Laksa Johor: Fusion Cuisine With A Royal Touch

The spicy noodle soup we call laksa in Malaysia is a dish that reigns supreme at coffee shops and food courts as well as top restaurants of the country. The laksa’s popularity has invited debates from far and wide on its etymology and roots, as well as the discovery of various countries and their versions of noodle dishes with laksa-sounding names. For instance, there is the lapsha from Russia, lokshen from Israel and lakchak from Afghanistan. In Malaysia almost each state has a laksa dish to speak of; and lately the Sarawak Laksa seems to have gained popularity nationwide. Most laksa are soupy; generally categorised as either curry laksa or assam laksa. Although, I daresay that there should be a third classification of laksa in Malaysia – Laksa Johor!

Laksa Johor topped with the essential condiments of onions, cucumber, beansprouts,chye poh,Thai basil leaves and sambal belacan
Laksa Johor uses spaghetti unlike the rice or egg noodles in other laksa dishes.
Image by Author

The Origin Of Laksa Johor

What sets the Laksa Johor apart from all other laksa? Other than the thicker consistency of the gravy, spaghetti is used instead of rice noodle or egg noodle. At the request of Sultan Abu Bakar, the royal chef served up the Laksa Johor with spaghetti. The Western twist to the tale came about when the well-travelled ruler developed a love for spaghetti bolognese.

A shallow dish of Laksa Johor from Flavours Kitchen
A plateful of Laksa Johor goodness at Flavours Kitchen.
Image by Author

The Divine Laksa Johor At Your Finger Tips

Laksa Johor is much thicker than the soupy base of most other laksa. Its sauce-like consistency originates from the preparation of the ingredients. Boil the ikan parang (wolf herring), fresh prawns, dried shrimps and salted threadfin in a pot of water. Debone and flake the fish, and remove the shells from the prawns. Mix the seafood and ground them.

This near-viscuous consistency of the gravy brings on another quirk of the Laksa Johor. Most Johoreans choose to eat the laksa with their fingers! The heart of the matter is in combining and thoroughly mixing the three components well. The spaghetti, all the condiments and the gravy should be well-mixed to ensure a flavour that is all at once spicy, gently hot and tangy. Best handled with your fingers, what is left after polishing the plate is that lingering aroma on your finger tips.

Eating Laksa Johor with my fingers, is the best way to savour the flavours.
Eating Laksa Johor with your fingers is quite the norm. I find that this enhances my savouring the meal!
Image by Author

When Others Get On The Bandwagon And Realise That Laksa Johor Is Best Eaten With Their Fingers Too

“The gravy is thicker than that prepared for laksa in other states, and for this reason Johoreans typically eat Laksa Johor with their fingers from a plate, not with a fork and spoon from a bowl.”

KalsoM Taib and hamidah Abdul Hamid, authors of “Johor Palate: Tanjung puteri Recipes”

However as the dish gained popularity, so too has the practice of eating the laksa with the fingers. It really is an art, and to me, a rather endearing one!

Kalsom Taib and Hamidah Abdul Hamid, authors of  Johor Palate: Tanjung Puteri Recipes
Kalsom Taib, on the left, and Hamidah Abdul Hamid, authors of the book “Johor Palate: Tanjung Puteri Recipes”. They are first cousins who grew up in a household of accomplished chefs as well as having had the privilege of enjoying Johor cuisine from young!
Image courtesy of Kalsom Taib

Presenting The Laksa Johor

The spaghetti in Laksa Johor is neatly portioned into knots that I often refer to as the ‘Magic Figure Eight’. These are best shaped when the spaghetti is freshly boiled. You pick a few strands of spaghetti at a time and twist it to form the figure eight.

“Each knot is referred to as a ‘chap’,” explained Kalsom.

It is pronounced as “ch-up”. The average person usually eats two ‘chaps’, and often that is sufficient to sit comfortably in the tummy. Also the neatly portioned ‘chap’ makes for a pretty presentation. I have long held the belief that this is one discreet way of finding out how much a person has eaten!

The components of Laksa Johor - the spaghetti, condiments and gravy.
The spaghetti is neatly portioned into a figure eight, which we call a ‘chap’. The image is of the individual components that make up the Laksa Johor.
Image courtesy of Kalsom Taib

Condiments That Complement

The condiments served with the Laksa Johor is another production in itself! Calling for finesse in its presentation, this requires another labour-intensive preparation.

The onions are quartered and finely sliced; the pickled radish (chye poh), Thai basil leaves and Vietnamese mint leaves finely chopped. The bean sprouts are carefully selected. Ensuring that there is no bruising nor discolouration, they should remain white and firm as they are served without blanching. These are patiently tailed for a near-pristine presentation!

And then there are the cucumber spirals! The skin is first peeled and then cut into thumb-sized blocks. The flesh is concentrically shaved to the core; then each spiral is finely sliced.

