To celebrate the oneness of Malaysia also means to fete its delicious diversity. In this series, we take a closer look at the iconic foods of the country’s states and territories.
Click the link for all the stories in this series on Great Malaysian dishes
Illustration: Zulhaimi Baharuddin
In terms of gastronomy, Sarawak is probably best known for its iconic eponymous Sarawak laksa, a culinary creation that emerged after World War II.
The origins of Sarawak laksa are not set in stone, but according to Edgar Ong in an article in Flavours magazine, the local legend is that a Chinese Teochew immigrant from Guangzhou named Goh Lik Teck first began peddling his noodle dish along Kuching’s Carpenter Street in 1945.
The dish was only made up of six ingredients, which is how it got its name – the Hokkien term for six sounds like “lak” and “sa” is slang for vermicelli.
An alternative tale is one derived from the co-mingling of the Chinese and Malay cultures, which allegedly led to the term laksa from the conjoining of the words “lak” which meant “spicy” locally, and “sa”, which in colloquial Hokkien means to grab whatever is available – which often meant vermicelli, as it was a pantry staple.
Whatever its origins, one thing is not in dispute: Sarawak laksa is now very popular.
In fact, in 2005, Anthony Bourdain put it on the world map when he featured Sarawak laksa on his show No Reservations.
In the last decade, more and more kopitiams and restaurants in the peninsula have started to offer this laksa variant, the distinctive taste of which is not easy to replicate, the recipe being closely guarded by the stakeholders even till today.
So the closest thing to making authentic Sarawak laksa is to make it from a commercial paste – there is no culture of home cooks, even in Sarawak, blending their own laksa paste from scratch.
Even Malaysia Airlines feeds its Business and First Class passengers Sarawak laksa made from a paste imported from Kuching.
The practice of making and selling laksa paste seems to have started in the 1960s when Goh’s family started selling their laksa paste to other vendors.
Also in the 1960s, an enterprising businessman named Tan Yong Him began experimenting with his laksa paste and when he felt like he had hit the jackpot, he started selling the paste commercially under the Swallow brand label. As the fame of this brand spread, others started to market their paste using various bird icons as well to ride on the popularity of the Swallow brand.
Tan’s son, Barrett Tan Boon Tiang, has taken things even further, marketing Barrett’s Sarawak Laksa paste to a global audience online.
And now we’re coming to the meat of the matter: just what is Sarawak laksa?
It is essentially rice vermicelli, shredded omelette, cooked prawns and strips of chicken all floating in an aromatic broth, with sambal and lime served on the side.
As any Sarawakian worth his salt will tell you, the starting point to making a good Sarawak laksa is making a good laksa paste.
A homemade laksa paste can be concocted by blending ingredients like shallots, garlic, lemongrass, galangal and dried chillies, and ground spices like coriander seeds, cumin, star anise, cardamom, clove and nutmeg.
It is a lot of ingredients and a lot of work – some recipes call for up to 20 ingredients that require grinding and blending to make the spice paste!
Once ground and blended, the combined paste is then sauteed in a pan and more ingredients are added, like roasted peanuts, sesame seeds and curry powder.
When the paste is fragrant, both chicken and prawn broth are added, as well as coconut milk. The laksa can be seasoned with soy sauce, vinegar, salt or even fish sauce, according to preference.
Then, the cooked noodles are added to the laksa with the chicken, omelette and prawn toppings and a garnish of coriander leaves, with a serving of sambal (made by blending red chillies, onions, garlic, dried prawns and oil) and fresh lime.
The result is a laksa that is complex and hearty, spicy and very, very addictive, serving up a unique balance of flavours that lends itself to a versatile dish that can be consumed for breakfast, lunch, dinner or even a midnight snack, although Bourdain popularised it as a breakfast option when he referred to it as the “breakfast of gods”.
In Kuching, probably the most famous Sarawak Laksa eatery is Choon Hui Cafe, an unpretentious family-run affair and Bourdain favourite that was featured twice on his television shows – once on No Reservations and once again last year for CNN’s Parts Unknown.
Goh’s descendants also continue to make their version of Sarawak laksa based on the family’s ancestral recipe, at their Meng Heng Laksa stall in Kuching’s Megabite Cafe.
More dishes from Sarawak
A specialty of the coastal Melanau community, umai is a raw fish dish similar to ceviche. Raw fish like empirang is filleted and sliced thinly then marinated in a mixture of local gingers, onions, chillies and lime juice. The Melanaus would use asam kelubi, or its variant, asam paya, as an acidulating agent and eat it with roasted sago pearls.
Manuk pansuh, or chicken cooked in bamboo is an Iban delicacy that is now a mainstream favourite. The dish is assembled with ginger, lemongrass, cassava leaves (daun ubi), pepper and a local ginger called tepus which is used to marinate the chicken for about 20 minutes. This is then stuffed into bamboo and sealed with cassava leaves, and cooked over hot coals –which steams the meat.
This dry Chinese noodle dish has become incredibly popular over the years. Springy noodles are topped with minced pork and char siew. Fried shallots, spring onions, mushrooms and lard are also some of the usual suspects you can expect to find in it. Some incarnations use minced beef. Seasonings can also vary – sometimes vinegar is used, while other versions are tossed with light soy or fish sauce.