Like any other Sarawakians, I am proud of our own version of laksa, Sarawak Laksa. It will not do Sarawak Laksa any justice if I did not do a detail post on Sarawak Laksa. In fact, Sarawak laksa have gained popularity over the years and its importance cannot be ignored. Goggling “Sarawak Laksa” will yield 243,000 results where goggling “Assam Laksa” and “Curry Laksa” will only yield 143,000 and 158,000 results respectively.
Sarawakians believed that Sarawak Laksa is unique and cannot be compared with any other laksas in the regions. Sarawakian living in Sarawak can have laksas for almost any meals (be it breakfasts, lunches, dinners or suppers) where Sarawkian residing overseas are thinking dearly of their laksas in hometown. Their luggage will never lack of one or two packets of ready-made laksa paste for bringing over to their country of residence overseas. It is a treasure to them and only cooked in special occasions to entertain guests as a showcase that Sarawak laksas are distinctively better than any other laksas in the world!
Traditionally, laksa paste ingredients have been considered as family secrets belonging to a few families in Kuching, Sarawak. During my parent’s time, it was the “Swallow” brand of paste that we recognized as laksa. However, due to the discontinuation of “Swallow” brand, I have bought countless brands of laksa paste with various types of “birds” logos. But none was closed to what I have eaten when I was young. May be this is one of the reasons that foodies in Kuching are always arguing who have the best laksa in Kuching and in Sarawak. Of course, who had the best laksa will always a matter of personal preference and the differences always lies in the ratios of the species used.
This series is rather long will both be “theoretical” and “practical” and comprise 3 posts as follows:
Part 1 – Sarawak Laksa and Its Origin
Part 2 – The Secret of Sarawak Laksa Paste
Part 3 – The Detail Preparation of Sarawak laksa
It is hoped that readers will bear with me for this long post. In my humble opinion, posting on how to cook the Sarawak Laksa using over-the-counter laksa paste purchased is of no value added to this blog and wasting readers’ time. Readers can find these preparation procedures all over the internet and in fact, at the back of the laksa paste label, there are clear instructions on how to cook the Sarawak laksa.
LAKSA AND SARAWAK LAKSA DEFINED……
“ Laksa is a popular spicy noodle soup from the Peranakan culture, which is a merger of Chinese and Malay elements found in Malaysia and Singapore, and Indonesia.
Sarawak laksa (Malay: Laksa Sarawak) comes from the Malaysian state Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. It is actually very different from the curry laksa as the soup contains no curry at all. It has a base of Sambal belacan, sour tamarind, garlic, galangal, lemon grass and coconut milk, topped with omelets strips, chicken strips, prawns, fresh coriander and optionally lime. Ingredients such as bean sprouts, (sliced) fried tofu or other seafood are not traditional but are sometimes added. “
Many blogs and websites may have using the above quotes to define Sarawak Laksa as there were not many information pertaining to the definition of Sarawak Laksa. In Wikipedia.com, Sarawak Laksa belongs to one of the variants of two main laksa categories as follows:
Curry Laksa (coconut milk based gravy comprises curry laksa, laksa lemak, laksam, Katong Laksa)
Assam Laksa (tamarind based gravy comprises Penang Laksa, Perlis Laksa, Kedah Laksa, Ipoh Laksa, Kuala Kangsar Laksa,
Other variants of laksas (used both coconut milks and tamarind in its gravy), besides Sarawak Laksa, will include Johor Laksa, Kelatan Laksa, Bogor Laksa, Palembang Laksa, Banjar Laksa.
ORIGINS OF LAKSA AND SARAWAK LAKSA
Per Wikipedia, laksa origin is unclear. However, it is strongly believed to be closely related to the Hindi/Persian “Lakshah” referring to a type of vermicelli which in turns derived from the word Sanskrit lakshas meaning one hundred thousand. In Indonesian Malay, laksa refers to “sepuluh ribu” or 10,000 signifying many strands of fine white vermicelli noodles in the dish.
The origins of Sarawak laksa is equally unclear and there were no literature that clearly confirmed its origin. However, it is widely agreed the popularity of Sarawak Sambal Laksa pastes were popularized by the Tan Family in Kuching in the 1960-1970’s.
In the article “Tasty State Secret” written by Paul Si of “thestar.com.my”, origins of Sarawak laksa paste can be traced back to the time when the late Mr. Tan Yong Him started experimenting his own concoctions of herbs and spices in the early 1960’s and packaged his laksa paste for sale under the “swallow brand”. The paste started to gain popularity in the 1970’s when economy picking up and people started to frequent eating outlets. Stall owners in the hawker centers and coffee shops were able to use the over-the-counter laksa paste and cook the laksa for sale and household can buy the paste and cooked the laksa at home. (Note: the swallow brand had discontinued due to family differences in opinion and I understand the Barrett Brand belongs to one the late Tan’s sons and you can now buy the Sarawak Sambal Laksa paste on-line via www.laksasarawak.com).
While the above paragraph provided a brief history accounting for the popularity of Sarawak Laksa and its unique flavors due to Tan’s hard work and own concoction of Laksa paste, but why Tan had had these ideas to start of his trial and error spice puzzles remained unclear. The same article mentioned that “old timers recalled that people did not eat out much in the leans years follow World War II so first memories of eating laksa at a coffee shop were set in the late 1950’s”. So questions that still ponder in my mind would be were there any laksa being sold prior to 1950’s; if it was not popular eating out then, was there any home cooked laksa? Is the laksa paste ingredients consistent among households? Is it dominated by only one race? At the time of writing this, I could not locate any literatures to offer the answers. If answers to these questions were negative, then, the honor of popularizing Sarawak Laksa would have to be accorded to the Tan Family.
From the above write up, the following preliminary conclusions can be drawn.
Laksa in short can be defined as a bowlful of rice vermicelli, under the influence of Malay, Chinese or Peranakan Cooking that have a unique soup based with either coconut milk or tamarind as the main ingredients. It should be noted laksa should only use thick of thin rice vermicelli and in accordance to this definition, “curry mees” or “curry noodles” do not fall under the category of laksa.
In the Malay Archipelagos stretching from Burma to Indonesia, most regions have their own versions of laksas of either curry based or tamarind based or a mixture of both. Therefore, it will not be a surprise at all if the region of Sarawak also have their own variants. As like laksas in general, Sarawak Laksa’s origin is unclear and it is possible that prior to World War II, the laksa in Sarawak could be the same as other regions in the Malay Archipelago. However, the present unique flavors of Sarawak Laksa and its popularity among the Sarawak was very much due the entrepreneurial spirit and diligence of the late Tan Yong Him’s. The fact that Sarawak Laksa is widely accepted among the Sarawak Chinese Community could be another piece of evidence of Tan’s contribution.
In the next post, I will detail out an analysis of Sarawak Laksa Paste ingredients as compared to Guai Shu Shu’s version.
HAPPY READING and I am most happy to receive more information on the history and origins of Sarawak Laksa for this pride Sarawak “state” delicacies.