Laksa’s origins will surprise you

28 11 2017

I’ve always enjoyed a bowl of laksa. The dish, which has an amazing range of equally delectable localised variations, brings great comfort and joy to many in Malaysia, parts of Indonesia and Singapore. There is perhaps no other dish that can so strongly be identified with a locality. In its very basic form, laksa is a vermicelli like noodle in a broth.  While it can be said that it is in the countless variations of this broth, tempered by the influences of over a century, that has provided the various forms of the dish with its local flavour; its origins as a dish, how it morphed into what we see of it today, and even its rather strange sounding name, is a source of great puzzlement.

Singapore Laksa

One suggestion of how laksa got its name that has gained popularity is that it was derived from a similar sounding Sanskrit word for a hundred thousand. This, it is said, is an allusion perhaps to the multitude of ingredients that go into making the various forms of its broth the celebration of flavours that they are. I am however inclined to take the side of the suggestion that the wonderful encyclopedia of the world’s culinary delights, the Oxford Companion to Food, offers. That has the word laksa being Persian in origin. Lakhsha meaning “slippery” in old Persian, was apparently also used to describe noodles, which the book also credits the Persians with the invention of.

Sarawak Laksa

That latter suggestion will no doubt spark endless debate. There seems however to be evidence to support the assertion such as in the many noodle type dishes that are found spread across the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe – all with names that all sound very much like lakhsha. Examples of this are the Russian lapsha, the Uyghur laghman, the Jewish lokshen, the Afghan lakhchak, the Lithunian Lakštiniai, and the Ukrainian lokshina. The Italian sheet pasta dish, Lasagne, also sounds uncannily similar to old Persian for noodles.

Lokshen (photo: Danny Nicholson on Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0).

As with the variants of the Near East, Lakhsha seems to have become a similiar sounding laksa in this part of the world. Early Malay-English dictionaries, such as one published by R. J. Wilkinson in 1901, have laksa both as the word for ten thousand, as well as for a “vermicelli” – ascribing the latter’s origins to the same Persian word.  The use of the word as such is seen in several of the news articles of the day. One report, in the Malayan Saturday Post of 29 December 1928, shows how “Chinese Laksa” was then made, through a series of four photographs. As a word to describe a type of noodles, laksa is in fact very much still in use in places such as the Riau Archipelago. There, “lakse” or “laksa”, is taken as a noodle of a similar appearance to the laksa we find here made from the staple of the islands, sago.

R. J. Wilkinson’s “A Malay-English Dictionary” describes the word “laksa” both as a word for ten-thousand as well as for a kind of vermicelli.

Uyghur laghman noodles (Nate Gray on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

There also are early descriptions of how that laksa may have been prepared in the press. One, found in a 1912 report on hawker fare in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, describes what seems to be quite a different dish from the one we are now familiar with:

A familiar dish with the Chinese coolie and Straits school-boy is “laksa”. The vendor of this compound, vermicelli, “rats’ ears” (mush-rooms), and other things in a kind of soup, shouts out every now and then “Laksa a wun!” and many who taste it declare that it is A1.

Lakse or laksa, describes these noodles made from sago in Pulau Singkep in the Lingga group of islands in the Riau Archipelago.

One of the many ways in which laksa is served on Pulau Singkep is with a fish broth and sambal.

poem, penned in 1931 by a prominent personality Mr. Seow Poh Leng – a Municipal Commissioner and a champion of hawkers’ rights – provides an idea of how the dish had by the 1930s, started to evolve. An attempt to draw attention to the difficulties street hawkers faced, the verse also describes how a dough of ground rice became “lumps of tiny snow-white coils” when boiled and which was then “served with tasty gravy and a pinch of fragrant spice”. Published in the Malayan Saturday Post of 16 May 1931, the piece was the writer’s response to the death of a laksa vendor. The vendor had taken his own life after several run ins with the Municipal authorities that deprived him of his livelihood.

Laska Siam, served at another popular Penang laksa stall, this one at Balik Pulau.

