11 January 2012

Wao..! Best Laksa in Penang... Surely Will Go to Try

by Helen Ong

Eh Gao’s assam laksa at the Air Itam Hawker Centre... you’ll want more than just one bowl. — Pictures by Helen Ong
Penang laksa …!. Our very own favourite was last year given an international accolade by CNNGo as one of the world’s 50 most delicious foods. And not just slipping in at the tail end of the list either, but coming in at a very respectable 7th, putting quite a few noses out of joint along the way too.

The tart, piquant gravy, made with chillies, tamarind and flaked fish, ladled over thick white noodles, is contrasted beautifully, both aesthetically and taste-wise, with a large handful of fresh mint, julienned cucumber, pineapple and bungah kantan (pink ginger bud), which give it a refreshing lift. For aficionados, a must-have spoonful of black “hey ko” (prawn paste) is dribbled over it.

Because of the acidity, laksa is typically something that is found in the afternoon, and there are many well-known places that serve it, each with its own followers. A purist myself, I’ve always preferred the original version i.e. without an overwhelming amount of fish; after all, it was traditionally the food of the less wealthy, so there wasn’t much protein to be had.

Slurp some of Mizi’s “Tanjung Bungah Laksa” by the roadside in Shamrock Beach, where he has been selling for nearly 15 years. The light, sour gravy is popular with day trippers who visit the seaside to “makan angin” (holiday).

A bit further away in Hillside, Ah Hooi sells a darker, more intense version, and patrons like to eat this “cham” (mixed) with his Curry Mee gravy, resulting in a soup that is both sour yet “lemak” (creamy).

Rajah’s nyonya laksa is served from the back of his bike; it’s often eaten with crispy spring rolls.
I’m a particular fan of Rajah’s traditional Nyonya Laksa, which he sells every afternoon at the entrance to Prima Tanjung from the back of his vehicle, which comes complete with charcoal burner to keep the gravy boiling hot. People stop by to eat, congregating around his motorbike, occasionally reaching out for a crispy golden spring roll to dip into the remaining soup; this softens the skin slightly yet maintains the crunch, creating an aromatic melange of flavours and textures. The rest of the soup is then polished off, literally drunk from the bowl, every last drop savoured, followed perhaps by a piece or two of yummy green-white Kueh Talam.

Another popular stall is Lee Ee Quen’s at the Taman Emas Kopitiam opposite the Peng Hwa Chinese School on Gottlieb Road, which serves a lighter, sweeter version with plenty of fish. This stall won the recent “Battle of Hawker Masters” in December, voted top out of the 20 or so who took part: no mean feat.

Sin Hwa Kopitiam’s colourful version.
In Pulau Tikus, the Café Sin Hwa is well known, and if you happen to be in Prangin Mall and fancy a break, look out for the small outlet on the ground floor, which is a branch of the famous chendol stall in Lebuh Keng Kwee, Penang Road, next to the Joo Hooi Café. If you can’t find it, just follow your nose: they also do Assam Laksa there.

Over on the other side of the island, Air Itam Laksa is also well known, and Eh Kao dispenses it every afternoon at the hawker centre near the market. There’s also one opposite, where eager patrons slurp it up sitting by the hot, dusty roadside.

Equally famous is the laksa in Balik Pulau; unsurprising as the key ingredients that go into making the delicious gravy is abundant here — belacan and mackerel — and if you drive around on weekends you might see some signs for home-cooked laksa.

Some of the stalls in town have been going for generations. Try the Nan Guang Kopitiam on the main road, where they also do a lemak Siamese Laksa.

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