Another month is passed and the Velveteers are back! This time was Pam who threw down the gauntlet challenging us on making Laksa.
I might say that this came quite at the right moment, when the increasing cold weather makes our bodies crave for warm soups. Laksa is indeed a satisfying and aromatic soup typically done in Singapore. As consequence to its origins, this doesn't really say it all. Singapore is quite a vibrant, multi-ethnic and voracious city. Its citizens, spanning the whole Asian nationalities and not only, can delight themselves on hundreds of food establishments able to answer that midnight crave for Dim Sum or to fill the emptiness left by a disappointing day. Singaporean cuisine is then a happy fusion of influences contextualised to the local produces. Fish and crustaceans are paramount among the available on high quality standard ingredients hence all the various typical way to cook and enjoy it, Chilli Crab the most famous.
Laksa is a way to enjoy more humble fishes along with the products of land.
To summarise it shortly, Laksa soup is based on an aromatic broth finished with coconut milk served with noodles and a whole lot of toppings. Two main families of Laksa do exist and that is with or without tamarind (assam in Malay); the first go then by the name of Assam Laksa and are characterised by their tanginess, the second family consists of the Curry Laksa. This said, now you can get crazy on the garnishes!
The most traditional version of Laksa features fish balls and fried tofu puffs as part of the soup broth, served with a special thick kind of noodle, bean sprouts, cockles, fish sticks, sometimes chicken but surely with a lot of fresh herbs. Here lies the trick of the master, the fresh herbs. Don't we all love to eat our Vietnamese nems wrapped in as many leaves of fresh mint, holy basil and coriander as possible? This is the beauty of South East Asian cuisine, what we consider foraging products they call just veggies or herbs; isn't this great? Who knows how many local plants lies forgotten in the darkness of a shrub' shadow (or even in our local parks).
Among these special herbs lies the so called Vietnamese coriander or Laksa leaf. Reminiscent of bamboos at the look, though much thinner, the stalk bares long pointy aromatic leaves. To the nose they are indeed reminiscent of fresh coriander but with a more demure touch. Fragrant and floral, they seem to be born as a perfect marriage between galangal’s flowery notes and the characteristic coriander aroma (that I call soapy). To the taste they are not so strong, grassy for the most but with a lovely pepperiness at the end. They seem perfect as addition to your plain chicken soup along with some ginger and spring onions; the vendor at the grocery store though advised me, as a man, not to eat as many otherwise well, somebody might get bored at night time, if you take my drift.
Pam underlined how these leaves really bring Laksa to a whole new level and I can only agree with her. The main spices used for the curry paste are actually rhizomes or plants, being these shallots, ginger, galangal and lemongrass and so they deliver a very fragrant and light bodied broth. Not to forget that this soup is often pretty spicy either for the chillies added in the curry base or for the sambal paste with which it is usually served.
The sea affiliation of this dish is accentuated in some variations made using boiled fish then flaked and sometimes blitzed with the other spices to create the curry base or even by the use of pounded dried shrimps and/or the accompaniment of "petis udang" or "hae ko" a sweet-thick prawn dark sauce.
This dish relies as much on fish as it does on noodles. A special kind of noodle is indeed prepared to be enjoyed with it. Called simply Laksam, these "noodles" aren't other than thin strips cut out of rolled up steamed rice pancakes. As almost every steamed dough, these noodles get a spongy, springy texture out of the cooking method and are sometimes used to eat the thick soup (more of a gravy in these situations) like the Ethiopian Injera bread.
The use of coconut is evident in almost every variation of this soup. Mostly in the form of coconut milk, the flavourful nut is employed to enrich the body of the light broth base conveying it a sweet touch. Another way to exploit coconut flavourful oils it is to toast its pulp. This brings us to the second way of including coconut in Laksa, as a topping in the form of kerisik; a pounded sandy paste of freshly grated and roasted coconut.
What else is there to say? I guess by now you can just imagine yourself sipping that broth and enjoying the party of textures that this dish has: the springy fish balls, soft fish sticks or fish flakes, the crunchy bean sprouts or dried shrimps, the al dente or slippery feeling of the noodles without forgetting the heading aroma of the fresh herbs steeping in the bowl. Do you need more of a savoury note? In some interpretation of Laksa, eggs are used as part of the topping, either hard boiled or in the form of omelette strips they add that extra touch of rich savouriness typical of some Thai and Chinese dishes.
Which is my contribution to this picture then?
I wanted to give this soup a more South Italian/Middle Eastern touch including ingredients of my land. I decided to go for almond instead of coconut as the nut to use with the addition of the zingy lemon zest and fragrant basil to the bouquet of aromas.
I played a little bit with the textures and the garnishes so to maintain a regional authenticity giving more focus on the broth, now more of a cream in texture. The pro of using freshly squeezed almond milk is in effect its property to thicken up the broth. Differently to starch but more similar to an egg-liaison (a vegetarian one in this case), fresh almonds milk thicken by act of its proteins giving the final product a silky smoothness. The pro of this almond liaison is that it doesn’t develop sulphuric flavour if overcooked and it doesn’t really curdle as eggs do, but it can still produce a mild "whey" separation; to avoid this I have included in my recipe a minimal amount of starch that should help binding that extra water.
As a crossing between some traditions that want spaghetti to be used as noodle and the flatness of Laksa noodle, I went for linguine as part of the starch in my dish; tagliatelle being too thin bodied for my purpose of texture contrast.
Always on the trail of textures, I included in my recipe prawns two ways: a crispy herbal version and another more supple and aromatic in the form of Har Gao dumplings.
