six senses of malay cuisine

roti canai kuala lumpur malaysiaToday, the food of Malaysia is a centuries-old blend of foreign influences and a delicious combination of cuisines. Just like in countries such as India and China, the ideal balance of any savoury dish is six senses – sour, sweet, pungent, salty, acidic and hot!

A much-loved thing about travelling is getting to taste these mouthwatering local dishes and one of Malaysia’s most famous is laksa. It’s so prevalent that the smell of laksa almost permeates the whole country, and as Intrepid Express reader Sarah Evans reflects, learning to cook the dish when you get home can bring your luscious memories of Malaysia back in an instant…

“My Intrepid Malaysia trip was a fabulous blend of exotic experiences and while I loved every moment of our trishaw tour in Melaka, snorkelling in the Perhentian Islands and learning about the local culture from Aziz and Asiah, one of my lasting memories of my small group adventure is the delicious food.

Regional delicacies and enjoying local foods is an intrinsic part of the Malay culture, so it’s with much delight that I continue to relive my travel memories by cooking this delicious laksa at home. There are many laksa variations, but one of my favourites is laksa lemak. Some will argue that this ‘curry laksa’ is not ‘real’ laksa, but it’s still delicious and I was thrilled to be given this recipe by a restaurant owner in Kuala Lumpur.”

Laksa Lemak Recipe – serves 6-8

500 g (1 lb) raw shimps
500 g (1 lb) prepared fish cakes
185 g (6 oz) crab meat (optional)
1 tablespoon oil
10 cups water
375 g (12 oz) rice vermicelli
250 g (8 oz) fresh bean sprouts
1 cucumber
Salt to taste
Small bunch of laksa leaves (Vietnamese mint)
Sambal ulek or sambal bajak
Fresh limes (optional)

For the soup:
6 large dried red chillies
2 teaspoons dried shimp paste (belacan)
2 medium onions
2 teaspoons Laos powder
6 candlenuts
2 stems lemongrass
4 tablespoons peanut oil
1 teaspoon ground tumeric
1 tablespoons ground coriander
6 cups coconut milk

Method :
Wash the shrimps well, remove shells, heads and reserve for making stock.
De-vein the shrimps, slice the fish cakes and ensure the crabmeat is bone-free.
Keep the seafood refrigerated until required.
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a saucepan, add the well-drained shrimp shells and heads and fry, stirring, until they turn red.
Add the water and 2 teaspoons salt and simmer, covered, for about 1 hour or until reduced by a third. Strain stock, discard shells and heads.
Pour very hot water over the rice vermicelli in a bowl and leave to soak for 10 minutes. Drain.
Clean up the bean sprouts, wash well and drain in a colander.
Peel and seed the cucumber and cut into matchsticks strips.
Shred the laksa leaf finely.

To make the soup:
Break off stems of dry chilies and shake out the seeds. Soak the chilies and belacan in hot water for at least 10 minutes.
Put the chilies, shrimps, onions, laos powder, candlenuts and finely sliced lemon grass (use only the white part) into the container of an electric blender.
Add a little of the soaking water to facilitate blending, and grind to a puree.
Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a heavy saucepan and fry the ground mixture, stirring to prevent burning, until it is brown and smells fragrant.
Add the turmeric and coriander and stir fry for a minute longer.
Add the strained stock and simmer for about half and hour.
Before serving, add the coconut milk, taste and correct seasoning.
Add the sliced fish cakes and crabmeat and bring to simmering point.
Drain the rice vermicelli and add to the soup.
Heat a tablespoon of oil and stir fry the shrimps for just a couple of minutes, adding a little salt to taste.

Serve the laksa lemak in a large bowls, topping each bowl with bean sprouts, cucumber strips, a few shrimps and shreds of laksa leaf.
Serve chili sambal separately for intrepid chili eaters and halved limes or lemon for those who prefer a more piquant flavour.

Tour Malaysia with Intrepid on trips like these great small group adventures:
Best of Malaysia – 14 days
Singapore to Bangkok – 15 days

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* photo by Angelica Tan – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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Christian Friborg / Reply

I think my son would like this. We’re a fan of Asian food! And we love shrimps!

Hi Angelica,
Great to hear from you and thanks for mentioning about the photo. Good point in case people are trying to make the dish look like the photo. Unfortunately I didn’t have any laksa shots, so if anyone has you can send it to
Best wishes,
Sue, Intrepid Express Editor'

Hi, I thought I should just mention that this photo is a dish called ‘roti canai’, which though it is also a popular Malaysian dish, it is nothing like the laksa at all 🙂

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