The first time I had laksa was almost a decade ago in South Kensington, in the uninspiring environs of Oriental Canteen (which was dilapidated even then), due to a tip-off from AA Gill of all people.
Though a slightly lurid shade of orange, the laksa was fiery, delicious, and bursting with seafood, and I tipped the bright red bowl to get every last drop. I then went home and tried to recreate the dish, and have been honing it ever since, and you can now see my laksa recipe on the Channel 4 Food site for tonight's Gordon's Great Escape to Malaysia.
I'd demurred from trying laksa for ages, as I'd foolishly thought it was just a spin on my beloved ohn-no khao swè and, ostensibly at least, the two had similarities.
I then found out that, whilst the Burmese dish was fairly strict in terms of ingredients and style (suggest garnishing it with coriander, and meet fisticuffs in some parts of Burma), laksa seemed to have almost as many variations as there are stars in the sky.
These differences are not so surprising when you discover that laksa has been co-opted as the national dish of both Malaysia and Singapore, and originally came from the Peranakans who are ethnically Chinese.
Despite all the variations, it's generally agreed that there are two main types of laksa: assam laksa and curry laksa. The former's soup is sour, made of tamarind paste and primarily fish-based, whereas the latter is the one most familiar in the West as having a gravy made of curried coconut milk and being packed with seafood and sometimes chicken.
Laksa lemak, also known as Nyonya laksa, is a type of curry laksa with a particularly rich and sweet coconut gravy. Lemak is a Malay culinary term which refers to the presence of coconut milk - in fact, the proper national dish of Malaysia is nasi lemak which literally means coconut rice. It's my favourite type of laksa as it's comforting yet spicy, perfect when the world seems a bit grey and you need a little kick.
Incidentally, the finest laksa lemak I've ever tasted was made for me in her home by a Malaysian lady whom I know only as Auntie or Mama Dang. A few people have been lucky enough to try her food - if you want to have a chance of being one of them, follow her son, PR extraordinaire Andre Dang on Twitter and be nice ...
My Laksa Lemak recipe on Channel 4 Food
Gordon Ramsay's Great Escape - Malaysia
Monday 23 May on Channel 4 at 9 pm
Each state in Malaysia has a variation to the theme which is basically noodles with some spicy curry soup.
Even with lemak laksa, there are so many versions (with only rice noodles, with egg noodles, combination of both)or with very thick curry which is called curry mee or with a more watery soup (Chinese style) but it's so versatile that you can create any combination.
In KL, laksa is often served with pig skin, aubergines, fish cakes and fried tofu. Sometime you would get some prawns. It is not usual to get a mixture of seafood in laksa. However, in Segambut in KL there is one coffee shop that specialises in Seafood laksa which is delish and quite expensive.
There is also Johor Laksa which is made with thick rice noodles, garnished with pickled veg and lots of fresh ingredients in a fishy soup.
There is also a Sarawak laksa but I have not found any restaurant in London that offer these.
Am going to have to cook them at home too.
@Kavey - It was amazing - and don't be scared!
@May - Thank you for the background, May! Would love to try your recipes - please do blog them, especially Sarawak laksa :)
@Fat Les - Awesome - next stop Young Cheng, Shaftesbury Avenue!