A few years in Southeast Asia has me captivated by sour. I literally can’t get enough tamarind paste. In Cambodia, I’d buy it by the kilo block from the Russian Market and suck the piquant pulp straight from the seeds whenever I felt like an overwhelming sour kick. Lunch without a sour Khmer soup was not lunch.
Sour as a flavour profile on its own completes the full complement of a meal. It piques the tastebuds for food and always leaves you wanting more. It was also the prime attraction for me in Penang; the flavour around which I would centre eating the island. The one dish that I was after was assam laksa; Penang-style sour noodle soup. The broth is rich with mackerel, lemongrass, shallots and turmeric. Chilli, onion and chopped herbs (Vietnamese and common mint) are added to the bowl, raw; slippery white noodles and half a hard-boiled egg are mandatory. Thin slices of the bitter and peppery torchbud ginger flower top the dish along with an extra slug of hae ko, a local sweet shrimp paste. The souring comes courtesy of tamarind and semi-dried slices of the local fruit
assam keping buah keping. Assam keping is dried slices of the fruit.
Laksa Air Itam, a roadside stall that sits alongside the Air Itam market has the reputation as the best laksa in Penang, something which I’m in no real position to assess because it was the first assam laksa stall that I hit. The stall has been in place for almost 50 years, passed patrilineally from father to son. A constant stream of laksa lovers laid a tactical assault on the stall. It was 3:00PM and streaming torrential rain (not a prime noodle soup hour) but buses disgorged a constant stream of patrons. Locals double-parked their BMWs to duck under the awning and pick up a clear plastic bag of the soup to take-away or hurriedly scarf down a bowl, rigidly huddled over the chromed tables on a flimsy metal stool.
The sour element is not as forward as I’d had before but the stock is complex and almost paste-like, thick with shreds of mackerel and the sticky hae ko paste. Despite the heartiness, a second bowl beckons: the true power of sour.
Location: Opposite the Air Itam market, near the junction of Jalan Air Itam and Jalan Pasar. Between Kek Lok Si temple and Bukit Bandara (Penang Hill) for anyone interested in tourism that doesn’t involve eating.
Price: RM2.50 (USD$0.75)
Also: I’m taking a break from writing for Christmas. See you in 2008 for more from Malaysia.