Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Back to SE Asia -- Chicken Laksa

I have written before about my love affair with Malaysian cuisine. One of the many dishes of which I became enamored is laksa. Laksa is a spicy noodle soup that originated in the Pernakan culture. It's fusion food -- a combination of native Malay and Chinese influences.

The heart of laksa is the same as the heart of Malaysian sambals: the spice paste. I warn you now that making the spice paste is time consuming, unless you have someone doing the prep work for you. I didn't. It was very tiring and time consuming. The recipe claimed a short preparation time -- 30 minutes. That was a flat-out lie! It took me longer. Maybe I'm a slow cook.

Spice pastes for laksas and sambals usually include some combination of shallots or onions, garlic, fresh ginger, lemongrass, chilies, belachan (dried shrimp paste), coriander, cumin, tumeric and other spices (and the spices should be whole, then put over heat to release their fragrance, then ground). Once you blend this concoction, it gets sauteed in oil in a large pot or a wok. Doing so releases the flavors, which become more complex as they heat together.

The laksa that I made a few days ago uses coconut milk. The recipe can be lightened by using low-fat coconut milk. Because of the rich spices and seasonings, you don't lose much in the flavor department by lightening up the coconut milk. You can also vary the heat in the laksa by adding more or fewer chilies. I strongly recommend against not using any chilies. Bending to the pressure of my son, I made this laksa once without any chilies and it was an unmitigated disaster. This dish requires some amount of heat. I tend to love spicy food, so I'm fairly liberal in my use of chilies.


Chicken Laksa

1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground tumeric
1 onion, roughly chopped
1tablespoon roughly chopped ginger
3 cloves garlic, peeled
3 stems lemon grass (white part only) sliced
6 candlenuts or macadamia nuts (see Notes)
4- small fresh red chillies
2-3 teaspoons shrimp paste, roasted (see Notes) 4 cups_ chicken stock
1/4 cup oil
14 oz chicken thigh fillets, cut into 3/4 inch pieces
3 cups coconut milk
4 fresh makrut (kaffir) lime leaves
2 1/2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons grated palm suger or soft brown suar
9 oz dried rice vermicelli
3 1/4 oz bean sprouts
4 fried tofu puffs, julienned
3 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh Vietnamese mint
2/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves
lime wedges, to serve

1. Roast the coriander and cumin seeds in a dry saucepan or frying pan over medium heat for 1-2 minutes, or until fragrant, tossing the pan constantly to prevent them burning. Grind finely in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
2. Place all the spices, onion, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, candlenuts, chilies and shrimp paste in a food processor or blender. Add about 1/2 cup of the stock and blend to fine paste.
3. Heat the oil in a wok or large saucepan over low heat and gently cook the paste for 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent it burning or sticking to the bottom. Add the remaining stock and bring to the boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 15 minutes, or until reduced slightly. Add the chicken and simmer for 4-5 minutes, or until cooked through.
4. Add the coconut milk, lime leaves, lime juice, fish sauce and palm sugar and simmer for 6 minutes over medium-low heat. Do not bring to the boil or cover with a lid, as the coconut milk will split.
5. Meanwhile, place the vermicelli in a heatproof bowl, cover with boiling water and soak for 6-7 minutes, or until softened. Drain and divide among large serving bowls with the bean sprouts. Ladle the hot soup over the top and garnish with some tofu strips, mint and coriander leaves. Serve with a wedge of lime.

Note: Raw candlenuts are slightly toxic so must be coked before use. To roast the shrimp paste, wrap the paste in foil and place under a hot grill (broiler) for 1 minutes.

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