One of the condiments  of Laksa Johor, the cucumber spirals
A close-up of the cucumner curls on the Laksa Johor.
Image by Author

The sambal belacan should be delicately fiery, with just that right amount of heat to set off the rich flavour of the gravy. Calamansi limes complete the array of condiments for the Laksa Johor. The delicate and tangy finish; perfects a fusion of flavours in just the right amounts to set the taste buds tingling!

My Memory Of Laksa Johor

Throughout my childhood, Hari Raya Aidil Fitri  (Eid al-Fitr) and Laksa Johor would go hand in hand. That first thought is not of my grandfather’s home in Johor Bahru. It was not the memory of how the lampu pelita (kerosene lamp) all around the garden would bathe the home in a magical halo. Instead it is, in fact, the Laksa Johor that immediately comes to mind.

Back then Laksa Johor was served on special occasions; and even so only few households would prepare the dish. It was a treat for most of my family and our guests… but not for me!  

A serving of Mum's Laksa Johor
Mum’s serving of the Laksa Johor.
Image by Author

For some reason the Laksa Johor held little appeal to me. Blame it on the immature taste buds and my keen sense of dislike for the aroma that emanates from the kitchen. Or perhaps it was the labour-intensive preparation of the condiments. I often watched my mother at the kitchen counter with what seemed like a mountain of prepping to go through. Often I would heave the heaviest sigh as she called upon me to help, however trivial it might be. Either way, I did not relish Laksa Johor during my childhood.

Why Laksa Johor Matters To Me Now

Through time my taste buds have matured. I have developed a love for the Laksa Johor and, in the common parlance of today’s youth firmly believe that it is “Da Bomb”!

From a young age I had inhaled the aroma of the gravy at every stage of its preparation, witnessed the formation of the spaghetti into ‘chap’ and helped in the fine presentation of the condiments. I now would not serve Laksa Johor in any other way!

The first time I served Laksa Johor, I insisted on the figure-eight ‘chap’ of the spaghetti. I prepared the condiments the very same way as my mother would. Painstaking as it may seem, I would not have it any other way!

My attempt at shaping the spaghetti into a neat 'figure eight' portion.
My first attempt at the “Magic Figure Eight” ‘chap’. I certainly lacked that magic!
Image by Author.

“Johoreans are very proud of their laksa, which they also believe is best prepared by Johoreans.”

Kalsom Taib

Oh yes, indeed I am a proud Johorean!

The Story Of Laksa Johor Mak Joe

The Laksa Johor has become a popular feature on menus and catering services. Whilst still a Hari Raya special in most households, Laksa Johor is now often available at other times too. This availability seems to peak pre-Hari Raya too; during the fasting month of Ramadan at food bazaars.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing Movement Control Order (MCO) naturally led to a ban on the Ramadan bazaar. This prompted Malaysia’s popular hip-hop artist, Joe Flizzow, to suggest to his mother Aishah Ali, to sell her Laksa Johor.

Malysia's hip-hop artist Joe Flizzow with his parents, Aishah Ali and the late Ishak Nengah.
Joe Flizzow with his parents, Aishah Ali and the late Ishak Nengah.
Image courtesy of Aishah Ali

Aishah is an old family friend as well as a devoted and well-respected editor in Malaysia’s world of journalism. As a true Johorean, she prides herself in perfecting the Laksa Johor. Although Aishah would humbly deny the accolade, her Laksa Johor is indeed her trump card.

Getting Down To Business

“The thought of getting good fresh fish and all that condiments during the pandemic had put me right off the idea. Besides I was fasting!” Aishah recounts her initial thoughts of the brief foray into the food business.

Apparently Joe persisted. Before she knew it, he ordered a delivery of 12 kilogrammes of ikan parang and ikan tenggiri (mackerel) to her doorstep. There was no turning back for Aishah. The successful delivery to Joe’s friends on the first two days of business was all Aishah could handle, she thought. But word of the awesome Laksa Johor Mak Joe had prepared spread like wildfire. Aishah could not find it within her to decline the requests. And so the remaining seven days of Ramadan saw the delivery of 80 – 100 packs per day.

The neatly packed Laksa Johor Mak Joe,
Laksa Johor Mak Joe, all packed up and ready to go!
Image courtesy of Aishah Ali

“I believe Laksa Johor is popular because it is a balanced meal. There are carbohydrate from the spaghetti, protein from the fish and fibre/protein from a variety of vegetables from the condiments.”

Aishah Ali, Founder of laksa johor mak joe

Keeping The Legacy Of Johor Cuisine

Whilst many closely guard their family recipes, Kalsom Taib and Hamidah Abdul Hamid have chosen to share their’s in a book entitled “Johor Palate: Tanjung Puteri Recipes“. Through their research, these two cousins have compiled their family recipes that are easily four-generation old.

