Tuesday, November 02, 2010
The Laksa That Took A Detour
It doesn't take much to feel connected to someone or something. Not years, not weeks. A few forays are enough. That's how I feel about South-East Asia.
First, there was Thailand, then Japan (not strictly SE Asia, but close), Singapore, then recently I went to Taiwan, and on my way back, to Thailand again. Recently, I made plans for a trip to Malaysia and Indonesia but they fell through. With all this, I feel extremely connected to the region :) despite the trips being rather fleeting.
When I first visited Thailand, I could not stomach the smells of food wafting off the carts on the streets. Trying to spend prudently in Chiang Mai, my friend and I opted for the plain (and not the spicy) sausage and divided it into two. We immediately spat it out because it was sweet, so unlike what we expected from a sausage that we told ourselves not to be cheap and then bought the spicy, herbal one which cost 20 Baht. Thankfully, it was delicious. We tried much other street food, but the smell would get to us, and in Bangkok, we ate at a Lebanese restaurant close to our hotel for two days. Even the famous Thai yellow curry was relished in the sanitised confines of our hotel's restaurant, and the som tam was had trying to forget that the vegetarian version I wanted was made in the same mortar and pestle that had, for the previous customer just moments ago, mashed tiny crabs that looked like upturned dead frogs (which was why I had opted for vegetarian).
More travel exposed me a little more to sushi but I think I will stick to the vegetarian version, substitute though it may be. Walking in the hot sun in Singapore only made us thirsty, not hungry, and we didn't eat much. The one day that we could have, we were whisked off to the local branch of a well-known Chettinad restaurant by our well-meaning Indian friends - neither my attempts at deflecting the invitation nor my request for local food were comprehended.
By the time I went to Taipei, Taiwan, and visited its street markets, I didn't smell anything anymore. I didn't even remember there would be a smell. I tasted century eggs and the seafood dumplings that tasted of an unidentifiable ingredient went down my throat without any hesitation. I would have probably tried stinky tofu had I known how to identify it, but all the tofu looked benign to me. (There's no reason why the stink should reflect in the looks, is there? Some of the most snazzy and snotty characters I've come across used to reek, and wouldn't wash their hands after using the toilet.) But I digress - I don't mean that I liked everything I ate, but didn't feel so strongly about it either.
Researching Malaysia reminded me of Laksa. I wasn't very disappointed when the plans fell through but soon after, Aparna's post on a vegetarian laksa had me itching to make it soon. I finally made it yesterday. I was tired of meat and seafood so I too made it vegetarian. I went to the original recipe that she had mentioned, Ottolenghi's, and took it from there. By the time it was finished, it was laksa more in spirit and less in, well, the flesh, in a manner of speaking.
I used an onion instead of shallots. I used the notoriously hot red chilli pickle from Andhra Pradesh instead of sambal oelek. I used dry lemongrass bought in Thailand three years ago.
At first, I didn't have any bean sprouts, and substituted the tofu puffs with paneer/cottage cheese (a bad idea). I ignored the sugar but finally used a spoon of jaggery when the sourness set my teeth on edge.
And though I initially planned to use up a packet of soba noodles, I decided to go with rice. Short grain matta rice. You see, I just bought a 5-kilo bag because the one-kilo ones were no longer to be found, and as the other food in the house would go better with rice, I decided to use a bit of that for the laksa as well.
It was good, but something was missing. I added some salt, it made it better but that was not it. This was the vegetable-paneer-rice-laksa-lime combination
Then for the next meal, to the above, I added a hard-boiled egg and topped it with some sprouts and used lots of pepper. The lime wedge was there but I forgot to add extra. It was great!
For tonight's meal, I fried some tofu with a tablespoon of white flour mixed in water, and ate it with rice and sprouts and pepper - this time, the lime was forgotten, and the vegetables were given a go-by. Not so great, and more filling than I would have liked it to be!
I was tempted to use white rice for this meal as we needed to cook some rice and matta rice takes much longer to cook, but The Spouse said white rice would be overwhelmed by the laksa, and that the plump and sturdy matta would hold its own, so I went with matta again.
I would go for the second option - the one with the egg, sprouts, rice and vegetables. Next, I'm looking forward to making khaw suey - now if only I'd known I could look for it in Chiang Mai ...
Laksa travel Laksa Rice soup musings