By the 1950s, laksa as a dish, seemed to have already taken on several distinct styles. A 1951 article in The Singapore Free Press, “Let’s talk about food”, mentions two types of “Siamese” laksa: one sweet and one hot and sour, along with a “Nonya” laksa. The two variants of “Siamese” laksa are again mentioned in a 1953 Singapore Free Press article on food in Penang. The sour type “Siamese” laksa identified is perhaps the predecessor to the Penang or asam (or assam) laksa dish of today as another 1951 report, this time in The Straits Times on Penang, seems to confirm. The article draws attention to one of Penang’s attractions, Ayer Itam (now spelled Air Itam), to which the young and old would walk six miles or brave a ride on a crowded bus to. Ayer Itam, is identified as “the village with the famous Kek Lok Si”, and (a seemingly already popular) “Siamese” laksa (Air Itam is a location many in Penang flock to today for asam laksa).

A bowl of Penang or Asam Laksa.

Another version of Asam Laksa from Madras Lane in Kuala Lumpur.

What we can perhaps surmise from all of this information is that despite its shared name, laksa in its many variations are really different dishes. Built on an otherwise tasteless base of rice or sago vermicelli or a noodle substitute, how its various forms of laksa have been flavoured to excite the palate, says much about the invention and the creativity of the region’s pioneering food vendors.

Variation on a theme, Laksa Goreng (Fried Laksa), Peranakan style.

Lakse Goreng topped with crushed ikan bilis from Pulau Singkep.


A Hawker’s Lament
by Seow Poh Leng
(Malayan Saturday Post, 16 May 1931, Page 18)
We came from far Cathay, the land of old renown,
A livelihood to seek in this far-famed town.
My parents they are old but still must toil each day
My father selling bean-curds, my mother selling “kway”.
We left our home and kin to this far distant shore;
And promised to return to see them all once more,
To share with them and theirs what little we have made
By dint of patient toil, by means of honest trade.
By four o’clock each morning when you are all abed
The ‘laksa’ I’m preparing that people may be fed
I grind some rice to powder and knead it to a dough
Then press it through a sieve to a boiling pot below.
This stringy mass of flour which hardens as it boils
Is made up into lumps of tiny snow-white coils;
Then served with tasty gravy and a pinch of fragrant spice
My ‘laksa’ finds more favour than the ordinary rice.
In woven bamboo basket made up in several tiers
Are placed my tooth-some wares and the necessary gears.
In a gourd-shaped earthen vessel the ‘laksa’ simmers low,
All day aboiling gently on charcoal burning slow.
From street to street I wander, my pace a steady trot,
And bear my loaded basket as well as the steaming pot.
The noon day trade I seek and may with luck—oh rare !
Avoid the stern police who ask a certain share.
These guardians of the law with lynx eyes watch for me,
And more than do their duty unless I pay a ” fee.”
They see that I comply with what the by-laws state;
That is, whatever happens, I must itinerate.
Sometimes from sheer fatigue I pause some breath to take,
To dry my streaming sweat, to ease the limbs that ache;
And then the “Mata-mata” finds me resting there,
And forthwith to the Court I must with him repair.
And once – alas the thought! – in prison cell I lay.
The fine imposed on me was more than I could pay.
What use is there for me this arduous life to lead?
My humble cries for mercy receive but scanty heed.
By ceaseless toil I tried an honest life to lead.
If I the “tips” forget, the traffic I impede.
And for such bogus crime there is no other way –
Before the Court I’m brought and straightway made to pay.
I’ve plied my trade from childhood, the profits have been small,
Yet I would quit right gladly for any work at all,
Seek work at any distance – if only work there be
Without the constant harass and the unofficial fee.
A rickshaw puller – aye the “totee’s” job I’ll do.
I’ll go to Malacca, I’ll go to Trengganu.
Alack! my quest is vain, my faintest hope is gone;
My limbs they are weary, my heart with sorrow torn.
Good-bye the M.H.O., my last farewell to thee!
Good-bye to all M.C.’s, good-bye the I.G.P.!
You wish me back to China, you want me off the street;
Posterity shall know I die your wish to meet!
Not satisfied with fines the Magistrates impose
The dreary prison cell must add to hawkers’ woes.
My goods and property you wish to confiscate?
But here you will not win—the law will come too late!
Good-bye my parents dear, good-bye my kith and kin!
Think not the step I take a very grievous sin.
Right well I am aware of honour due to you;
And thank you from my heart for lessons wise and true.
To comfort your old age my level best I’ve tried.
My efforts seem in vain, the cruel fates decide.
I cannot stoop to crime and slur the family name,
So drink this portion dark, preferring death to shame.

A Malay laksa vendor in Penang, c. 1930s (http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline | Mrs J A Bennett Collection/National Archives of Singapore).


