When I left home to be a student - and ostensibly a grown up - I lived in Sydney, sharing a house with some fellow students who, being a bit older than me, seemed decidedly more knowledgeable and sophisticated than the gauche thing I was. They certainly liked good food and knew lots of restaurants across a whole spectrum. One night a carload of us went to eat at their latest discovery, a place on George Street called The Malaya that had a menu full of food of which I'd never heard, let alone tasted. Indeed at that point I didn't even know I liked spicy food - garlic I loved but chilli was entirely unexplored territory. Lacking brazen courage I plumped for beef rendang - in part because it was beef, in part because it came with rice but mostly because it said on the menu it was mild. I was expecting stew and what I got was extraordinarily tender hunks of beef coated with a dry spiced coconut sauce clinging to the meat. I was seduced. I love a good rendang to this day.
But the beef/rice combo wasn't entirely beyond the bounds of my experience. Most of my fellow diners ordered laksa and were presented with a dish that really was outside my envelope. Huge bowls filled with skinny noodles floating in a pale broth with lots of bits poking through - bean sprouts and king prawns and slices of something. All of it topped with a dollop of terracotta paste that spread in delicate tendrils across the surface as they ate. It looked amazing. I was jealous.
Next time it would be mine.
If laksa is a thing of beauty the first time you see it, it is an unutterable joy when you first taste it. Hot, sweet, sour, fishy, light, dense, ever so slightly grainy and full of slippy splashy noodles. Wow. The Malaya was close to our campus and so I began to frequent it whenever anyone suggested lunch. I tried a lot of the other things on the menu but mostly I had the laksa - king prawn when I was flush, chicken when I wasn't.
My father worked in the city commuting from the coast, and we would often meet for lunch usually at the canteen in his office. I liked to see him and he liked to know I had eaten well at least once that week. Soon as I could I suggested we go to the Malaya. He turned up and perused the menu and I bubbled over about the delights of laksa. I was so excited that I finally had something amazing I could share with him, to introduce him to a new delight. But no - he would not be led. When he ordered the sambal I told him it was VERY hot, but he assured me he ate hot food. Not that hot, I thought. Our steaming bowls arrived and he took a big spoonful of his prawns and the juice they came in that was redder than they were and oooh...! His face registered a kind of shocked surprise as he gulped his glass of wine. 'Hot'. To give him his due he did manage to eat most of that bowl of fire but he also aplogised for drinking most of the wine.
Next time we went he ordered the laksa.
I have eaten hundreds more since my student days, forging some lasting friendships with them along the way. When I first knew Vicki I suggested the Malaya one night for dinner when we were working late. When she professed ignorance of such a place I promised her an amazing treat. She habitually looked glamorous in a big white shirt and that day was no exception. By the end of dinner it was covered in a fine spray of chilli red spots. Even that couldn't wipe the delighted grin from her face after eating her first laksa. We have had countless bowls since - usually making a fair amount of mess because they are impossible to eat neatly. My first night in London, fighting off jet lag and drinking in the excitement of Soho we eventually went for laksa. Having arrived a few months ahead of me she had been on a mission to find a source. All things were possible in this city. I felt truly welcomed.
Decidedly under the weather last Friday and miserable with flu I really really really wanted laksa. I wanted that spicy liquid snaking down my throat, warming me through and clearing my head. I wanted the wrapped up and cared for sensation you get from good laksa - to taste the full spectrum of flavour, rich and complex, to be lulled to sleep with its familiarity. But even if I had been up to the bus ride to Soho, the last Friday before xmas is not the time for a sick person to be seeking comfort.
I dragged myself as far as Loon Moon on Electric Avenue in Brixton and stocked up on noodles and beansprouts and a couple of tins of coconut milk. I defrosted some of the chicken stock I made last weekend and I set about making my own. By the end it was amazing - as close as I've ever come to making the real thing. This is what I did.
8-9 large dried red chillies
2 tablespoons dried prawns or 2 teaspoons dried shrimp paste - from Asian foodstores
2 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
6 macadamia or brazil nuts, roughly chopped
2 stems lemon grass, roughly chopped
4 tablespoons peanut oil
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 litre chicken stock
2 cans coconut milk
250g pack fresh egg noodles
100g fresh bean sprouts, rinsed and the straggly bits pinched off
1 cup shredded cooked chicken
50g sugarsnap peas, sliced
small bunch coriander, chopped
Break off the stems of the dry chilies and then soak them with the dried prawns in hot water for about 15 minutes. Put the chillies, prawns, onions, ginger, nuts, garlic and lemon grass with a littel bit of the soaking water into the container of a blender or in a bowl and use a stick blender to make a rough paste.
Heat the oil in a large pan and fry the paste, stirring occasionally, till it is darkly golden and smells fragrant. This takes about 20 minutes and the volume of the paste will decrease as it cooks.
Add the turmeric and coriander and stir fry for another minute. Add the stock, stir to mix well while it comes to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about half an hour.
Add the coconut milk and the shredded chicken and warm through. Check the seasoning.
Meanwhile, put the egg noodles in a colander and rinse with hot water till they separate.
Put a generous pile of noodles into deep bowls and cover with the laksa soup. Top each bowl with beansprouts and sugarsnaps and a sprinkle of chopped coriander.
Serve a chilli sauce like sambal ulek on the side for those who want more spice.
Guaranteed effective in the treatment of flu, colds and general cheerlessness. Perfect for now.