Tuesday, December 16, 2008
The Laksa Hunters
Tracking down the best laksa in town is one of the favourite pursuits for me, being a sucker for this most beloved of Sarawak’s cuisine. So after reading a glowing report in a local newspaper about a certain Barrett Tan’s laksa, I decided to check it out with my friends Justin and Francis, two equally die-hard laksa fanatics.
It was already ten o’clock in the morning and the weather was hot, just perfect for a bowl of laksa to purge all our body’s impurities out via sweating! The coffee shop is located in the Bormill area behind Jln Keretapi. We were lucky, Barrett was there manning the stall doing his stuff.
When the three bowls of laksa were brought before us, Francis gave an incredulous cry, “Where’s the wansui (coriander)?” For hard-core laksa purists like us, chowing down laksa without coriander is like munching hot dog without mustard.
“It’s difficult to get them, not that we don’t want to give any.” the lady explained, sounding very apologetic.
Francis groaned, “Well, that’s one star taken off the rating already!” as Justin and I nodded in unison. Even the extra scoops of cut parsley given to us could not placate our disappointment, for absolutely nothing can replace the ghastly smell of coriander so vital to a bowl of wholesome Sarawak laksa. But in a generous mood that morning, we decided to adopt an open mind and reserved our verdict at the end.
The soup stock was fragrant, but its brownish colour was not appealing enough as it lacked the bright orangey tinge of chili oil. Except for the lack of coriander, garnishing got pretty high marks with the prawns, fish cake and chicken shreddings.
However, a simple ritual has to be performed before a real laksa connoisseur commence eating, and that is to hold the lime with the cut opened side against the spoon while holding the latter above the sambal, then squeeze until the lime juice drip on to the mini sambal saucer without the seeds dropping. This way it eliminates the hassle (however frivolous. Hey, I told you this is a ritual, right?) of picking up the seeds from from the sambal. Next, gently stir the mixture (the juice and the sambal) in the little saucer until it asssumes a watery paste. While you struggle to contain your drooling saliva, quicky pour the whole mixture into the laksa and start stirring until they are evenly mixed with the soup. Some like to order an extra sambal for dipping the prawns and chicken shreddings in to.
Sorry, another digression. Scoop up the beehoon, it should be so piping hot that the steam clouds your glasses, another hallmark of a good bowl of laksa. You see, you can have great taste, brilliant presentation, tons of garnishing and heaps of coriander, and I don’t care it’s as hot as noon time in the Sahara Desert without an umbrella, if the soup is not searing my tongue or heavens forbid, lukewarm, wham! My chopsticks will come crashing down as I summon the waiter to redo the dish. Excuse me for the outburst, but that’s how passionate we Sarawakians are about our laksa.
Back to Barrett’s soup. I find it piquant and rich enough to send the tastebuds in my tongue go dancing with joy. Yes, it has the full-bodied you-cant-express-in-words taste of the real Laksa Sarawak. And my two laksamigos seemed to concur.
“How is it?” I asked prodding for a response from both of them, after we wiped traces of the soup from our mouths when we finished.
“Hmmm… good, very good, will come again definitely”, said Francis, apparently he had forgiven Barrett the missing coriander and the off-colour soup.
“Very good! Look at my sweat and my running nose!” Justin enthused as he quickly wiped them away.
My verdict? Burp! Excuse me. I love it! Barrett makes me proud to be a Sarawakian! Enough said.
Just then Barrett happened to walked by and as the crowd had thinned somewhat, Justin stopped him asked a very interesting question. “Who invented Sarawak Laksa?”. Little did we knew that we were talking to the custodian of the most sought after secret recipe of the most popular food of Sarawak, the son of the inventor himself!
We listened in fascination as Barrett related how his late father, Mr Tan Yong Him, who ran a canteen in a school in the late 1950s, concocted a soup stock to go with the beehoon, and through many years of experiments finally came up with the winning recipe, which until today is still the trade secret of the Tan family.
“So in other words, before your father came up with this recipe, there was no such thing as Sarawak Laksa?” I cheekily asked. “Nope!” was the reply. There you have it! Now you know who is the real McCoy of Sarawak Laksa! It’s Mr Barrett Tan!
Barrett even have a factory manufacturing packets of laksa paste for sale, and he also exports them to overseas market for nostalgic Malaysians there. We were shown a showcase of the products complete with jars of sambal balachan. Barrett even gave us a lecture on how to make the perfect Sarawak Laksa by divulging certain “secrets” to us. Yes! I do know the secret already! No, I’m not disclosing them here. If you are interested do go to his cafe and entice him to reveal it! Or visit his website.
Ended up Justin and Francis each bought several packets and some sambal. Me? I’m the lazy one! The what they call culinary ignoramus on the cooking side. I prefer to take the easy way out - eat out! The last time I hold a frying pan and a spatula in my kitchen, I dropped the frying pan when my handphone rang in my pocket. Butterfingers. Cooking don’t run in my family.