 

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Seeking an old world over the New Year

5 01 2012

Strange as it may seem, I found myself wandering around streets some 350 kilometres away during the lead up to the New Year, thinking for a while that I was in a Singapore that I had my wonderful childhood in. The streets of Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur where I was has been a source of fascination for me since my first visit there as a child of six and it has also become, along with other parts of the country, a place where I often search for that world – the Singapore of my childhood that is now lost to me. The streets of Kuala Lumpur today and those of the Singapore of yesterday are undeniably two very different worlds – worlds far apart in many ways. Both cities have seen dramatic changes in four decades since my first visit and are today hardly recognisable from the cities they had emerged from. There is however one key difference in how either city have gone through their respective transformations. Where with Singapore, much of what made Singapore, Singapore, has now been lost – replaced in many cases by the cold hard stare of glass, steel and concrete, there is still the buzz of daily life that can be discovered nestled in between the towering edifices of modern Kuala Lumpur.

There are places I remember ... that resemble this. A back lane off the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

An area that I take particular joy in wandering around has become known as the city’s Chinatown – centred on Petaling Street or Jalan Petaling, once a must-go destination on my almost annual visits to the city to savour some of its culinary offerings. The street market it is well known for has unfortunately seen the inevitable invasion of stalls that provide a wider apppeal to a tourist than the local, but there is still in and around the area a world much like that old world we have left behind in Singapore to stumble upon. It is in the five-foot ways and narrow alleyways off the main street that this older world I seek is tucked away. One, alleyway which runs parallel to Petaling Street off Madras Lane (or Jalan Sultan) is home to what must be a well known wet market, teeming in the early hours of daylight with many from the area and beyond, in search for the day’s supply of fresh produce. I first came to know of the market on a trip to Kuala Lumpur that coicided with my very first journey out of the now forgotten Tanjong Pagar Railway Station some two decades ago – and it nice to see that it still is set in that wet, slippery and less than pleasant smelling passageway that leads to what must seem like a reward at the end of it.

The wet market at Madras Lane.

A butcher's assistant at the wet market.

What lies at the end of the wet market is a cluster of food stalls – ones that have a reputation for being amongst the best in a city where sumptous street fare is never hard to find. Despite the less than pleasant demeanour with which customers of some of the stalls are served, the cluster never fails to draw a steady stream of hungry customers in the mornings and the very popular Chee Cheong Fun, Yong Tau Foo and Assam Laksa usually sells out by the time one arrives for a late lunch.

Madras Lane is also famous for its street fare.

The early morning crowd at the Yong Tau Foo stall.

Enjoying a bowl of noodles at Madras Lane.

After a bowl of the irresistable Assam Laksa and a glass of warm soya bean milk the morning I found myself there, there was still time to discover what else Madras Lane had to offer. The five-foot ways and crowded back lanes was certainly a joy to wander through -a hole-in-the-wall shop with colourful magazines strung up for sale, as well as a shop lot where one could have an offending mole removed caught my eye as did a back lane strewn with pushcarts awaiting use to serve the evening’s dining crowd, a back lane barber, a sidewalk fortune-teller, and a cobbler waiting patiently for his next customer.

A bowl of Assam Laksa I had to have.

A sidewalk fortune teller along Jalan Sultan.

A hole-in-the-wall shop.

A five-foot way along Jalan Sultan.

Have that offending mole removed.

I suppose I would have spent the entire day immersing myself in that old world – but that unfortunately wasn’t that Singapore that I had sought, although it did in many ways remind me of it. It was time then to transport myself to the new world – first for lunch and for a look at another area I was familiar with from my early visits to the city – the Bukit Bintang area which has also seen tremendous change. And as darkness descended on the city for the last time in the old year, it was time to embrace the new – in a way that even an old world cannot escape from – with a blast of colours in the sky, but perhaps in a gentler and quieter way than it would have been if I had stayed at home. With that there is a realisation that much of the old ways will soon be forgotten … but there is that hope that the city I found myself in, would cling tightly on to those little reminders of its past which would allow me many more opportunities to seek the familiarity and comfort of the old world that I can no longer find in the place I grew up in.

A somewhat quieter welcome to 2012 than I would have expected in Singapore - fireworks over Bandar Utama in Malaysia.

The finale after the 10 minute dispay over Bandar Utama.