Cooking Laksa in Toronto

Monday, May 05, 2014

I am blogging this recipe for a Canadian friend who had visited Singapore before and was missing the food there, especially laksa. She wanted to learn how to make it.

It is was not difficult to make the laksa broth. Make the chicken stock and then combine with the rempah (curry paste).

What was more challenging cooking it was using whatever ingredients I could find in Toronto and having to do it within the limitations of a hostel kitchen. I will describe the recipe here and the options one can take to improve or simplify it.

A spiced or curried broth involves two main steps:

Making the rempah/paste: Combining the spices, herbs, chillies and onions (sometimes) and frying them in oil till the flavours are extracted and mellowed. If you can get each ingredient when they are at the freshest - which means it is not in a preserved or powdered form - will be the best. Laksa is basically a Malaysian dish with strong Malay influence (especially the herbs) and the use of spices (cumin, coriander etc) from early Indian influence. Unless you are in Southeast Asia, you have to look hard for these ingredients and unavoidably, sometimes compromises have to be made and I will suggest some below.

Making the Stock: Undoubtedly, making the stock yourself is important if you want to have a deep rich tasting laksa broth. I will use a whole fresh chicken and separate some parts for stock making. The bones impart a hearty taste and the meat sweetens the broth. So, using the bones and some meat will be the way to go. In most supermarts here (especially the Asian ones), chicken carcasses can be bought cheaply. That said, if you wish to simplify the the recipe, you can use store-bought chicken liquid stock.

As for noodles, you can get very good bee hoon (vermicelli) here as being dehydrated, they can be imported. Yellow mee however, needs to be of the fresh variety. You can get them from chilled sections in stores. There is nothing stopping one from using other types of noodles, i.e pasta and some other dried types. Experiment.

Preparing the Laksa Paste:
2 stalks lemon grass, bruised
1 inch piece turmeric (or 1T of turmeric powder)
10 shallots (or 1 large red onions)
2 tsp coriander seeds
200 ml cooking oil
Chillies - dried or powder form
salt, sugar, chillies - to taste
thin slice of belachan (shrimp paste) - optional
1 inch blue ginger - optional

  1. Get the young Thai blue ginger from Asian stores. Peel a piece of about 2 inch in length. 
  2. Peel 1 inch of turmeric (about a thumb's length).
  3. Peel the shallots. 
  4. Blend the ginger, shallots and turmeric.
  5. Slice off a half cm piece of belachan from the block. 
  6. As for chillies, it is easier to use the powdered chilli. Remember to mix it in some water first into a thick paste before cooking it. The powder will burn easily if added directly into the pot. I have not stated the quantity as chilli powders differ in their spiciness. Add to taste, starting with an initial 1 or 2 tablespoons.  
  7. In a heated deep pan or pot (on low fire), toast the coriander seeds and belachan for about a minute. 
  8. Add the oil and when it is heated, add the blended paste, chilli paste, salt and sugar.
  9. Bruise the stalks of lemon grass by smashing the thicker white part using a heavy knife. This helps to release the fragrance. Add to the paste.
  10. Simmer for 20 minutes. Discard the lemon grass stalks.
Preparing the stock
1 chicken
4 litres of water
100 ml of coconut milk
Prawns - shelled and deveined heads & shells
  1. As I have mentioned above, use the chicken carcass to make the stock. If a fresh whole chicken is being used, cut off the backbone parts, wings and chest. Chicken fat and skin is great for laksa and I will leave them in the stock. Debone some of the breast and thigh meat and reserve for garnishing. Use the rest of the chicken meat for another dish. 
  2. Peel and devein the prawns. 
  3. Heat up the water. Add the prawn heads/shells and chicken parts. Simmer the stock for about 45 minutes. If you have a pressure cooker, 15 minutes will do. Strain the soup to remove the bones and whatever solids and discard. 
  4. To the stock, add the paste. Simmer gently. Season further with salt. Add the coconut milk but be careful not to overpower the taste of the broth. I sometimes will recommend leaving out the coconut milk if your stock is tasty enough. 
  5. Use the broth to cook the chicken (about 15 minutes) and prawn meat (about 3 minutes). Remove the chicken, slice (knife) or using you fingers, pull them into strips for garnishing. Slice the cooked prawns into halves.
This lot of ingredients can serve 6-8 bowls of laksa. Monitor the water level and adjust if you need to. 

Preparing the garnishes and serving the bowls
15 fresh prawns – shelled and deveined
Fish balls or fish cake
Chicken meat
Daun Kesom
Bean sprouts
Bee Hoon (vermicelli)
  1. I cannot find good fish balls in Toronto and so, one can leave this out. But if you want to use it, cook it first in the broth.  
  2. Mince the laksa leaves (daun kesom). You can get it from the Asian stores at Spadina. They are not properly labelled (see photo).  
  3. Soak the Bee Hoon for about 20 minutes in cold water. 
  4. In a separate pot of boiling water, blanch the mee, bee hoon and bean sprouts in per bowl servings.
  5. Then add the boiling laksa broth to the bowl of blanched noodles and garnish with chicken meat, sliced of boiled eggs, prawn meat and minced laksa leaves.  
For garnishing, you can use other options like "tau pok" (fried bean curd),  pork meat or diced kaffir lime leaf. Serve the bowls of laksa with sambal chilli, chilli paste or powder on small side dishes as some diners may prefer it spicier.

Enjoy this exotic and delicious bowl of Southeast Asian noodles. With further experimentations, one should be able to level it up.  

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