Finally here you are my:
Fragrant Almond Laksa with noodles, fresh herbs, Oriental garden crispy prawns and southern Italian Har Gao dumplings
Ingredients (make 500ml of soup and garnishes for 2 people):
- 140g shallots, chopped
- 40g galangal, peeled and chopped
- 30g ginger, peeled and chopped
- 2 lemongrass stalks, tender parts chopped
- 2tbsp canola oil
- 2tbsp tomato puree
- 1tsp shrimp paste
- 1 lemongrass stalk, smashed and cut in chunks
- 8 prawns full with shell and head if possible
- 300g almonds, skinned and steeping in hot water
- 1/4tsp starch
- 1tsp sugar
- sweet paprika (to taste)
- turmeric (to taste)
- 2 rice paper disks
- 2 laksa leaves
- 2 mint leaves
- 2 holy basil leaves
- Translucent Dim Sum (Har Gao) dough sufficient for 4 dumplings (roughly 30g of dry starches, you can buy the flour mixture in any Asian grocery store)
- 1/4tsp lemon zest
- 1tsp almond kerisik
- 1/4tsp cornstarch
- Basil leaves
- Rice vermicelli
- white wine
- Fresh herbs (mint, laksa leaves, basil)
The soup will take some time to simmer down so let's start with the curry paste.
Combine the chopped ingredients in a blender with the rest of the wet ingredients and the shrimp paste. Adding a little of water if needed, blend the ingredients into a smooth paste.
Warm up a non stick skillet and fry the curry dough in a little oil. Keep stirring the curry paste constantly to dry and cook it uniformly. When the oil will start separating from the paste, it will be ready for your soup.
In a soup pot, warm up some oil and slowly fry the prawns shells and heads. When they will turn completely pink and smell fragrant, add the curry paste and slowly add roughly 1liter of water diluting the paste properly. Add now the chunks of lemongrass and let the soup simmer down till it will be reduced to half (1h or so). You will need this time to let the spices and herbs infuse the soup properly.
In the meantime prepare the almonds milk. Grab a handful of almonds and blitz them into a food processor, add then roughly 50ml of warm water and process again the almonds till you obtain a fine puree. Using a mousseline cloth, strain the almonds milk into a bowl. Press the almonds so to thoroughly extract all their liquid. Discard the almond pulp into a bowl. Take another handful of whole almonds and start again. Blitz them into powder in the food processor and this time use the previously made almond milk to moisten them and process again to a fine pulp. Strain pressing the newly enriched almond milk. Continue this way till you finish all the almonds, save few almonds for the kerisik.
To continue with the garnishes, prepare the kerisik. Chop the leftover almonds in little pieces and toast them in a skillet over low fire tossing them regularly or in a oven. When uniformly golden brown, transfer them into a mortar and using the pestle pulverize them in almost a paste. Set aside the kerisik.
Let's move to the prawns now. Remove the veins running along the back of the 8 prawns. Coarsely shop four prawns using your knives, add then the lemon zest and the kerisik. Using your knife chop those all together until uniformly blended. Transfer the prawns stuffing in a small ramekin, sprinkle a little salt on it along with the cornstarch and mix them uniformly. Let the stuffing steep in the fridge until ready to use. Prepare the Har Gao dough following the package instruction or one of the recipes online like this one.
To prepare the Har Gao dumplings, tear four balls of roughly 3/4" in diameter from the dough. Oil your hands and a flat surface (I used a bench scraper, easier to hold). Spread the ball into a thin circle or roughly 2" in diameter over the flat surface using your fingers. Stuff each circle with 1/4 of the prawn-almond mixture and close the dumpling in a way or another. Refrigerate until ready to cook them.
Finely mince together 2 of each laksa, mint and holy basil leaves. Butterfly the remaining four prawns by cutting along their back almost all the way through and stuff each of them with some of the minced leaves mixture. Moisten the rice paper disks by shortly plunging them into cold water. Do not let them stand in the water for too long or they will become very fragile, they should get soft and pliable. Tear each disk in 2 parts and wrap each of them around one prawn and set aside.
By now the soup should have reduced by half and be ready, if so strain the soup though a medium mesh sieve so to recover the prawns shells and the lemongrass pieces. Chop them in the food processor with a little of the soup until finely minced. Now we need to pass the soup through a mousseline cloth to strain all the undissolved curry paste.
Place the mousseline on the sieve you used previously and strain the soup and the blitzed prawns’ shells-lemongrass mixture. Let the residual in the mousseline cool down a bit and when it will be warm enough to handle, squeeze the pouch thoroughly. Clean the soup pot and transfer the sieved soup in it. Bring the soup to a simmer, dissolve the starch in the almond milk and add it to the soup. Season with salt and sugar; adjust the soup colour with a little paprika and turmeric if wished.
Roughly 1h before you plan on serving the soup, remember to steep the rice vermicelli in enough cold white wine and water mixture to cover them.
Before serving the soup cook the linguine, steam the Har Gao dumplings, fry the crispy prawns and warm up the soup. To finish cooking the vermicelli drain them, bring the wine mixture to a boil and blanch the vermicelli for few seconds; combine them with the linguine in a bowl.
Divide the soup between two soup bowls or pasta dishes. Spoon some pasta in the centre of each soup plate and garnish with fresh herbs. Serve the dumplings and fried prawns aside.
The 4 Velveteers was started by Alessio, Aparna, Asha and Pamela, who are passionate about different cuisines and food in general. Each month, we will attempt a new dish and share our experiences and the recipes we used. If you're interested in joining the Velveteers, please feel free to drop by our Facebook group.
Check out what the other Velveteers have come up with this month:
Aparna's Vegetarian Curry Laksa;
Asha's Laksa Lemak;
Lindsay's Laksa Curried Moules Frites.