Laksa is a delicious medley of flavours originating in Malaysia and South-East Asia. Full of fresh ingredients, many are medicinal and most are easy to grow, especially if you live in a tropical climate.
Laksa has become iconic in the Australian city of Darwin, a multicultural melting pot that is reflected in its cuisine, colourful markets and local produce. From food stalls and restaurants vying for the fame of making the city’s best laksa, where recipes become closely guarded family secrets, through to the launch of the annual Darwin International Laksa Festival in 2019.
Laksa originates from just a few hundred kilometres north of Australia in South-East Asia and there are hundreds of variants of this fresh and famous dish. Essentially it is a coconut-based noodle soup that is expertly balanced with sweet, hot and sour flavours and comes in many variants.
The word laksa – pronounced lahksa – is believed to have derived from the classical Indian Sanskrit language and means ‘many’, which refers to the number of ingredients required to make it. The secret to making a great laksa starts with the making of a laksa paste, the ingredients of which you can make almost entirely from plants grown in your own backyard.
The majority of laksa pastes include chilli, turmeric, ginger or galangal and lemongrass. Ground into a paste and fried off, it forms the base of a broth, to which coconut milk is then added. This is then heated and poured over the main ingredients of noodles and meat and topped with coriander, Vietnamese mint, Thai basil and makrut (also referred to as kaffir – a term Pip prefers not to use due to its racist origins) lime leaves.
Also included in the paste is garlic (or garlic chives), lime juice and macadamia (or cashew) nuts, all of which of course you could commit to growing, some on the longer term. All of the ingredients add either fragrant, sour or hot flavours, which are important to balance the overall flavour against the sweet and creamy coconut milk. And to top laksa off as a winning homegrown dish, these plantbased ingredients also have many positive health and digestive properties.
Plants Of The Paste
Chilli (Capsicum frutescens) There are endless varieties of chillies, but long hot reds are a good choice for laksa. Arguably the most important ingredient in the paste, chilli can also be an extra level of fresh heat in the garnish. Its hot, mouth-tingling kick binds with pain receptors, and many, many humans associate the burning sensation with pleasure as endorphins are released during its consumption.
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) Originating from India and in the grass family (Poaceae), lemongrass thrives in the wet season and grows in a clump, making it a great border plant. It enjoys full sun and is easily propagated from division. Lemongrass is one of the key ingredients in laksa paste, which also features in many other curry pastes and sauces from South-East-Asian cuisine. It adds a fresh fragrant zing and is smashed with a mortar and pestle into the paste.
Full of essential oils including citral, geraniol and nerol, lemongrass contains vitamins A, B and C and is high in iron, chromium and magnesium. Due to its antifungal and antimicrobial properties, lemongrass is used to treat coughs and colds as well as to aid digestion. There are several Australian native lemongrasses which have similar properties.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is in the ginger family and gives the soup its golden orange colour. It is used as a food and fabric dye throughout the world, it’s native to the monsoon forests of South-East Asia, but grows very well in many parts of Australia. Classified as a modern-day ‘superfood’, turmeric has many medicinal qualities. High in vitamins A and C, it is anti-inflammatory, a digestive aid and, among other things, stimulates the glands and liver function. Its active ingredient is curcumin; which is absorbed best by the body if consumed with oils, such as in coconut milk, so perfect in a laksa.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a herbaceous perennial harvested for its zingy-tasting root which adds fragrant flavour to the laksa paste. It thrives in warmer climates, its leaves sprout up and its roots expand in the wet season, before becoming dormant in the cooler dry season. Originating in China some 5000 years ago, ginger is considered a tonic for many ailments in both Chinese and herbal medicine all around the world. An incredible root that is widely used as an anti-inflammatory and as an effective digestive aid.
Torch ginger (Etlingera elatior) loves the humid tropics, it is a perennial known for its stunning pink rubbery flowers. The flower bud can be added into laksa paste along with galangal for a subtle fragrance. It is mainly used in Malaysian-style pastes and known as Bunga Katan. Galangal (Alpinia galanga) can be used as a root in the paste instead of ginger, alone for a more subtle fragrant flavour or in combination with torch ginger. Also in the Ginger family (Zingerberaceae) but taller and more robust, it is also an anti-inflammatory, an antioxidant and reported to support good brain health.
Saw-tooth coriander (Eryngium foetidum) is a small clumping herb with serrated leaves. It loves plenty of water and a shady or partly shady spot and is easier to grow all year round if you are in the humid tropics. This plant originates in Mexico and Central America and has a similar taste to common coriander (Coriandrum sativum). Either variety can be used in both the paste and as a garnish on top and both boast digestive properties.
Clockwise from top: Fresh galangal straight out of the garden; Vietnamese mint is a must when garnishing an authentic laksa; Turmeric is the source of laksa’s distinct colour; Torch ginger’s flower spikes can grow up to one-metre tall; Makrut lime leaves are regularly found in Australian backyards in the tropics. Photos By Emma Lupin
A mix of fresh herbs, chilli and crunchy bits tops off any great laksa. Vietnamese mint (Persicaria odorata) is sometimes called laksa herb, and it’s an essential ingredient when garnishing Malaysian-style laksas. It is a wonderful creeping herb which loves moist climates and wet feet, so you can grow it in a pond or near a tap. The joy of the laksa is that you can try various combinations of pastes, fillers and toppings. Your knowledge and love of laksa can only grow, along with your garden, which will be full of medicinal plants as your taste buds tingle.
2 long red chillies, finely sliced
1 stick of lemongrass, white part only, finely sliced
1 tsp of grated turmeric
1 tbsp of grated ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp coriander root
1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted
1 lime, juice only
2 tbsp of macadamia or cashew nuts
Add all ingredients to a mortar and pestle and pound until a paste is formed. It can be used immediately, or will keep well in the fridge until you’re ready to make your laksa.