It has been described as being as pungent as a clogged drain or as fragrant as a bowl of hot spicy fish soup. Penang assam laksa has being listed the 7th best food in the world by CNN travel in 2011 out of 50 food trough voting.
The Penang assam laksa is one hawker dish that you either love or hate from the first sip of its sourish, spicy broth. In 2012 the episode of travel show No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain raved about Penang assam laksa which he later described as ‘The breakfast of Gods.’
This is originally a Nyonya (Straits Chinese) dish but today it is so well-known, it is essentially one of the top Penang must-eat hawker fare.
Many will discover that assam laksa is a burst of flavours that switches from spicy to sour to sweet to a deep taste of fishy richness, all beautifully brought together by the garnishing of fresh greens, mint leaves and grounded by the smooth, soft, thick rice noodles.
Penang assam laksa has earned a whole reputation of its own for its unique combination of four different flavours sweet, sour, spicy and a tinge of saltiness all brought together in a fish stock soup seasoned with local spices.
The spicy soup, served with white rice noodles and vegetables, is further enhanced with the sweet and thick shrimp paste and though some may find it has a strong fishy smell, others find it has an intriguing blend of aroma from the spices used in the soup.
There is nothing else quite like it and no words can fully describe how the many flavours of the dish seems to work without leaving a bad fishy smell despite its fish-based broth.
The sweet and sour tastes of the broth, rounded off by the spicy, fishy taste, are all derived from natural spices, local herbs and the main ingredient — fresh mackerel.
The underlying base of the fishy broth is made from boiling the mackerel whole in a pot of water before the fish is removed and deboned.
Next is the tamarind (locally, it is known as assam) that gives the dish its strong sourish taste and it is also where it got the “assam” for its name.
After the thick fishy broth is boiled with tamarind for its tangy flavour, a blend of spices consisting of fresh ground chillies, shallots, lemongrass and naturally, a dab of belacan (preserved shrimp paste) are added to the broth to give it the overall spicy, pungent aroma and taste.
A complete bowl of assam laksa means a hot steaming broth of scalded thick rice noodles and garnished with small pieces of mackerel (from the soup), shredded cucumber, mint leaves, laksa leaves (polygonum leaves), shredded bunga kantan, chopped onions, shredded lettuce, chopped chillies, strips of fresh pineapple and finally, a spoonful of heh ko (sweet shrimp paste different from belacan).
To get a taste of the delectable Penang assam laksa, here the few stall in George Town to try.
Penang Road famous laksa @ Lebuh Keng Kwee (12pm-6pm)
Laksa stall @ Lorong Selamat (11am-5pm)
Laksa stall @ New Lane (6pm -11pm)