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
Laksa Johor is the state’s favourite dish and is served during festive occasions such as Hari Raya.
Those out of the state would recognise it most as the laksa made with spaghetti noodles – even though most Malaysians only became familiar with dried pasta when spaghetti Bolognese became popular here in the 1980s.
It is believed that Sultan Abu Bakar – known as the “Founder of Modern Johor” and said to be the first Malay ruler to visit Europe in 1866 – instructed his royal chefs to use spaghetti instead of the traditional rice noodles in his laksa Johor. According to the book Johor Palate: Tanjung Puteri Recipes written by Kalsom Taib and Hamidah Abdul Hamid, the Sultan had acquired a love for the pasta during his travels to Italy.
“We have used spaghetti in laksa Johor for as long as I remember, from when I was a child in the 1950s,” said Pride Foundation advisor Nasirah Aris, 69. “In Johor, we don’t grow rice, so maybe it was more convenient to use spaghetti. It was also less tedious than making the rice noodles.”
In Nasirah’s family, they are particular about the ingredients used to make the laksa gravy. Most only use fish, but laksa Johor also has prawns, and dried prawns and fish. Only choice ingredients such as ikan parang (wolf herring), ikan kurau (threadfin), the freshest prawns and good quality dried seafood are used.
These quality ingredients cost quite a bit and Nasirah says that laksa Johor used to be made mostly in upper middle class homes in the state. Even today, the best laksa Johor is to be had in homes, not at restaurants or stalls.
Making the spice mixture and preparing the seafood are time consuming tasks. Johorean cooks pay meticulous attention to the garnishing and accompaniments.
The garnishings for laksa Johor are cucumber, bean sprouts, long beans, daun kesum (polygonum) and daun selasih (Thai basil).
“The cucumber has to be cut in a certain way. We have to first peel it, cut it into shorter lengths and cut around it in a circular motion to get a long strip before cutting into julienne,” said Nasirah.
The must-have condiments are sambal belacan and calamansi limes. The dish is also always sprinkled with Chinese pickled radish (chye poh).
Many Johoreans typically eat their laksa Johor with their fingers, rather than with fork and spoon.
More dishes from Johor
Otak-otak is fish custard flavoured with herbs such as turmeric and lemongrass, wrapped in palm leaves and grilled. Muar is most famous for its grilled otak-otak and visitors cart these away by the box. They are most adventurous with their otak-otak recipes, and you will find otak-otak made from other seafood such as prawns, crab, shellfish and even fish head.
Pineapple pajeri is usually served as an accompaniment to rich rice dishes. Thick rings or chunks of pineapple are braised in a concoction of spices, coconut milk or kerisik and palm sugar. It is stewed slowly till the liquid has reduced, making for a sweet-savoury dish. It is almost always served at weddings in Johor to accompany nasi briyani or nasi minyak.
Asam pedas is a tamarind-based red fish curry that will set your senses on fire. It is hot, sour and just a tad sweet, and its deliciousness hinges on balancing these flavours perfectly. Cooks use all kinds of fish to cook asam pedas with garnishings such as ladies’ fingers, tomatoes and brinjal. Daun kesum and torch ginger flower give asam pedas its distinctive aroma and taste.