The award-winning cookbook on Johor cuisine
Johor’s location in Peninsular Malaysia with the Straits of Melaka, Straits of Johor and the South China Sea on her shores has resulted in a melting pot of tradition and culture among the locals and the traders that ply the route in the 15th century onwards. It is this integration that has created the distinct Johor cuisine that it is today. Johor Palate: Tanjung Puteri Recipes is a celebration of the essential flavours of Johor.
Image by Author

I love that the book seems to refresh the memory of Johoreans the dishes they often grew up with. Even more precious to me is the reintroduction of the Johor palate to the younger generation.

The recipe book has also that invaluable feature of a guide for my forays in the kitchen. I had grown up with the agak-agak (estimation) measurement from the elders with recipes of subjective measurements; like a thumb’s length of ginger (halia sebesar ibu jari) or a fistful of sugar (segenggam gula).

Where Do I Get My Fix Of Laksa Johor?

Mum’s kitchen, of course! Otherwise I would head to either one of the following as they are closest to the Laksa Johor I grew up with. My favourite local haunts are Flavours Kitchen and Siti Li Dining.

For more information and reservations, do telephone: +6012-213 3926.

For more information and reservations, do telephone: +603-2011 2220.

Wannah’s is a modest set-up at Bakti, Masjid At-Taqwa at Taman Tun Dr Ismail. Chef Sharifah Amnah Albar accepts orders of at least 10 packs and offers catering service too. For inquiries call +6019-771 7171, +6019-770 7070 or +6019-6000 999.

Laksa Johor

Laksa Johor
Preparation Time 4 hours
Cooking Time 3 hours
Total Time 7 hours

Ingredients

Gravy base

  • 1½ litres water
  • 300 g medium prawns, trimmed and washed
  • 800 g wolf herring, washed and cleaned
  • ½ cup grated coconut, white only
  • 70 g dried shrimps, soaked until soft
  • 70 g salted threadfin, soaked until soft and flaked
  • 1 cup cooking oil

Fresh spice paste (to blend in a food processor for the laksa gravy)

  • 20 shallots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 bulb garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 9 cm galangal, peeled and chopped
  • 10 cm ginger, peeled and chopped
  • 4 stalks lemon grass
  • 2 cups water

Dry spice

  • 5-6 tbsp fish curry powder
  • 3 tbsp chilli puree

Gravy

  • 500 ml coconut cream
  • 2 cups water
  • 3 tbsp tamarind paste
  • 3 cm shrimp paste
  • 4-5 tbsp kerisik paste
  • 4 stalks lemongrass, crushed
  • Handful of Vietnamese mint
  • Handful of Thai Basil leaves
  • ½ tbsp pepper
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • Salt to taste

Spaghetti

  • 2 boxes spaghetti (500 g each)

Condiments (to be served in a compartmentalised tray)

  • 3 cups bean sprouts, tailed
  • 2 large onions, peeled, quartered and finely sliced across
  • 2 cucumbers, the outer layer peeled, rolled and finely sliced across
  • 1 cup pickled radish (chye poh)
  • 2 cups Thai Basil leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 cup Vietnamese mint leaves, finely chopped
  • Sambal belacan
  • Calamansi limes, halved

Instructions

1. In a pot, bring the water to boil. Add the prawns and boil until cooked. Remove and shell. Set aside.

2. In the same pot, boil the fish until cooked. Remove, debone and flake. Strain the stock.

3. Blend the fish bones with a little of the fish stock and strain into a deep pot placed on the stove.

4. Liquidise the fish, prawns and coconut gratings with the strained stock. Pour into the pot with any excess stock.

5. Grind the dried shrimps and flaked salted threadfin and put aside.

6. Heat the oil in a pan and sauté the fresh grounded\spice paste spice paste, Then add the dry spice of curry powder and chilli puree. Add the dried shrimps and salted threadfin with lemongrass over low heat until fragrant and the oil separates. Stir in some stock and then pour into the gravy pot. Add any excess stock available.

7. Slowly add the coconut cream and remaining ingredients, stirring constantly. Slowly boil on low heat for 1½ - 2 hours until oil appears on the surface and the gravy is well combined. Add a little hot water if the gravy is too thick to get the right consistency.

8. In a pot of boiling salted water, cook the spaghetti until al dente. Plunge into cold water. Take a few strands and knot into portions.

9. Place 1-2 knots of spaghetti on a plate or in a serving bowl. Add the accompaniments and pour over the gravy. Top with a dash of sambal belacan and squeeze of lime for extra zest.



Notes

Recipe and image from Johor Palate: Tanjung Puteri Recipes by Kalsom Taib and Hamidah Abdul Hamid.

If you have tried any or all of the three types of laksa, which laksa team are you?
12 votes

Azlina ALI

About Azlina ALI

Veteran journalist, wife, mother, with an ever burning passion to write and tell stories. Then throw in a dose of healthy diet and an active lifestyle, Azlina is a force to be reckon with. She's a lean, mean storytelling machine.

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