By Fiona Sims
I love a bowl laksa. But then who doesn’t like this spicy prawn noodle soup enriched with coconut milk? So when an email appeared in my inbox telling me about a laksa obsessive who had scoured Malaysia and beyond for the best and was now cooking it in a pop-up called The Laksa Kitchen in Kentish Town, I was on it.
For two weeks until 14 July, restaurateur David Tjong and his head chef C.Y Lim have taken over an anonymous Italian café on an unglamorous stretch of Kentish Town Road in north London to serve up their take on the dish.
Earlier this year Tjong, whose family own the four-strong Ekachai chain of Southeast Asian restaurants located in London and Birmingham, travelled from Kuala Lumpur to Borneo via Penang sampling different laksa along the way in his mission to perfect the dish.
There is more than one version of this addictive soupy concoction. The laksa most of us are familiar with is Singapore laksa, or laksa lemak, made with prawns and featuring rice noodles and that coconut curry broth, but there are many variations.
There is a second type of laksa, asam laksa, made with a sour tamarind base, which also comes in many different versions. Penang laksa, for example, is a thin, fragrant, sour fish soup made without coconut milk, flavoured with tamarind and shreds of torch ginger, which Tjong reports he will feature in the coming days ahead. Johore laksa is different again, in that the fish pureed and it’s rich with coconut milk.
My best ever laksa moment was in Singapore. I had just stepped off a plane en route to Australia when Singapore’s most famous chef-restaurateur, Ignatious Chan – or Iggy, as everyone calls him, scooped me up to take me to breakfast at his favourite laksa spot, Sungei Road Laksa on Jalan Berseh Road. This unassuming spot (aren’t all chef hang-outs?) boasts a laksa with a deep, complex flavour, and I was transported right back there with Tjong’s version (£10.50).
The Laksa Kitchen also offers a Sarawak laksa (£10.50) with chicken and prawn - a lighter, fierier version that comes from Borneo in East Malaysia that focuses less on the coconut milk and more on the broth, bolstered by strips of omelette, plus shredded chicken and prawns, noodles and beansprouts.
Make sure you leave room to try Tjong’s other Malaysian dishes. We loved the four starters on offer including the pork and taro loh bak, belly pork and taro wrapped tofu skin spring rolls deep-fried and serve with the house chilli dip (£5), and the classic satay chicken (£5.50), best though was the cucuc udang (£6) - prawns, Chinese chives and beansprouts suspended in a feather light, crunchy batter.
We also tried the comforting Hainan chicken rice (£9.50), poached chicken on fragrant rice served with cucumber. Finishing with a pulut inti (£4), steamed sticky rice toped with grated coconut and palm sugar wrapped in banana leaf. To wash it all down? Pressure Drop Brewing’s Pale Fire Pale Ale – the perfect foil for all those aromatic, fiery flavours.
So what is Tjong’s favourite laksa moment? “It was in Kuching City, in Sarawak Borneo, where we came across a small hole-in-the-wall cafe with some plastic chairs and lots of people hunched over steaming bowls. But the extraordinary thing was that nobody was talking. It was quite surreal to find a moment of calm in such a hectic restaurant. This was where we first tasted Sarawak laksa, served with a squeeze of calamansi lime and a spoon of chilli paste. To the eye it was slightly darker to the lighter curry or even the asam laksa we had previously eaten, however it was extremely light. Our first taste was purely savoury and so addictive we immediately understood why nobody was talking. After each mouthful you are reaching for another without a moment to draw a breath. Without saying anything, we knew we had to bring this back to London,” he says. I’m glad he did.
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It’s difficult. We sympathise. Despite being an entirely different shape and size we have an uncanny ability to turn up in the same outfit (usually black) and order the same dishes. We both wear glasses, swathe ourselves in scarves and fancy Daniel Craig.
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© 2015 Fiona Beckett & Fiona Sims (the2fionas.com), photography © Gary Latham, website by Scend