Travel Features > The Gastronome's Guide To Kuching

All For The Love Of Laksa

Mike Reed eulogises over one of the world's finest breakfasts

There are some food experiences in this world that should only really be enjoyed in their place of origin. If they were to be prepared for you anywhere else they would lose that marvellous sense of place that they evoke so well. They belong in that place, they taste best in that place, and they should be eaten only in that place.

Laksa
©Mike Reed
For an Italian, polenta is only at its best when prepared in a Tuscan farmhouse kitchen. For a Russian, the borscht must be freshly made and served in a family dacha overlooking a birch-lined lake in winter. For a Sarawakian, laksa must be dished-up piping hot in a crowded, noisy coffee shop in Kuching.

Sarawak laksa is a cardiologist's nightmare of a breakfast. More cholesterol than you can shake a stick at, swimming in a delicious thick soup whose primary ingredient is santan (coconut milk), one of the richest vegetable sources of saturated fat. It's also got enough pungent spices to give a gastero-enterologist the jitters when he thinks about what it's doing to your colon, heaps of seafood itching to trigger off the slightest allergy, and sufficient highly refined carbohydrates to make your pancreas dance the tango.

It's also one of the most sublime breakfasts known to man.

Many hotels and up-market restaurants in Kuching serve laksa, often very good laksa, but eating laksa served in fine china by a smartly uniformed waiter, on a freshly starched tablecloth, is like asking the Rolling Stones to play Beethoven's 9th - technically feasible but why bother.

Laksa is the quintessential coffee shop dish. You walk into a typical Kuching coffee shop, approach the lady whose stall bears the word laksa, and ask for "laksa big" or "laksa special." Never order the standard portion; it's perfectly adequate for most mortals but the whole object of the laksa experience is self indulgence.

What transpires next is a minor miracle of culinary simplicity. The laksa stall comprises two enormous metal vats, one containing boiling water for cooking the noodles, and one containing gallons of bubbling laksa gravy (soup is far too innocuous a word for this robust liquid). The noodles (most good stalls use freshly made bee hoon, a fine wheat flour vermicelli) are dunked in the boiling water for a few seconds, along with a handful of large, fresh beansprouts. They are then retrieved and placed in a large soup bowl, into which about half a pint (300ml) of laksa gravy is poured.

This wondrous substance bears little resemblance to the bland curry that passes for laksa in Kuala Lumpur. Subtle fragrances of candle nut, lemon grass, sour tamarind and garlic blend together with a sharply flavoured curry-like spice mix and lashings of santan to form a liquid that seems to posses a hundred different flavours simultaneously.

The doused noodles are garnished with generous helpings of sliced omelette (watch out for the cholesterol), fresh prawns (lots more cholesterol) and shredded chicken breast. The whole thing is topped-off with a garnish of coriander leaves, and served to you with chopsticks and a soup spoon. The uninitiated should never ask for a fork and spoon instead of the chopsticks - laksa is just too messy to be eaten with such imprecise implements.

Before you start on your laksa, however, you will notice a small bowl containing a lime and a teaspoonful of mysterious brown paste. Old laksa hands always squeeze the lime juice into their soup spoon, as this avoids having to retrieve the pips from the meal itself. Having discarded the pips, you mix the lime juice with the brown paste, which is in fact belacan, a dried and fermented puree of shrimp (even more cholesterol). This pungent mix is then poured into the laksa and gently agitated with the chopsticks to ensure an even distribution.

After all this waiting and preparation (actually it's less than five minutes since you ordered it) you may think you are ready to eat. Not yet! First you take a sip of the thick dark Borneo coffee served with your laksa, and you carefully open your copy of the Borneo Post to catch up on all the latest Sarawak gossip. With the newspaper opened at the sports page, you take your chopsticks, raise a bite-sized cluster of noodles and beansprouts to your mouth, and gently bite, delicately controlling the trailing noodles with your spoon (this stuff stains, remember). After a few fleeting minutes of ecstasy, you realise your bowl is empty. No dish seems to create as much disappointment when it is finished as Sarawak Laksa, but if you find the sense of loss too much to bear, you can always order another one.


The Laksa Lover's Guide to Kuching

Laksa Stall
©Mike Reed

Everyone in Kuching has their favourite Laksa stall. Some like theirs really spicy, others appreciate a few extra prawns or a particular favourite kind of noodle. All the places listed below are within walking distance of the main hotels and serve perfectly good laksa; once you've tried them all you'll be a conoisseur and laksa will be an obsession.

Central Cafe (Central Rd East, next to Oriental Finance). Good reliable stall, with laksa usually available at lunchtimes.

Chong Choon Cafe (Abell Road, opposite Maybank). This is one of the two most famous laksa stalls (the other is Choon Hui Cafe). Not as spicy as some (good for beginners) and the proprietor is happy to customise the ingredients to your liking. Usually finished by 11 a.m.

Choon Hui Cafe (Ban Hock Road, near Grand Continental Hotel). Kuching's spiciest Laksa, although the portions are not as generous as others. Very popular - get here early (before 10 a.m.).

Min Hong Kee (Padungan Road, past the police station). Not particularly spicy, but generous portions. Very lively atmosphere right on the street. Usually finished by 11 a.m.

Seng Huat Cafe (Padungan Road, below Kapit Hotel). Excellent laksa served with very fine bee hoon. Portions small but so are the prices - why not order two bowls? Usually finished by 12 midday.

Tiger Garden Laksa (Jalan Green Hill, opposite Chinese Primary School). Could be the best in town, except that they always forget the coriander. Still very good though. Serves laksa right through lunch hour and on Sundays.

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