

I left the country in 2003 because the ambassador of the British High Commission in Singapore gave me an offer I couldn't resist.  I was offered a post (chef) in charge of diplomatic receptions and functions for the embassy, along with a newly-built swanky new home in Nassim Road, and the opportunity of cooking for dignitaries (i.e. Lee Kuan Yew) and The Queen Mother (for her birthday) to name a few.  I enjoyed working there having the luxury of cooking anything that I thought might fancy the ambassador and his official guests.  One of the dishes I dearly loved while living in Singapore was Laksa.  

Fast forward to 2006 when I was expatriated to Malaysia by an FMCG company, and I was once more, reunited with the creamy goodness of coconut flavors infused with curries and chillies. Laksa Lemak was how the Malays called it for there are several versions.  What distinguishes it as a lemak is the use of coconut cream and seafood.  Remembering all the hawker stalls visited with my two good friends and mentors with all things corporate (politics considered), Najam (a Pakistani) and Benny (+) (a local) -- I dedicate this post for the weekday lunches we shared over good makan and company!  

So here's my "you'll-only-spend-less-than-twenty-minutes-in-the-kitchen" spiel:

Place your noodle of choice in boiling water.  I like to use vermicelli to keep things light as I find coconut cream very filling.
Once the vermicelli is cooked, set it aside.
Make some laksa paste.  

I learned this paste from one of my dear colleagues named Chan Kok Kin - one of the best and humble formulation chefs I've ever met.  Chef Chan says to just combine your own mixture of:  chillies, lemongrass, galangal or ginger, candlenuts or peanuts, shallots, garlic, sambal belachan (known as shrimp paste but our local version isn't quite the same, flavor-wise), coriander, and dried shrimp in a mortar and pestle.  If you want to use a food processor, you can add a drizzle or two of oil to get it going.  I like to make this in big batches and keep it in the fridge, packed individually by cooking portions and dated (because I practice First in, First out at home) -- you never know when you have last-minute guests to feed!

If you're lazy, there are several ready-made laksa pastes available locally.  There's no shame in using ready-made when you don't have the luxury of time.  But the logic changes when you do have the time, for in my opinion, it's always fun to learn something new in the kitchen and freshly-made really tastes better.  
Drizzle your pan with vegetable oil.
Add a quarter of a cup of laksa paste, or as desired.  Stir for a good minute or so under gentle heat.  

Notice that I'm using a le creuset pan?  If you are going to use one too, please remember that you can only use it up to a maximum of gas mark 5 (medium heat) or you'll end up destroying the pan.
Add some coconut cream.  Stir then bring to a boil along with some chicken or seafood stock (woops, forgot to take a photo!).  Once it boils, quickly lower the heat to a gentle simmer so that it doesn't curdle (oil will separate too).
Season with salt and pepper.
Then add your seafood of choice.  I was a bit lazy so I used some Kani sticks (the beauty of this particular ingredient is that it can be easily thawed).  You can use any fish or seafood you like.  I highly recommend prawns, cod, squid, squid/prawn balls, or a combination.  Allow your seafood a few minutes to cook in a gentle simmer.  If your seafood tastes a bit funky/fishy, add some freshly-squeezed lime.
Add your cooked vermicelli or rice noodles.
Add bean sprouts.
Add fresh herbs.  I used basil because of the sudden abundance in our garden.
Place in a soup bowl and serve hot!
Makan! Makan!
Terimah Kasih Singapore and Malaysia for teaching me how to like spicy food!