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Friday, May 14, 2010

Penang Asam Laksa (Malaysian Penang-Style Tamarind Fish Soup)

Penang Asam Laksa (Malaysian Penang-Style Tamarind and Fish Soup) 1

After recently eating Penang Asam Laksa (Malaysian Penang-style Tamarind and Fish Soup) at Yazmin Malaysian Restaurant in Alhambra, and last summer at Banana Leaf Restaurant - Milpitas, and making asam laksa from a package, I figured I was finally ready to try making it myself.

I knew there was tamarind, lemongrass, galangal but you know I prefer ginger, belachan (Malaysian shrimp paste) which I usually substitute with Mam Ruoc (Vietnamese Fermented Shrimp Paste). MalaysianFood.net had a pretty adaptable recipe which confirmed which ingredients I thought I needed for the soup.

I think it's the combination of tamarind and shrimp paste that makes me liken asam laksa to a cross between Canh Chua Ca (Vietnamese Sour Fish Soup) and Bun Bo Hue (Vietnamese Hue-Style Beef Noodle Soup), which makes it understandable why my Vietnamese palate had a craving for it one cold and rainy night.

I had all the ingredients on hand except for fresh mackerel, the preferred fish for a homemade asam laksa. Do I run out to the grocery store for that one ingredient? The restaurants used, and even the package recommended, canned sardines in tomato sauce, which I also had in my pantry. Good enough for them, good enough for me. Also, I wanted to use the halibut bones and tails in my freezer, more of the stash of seafood my mother sent with me on one of my trips home to Portland. There was a lot of halibut meat still attached to the bones and fins that I didn't want to waste. So obviously, use fresh mackerel if you have it, but substitute with white fish for a good stock and canned sardines will work too.

I'll be honest and say that this soup is very pungent. I mean, we're talking fish soup with fermented shrimp paste and tamarind here. But if you're familiar with bun bo Hue, I think you'll like asam laksa too.

Penang Asam Laksa (Malaysian Penang-Style Tamarind and Fish Soup) 2

Penang Asam Laksa (Malaysian Penang-Style Tamarind Fish Soup)
Adapted from MalaysianFood.net

For a 5-quart pot, which will make about 4 to 6 servings, you'll need:
1 lb of fresh mackerel or 1 lb of halibut or other white fish bones and 1 16-oz can sardines in spicy tomato sauce
3-inch knob of galangal or ginger, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 stalks lemongrass, bruised
1 large onion, thinly slice some for garnishing and dice the rest
1/4 cup tamarind
3 tsp sugar
3 tsp belacan or Mam Ruoc (Vietnamese Fermented Shrimp Paste)
1 tsp salt
1 16-oz package of bun (Vietnamese rice vermicelli noodles)

For garnishing:
Cucumbers, julienned
Rau ram (Vietnamese coriander)
Onion, thinly sliced
Chili pepper slices

Fill a 5-quart stock pot with about 4-quarts of water. Bring to a boil and add the fish bones or fresh mackerel, lemongrass, ginger slices and diced onion. Also, add 1/4 cup tamarind, 3 tsp sugar, 3 tsp shrimp paste, and 1 tsp salt. I use whole seedless tamarind, which are sold in blocks. I just slice off what I need and let the tamarind dissolve in the broth.

Turn the heat down to medium-low and let simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour. Meanwhile, prepare the garnishes.

If you're using fresh mackerel, after 15 minutes, take the fish out of the pot so it doesn't become mushy. Otherwise, let the fish bones simmer uncovered to intensify the flavors. After about half an hour, taste and adjust if necessary.

Penang Asam Laksa (Malaysian Penang-Style Tamarind and Fish Soup) 3

After an hour, strain out all the stock. I do this by putting a colander into an empty stock pot and pouring everything into the colander. Then just lift up the colander and the bones, ginger, lemongrass, and onions will be separated from the broth.

Penang Asam Laksa (Malaysian Penang-Style Tamarind and Fish Soup) 4

See? Nice clean broth. Taste and adjust seasonings again if necessary.

Penang Asam Laksa (Malaysian Penang-Style Tamarind and Fish Soup) 5

Flake the fish into large pieces and add them back into the pot. The color didn't look quite right to me, but after adding the can of sardines, the light tomato broth colored the soup nicely.

Penang Asam Laksa (Malaysian Penang-Style Tamarind and Fish Soup) 6

Boil the noodles and drain.

The prepared garnishes of pineapple, onion slices (I'd use red onion for color if I had some on hand.), cucumbers, mint, and Vietnamese coriander.

Penang Asam Laksa (Malaysian Penang-Style Tamarind and Fish Soup) 7

When the noodles are drained, add some to each bowl, ladle the hot soup and fish on top, and let each person garnish as they wish.

Penang Asam Laksa (Malaysian Penang-Style Tamarind and Fish Soup) 8


Other seafood noodle soups:
Bun Nuoc Leo Soc Trang (Vietnamese Rice Vermicelli Noodle Soup in Savory Broth with Fish, Roast Pork, and Shrimp)
Bun Rieu Cua Tom Oc (Vietnamese Crab and Shrimp Rice Vermicelli Noodle Soup with Snails)

1 year ago today, Nohut Salatasi (Turkish Chickpea Salad).
2 years ago today, a reader makes my chao tom (Vietnamese sugarcane shrimp paste) recipe but with fish.
3 years ago today, an orange phosphate, a hot fudge sundae, and a macadamia nut malt at Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain - South Pasadena.


  1. Sounds like a good stock to have around in general. Reminds me that I need to buy a second stock pot. I haven't got time to cook it today but now I'm thinking about where I can buy a decent laksa for lunch!

  2. Looks good! I'm not much of a mackerel fan, but my wife is. I'll have to give this a try before we go to Penang for a short visit this summer.

  3. Oooh you need ginger flowers! That's one of the key flavours in assam laksa. It might be hard to find, however - we call it 'bunga kantan' and it looks like this:


    I know the original recipe called for fresh ginger as a substitute, but the bunga kantan really does make a huge difference in the flavour. It's one of my favourite things to eat here. With sardines in tomato sauce though, the flavour also changes (traditionally we don't put anything with tomato sauce in it, but my aunt used to adapt this to have just sardines in it in place of the mackerel. Still tasted great!)

  4. Marie,
    I bought my second one when Amazon had Circulon 5-quart stock pots on sale for $20. Such a deal. It's been so useful to have a second one around.

    I love grilled mackerel. I hope you blog about your travels. I'd love to read about them.

    Oh I wish I could find torch ginger in the U.S., but I've looked and looked and haven't found them anywhere. I even thought Japanese myoga could be a substitute, but I've been told it doesn't taste the same at all. I use ginger to flavor the broth to replace the galangal because I'm just not a fan of galangal. The tomato sauce from the sardines is just enough to color the broth, not too much to affect the taste. Although I must admit, I love tomatoes and tomato paste in my soups.


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