October brings us to the 3rd month of the Malaysian Food Fest and this month, we visit Terengganu! I’d never been the the eastern coast of Peninsula Malaysia, i.e. Pahang, Terengganu, Kelantan but I do know that the eastern coastal line is famous for its white sandy beaches with swaying coconut trees against the clear blue skies and idyllic sea. Pulau Redang and Pulau Perhentian are famous snorkelling and scuba-diving spots comparable to Manado and the aussie reefs! Where there’s sea, there’ll be lots of seafood and Terengganu cuisine is characterised by the liberal use of it! Laksam Terengganu is a recipe which had me very curious for quite some time already when I started reading up on the signature dishes of the various Malaysian states for MFF. It is intriguing in many respects, firstly the use of a homemade rice-based noodle which reminded me much of the cantonese chee cheong fun and a gravy thickened with fish meat! I knew instinctively that this has to be on my no. 1 to-try list for Terengganu. So here I go!
The first challenge is to find a good working recipe for the dish. Thankfully, Laksam is a fairly well-known, well-made and well-blogged about dish. So a quick google search churned out quite a few seemingly good recipes with slight variations from each other. As with many Terengganu dishes, there exist variants in the other states, most notably in Kelantan and Laksam is no exception. Unlike the other dishes which showed distinctive regional diversity, e.g Ketupat Sotong, Laksam’s concoction and composition has minimal difference between the two states. Then there’re variations from village to village, household to household with every makcik and nenek having her own “instinctive” way of cooking this dish, which was probably passed down to her from her mother who in turned learnt it from hers. Much like how 100 villages in Italy would have 150 different ways of cooking pasta! After much discussion with Wendy, I’d finally settled for a recipe blogged by a lady who resides in Terengganu.
A good work flow helps to put everything in time perspective so that no time is wasted. One thing is cooked while waiting for another to cool, that’s basically now this whole dish could be put together, like clockwork. We start off with the preparation of the fish,removing the innards and gills as well as cleaning the stomach cavity to rid it of any remnant blood clots and loosely hanging digestive tract. Any residual innards would make the meat around it bitter and quite non-palatable. So cleaning and gutting the fish is a simple but pertinent step. When the fish is poaching, start the mixing the batter fo laksam. Fish takes a very short time to cook and for me, I turned off the flame when the fish is JUST cooked (when the eyes turned cloudy but before they pop). While waiting for the fish to cool so that the meat can be extracted, continue with the making of laksam.
The laksam making method is suspiciously similar to how chee cheong fun can be homemade, with only slight variations in terms of flour type and ratio. But it is essentially the same! Most curious indeed! Traditionally laksam is made using the round lids of those large aluminium vessels for cooking gulai the slight indentation in the centre is perfect for holding the batter. I settled for a square shallow tin tray which is around 20 x 20 cm and it does the job really well too! I tested out the consistency of the batter with a first trial and found it to be rather thick. Hence, I adjusted the batter by thinning it further with another cup of water. It could have been my fault to start with as the recipes published in bahasa melayu stated proportions in “cawan” while I used measuring cups which are significantly smaller in capacity. The additional cup of water ironed out the consistency issue. The rice flour sheets have to be rolled before they cool down completely for the sheet to adhere together and not unravel itself. I found it easier to work with the rice flour sheet about 30 seconds after it has been removed from the steamer. That said, I think it would be easier to work with two trays at one go, alternating one in the steamer while the other is waiting to be cooled.
The kuah, i.e. gravy portion is also very intriguing as it uses fish meat as a flavouring as well as a thickening agent in place of the usual buah keras or tapioca or corn starch. Talk about lavish eating! The resulting concoction is very very delicious, enough to make me go for two bowls in succession after the photos were done! But I was a bit mindful about the amount of coconut milk that is to be added. The original recipe called for 500 ml of coconut milk which acted as the only liquid agent in the whole recipe. Wouldn’t it be too jelak? Thus, I modified to use 300 ml of thick coconut milk, as well as the fish poaching liquids topped up with more water to make up for an additional 300 ml. After reducing the liquids by bringing the gravy to a simmer with lid off for the last 15 min, the resulting concoction worked very very well for me, sufficiently thick to coat and adhere onto the laksam without the heft and “jelakness” i.e. cloying aftertaste from having too much coconut milk. During this time, prepare the Ulam-ulaman, a good time to practice those chiffonading and julienning skills!
The poaching liquids added a wonderful dimension to the dish, with subtle sour hints of the asam gelugur added but not overpowering. The main flavour profile is drawn from the ginger as well as the unami components from the fish and salt combination. And of course, the ulam mixture lifted the dish with wafts of aroma from the bunga kantan and daun kesom as well as crunch from timun and kachang panjang, all in generous portions. On the whole, it is a very well-balanced dish, especially after the quintessential dollop of sambal belachan and ceremonious spritz of limau katsuri.
Don’t belittle this kuah concoction which resembles mud for facial mask and cement! Its packed with so much umami goodness it’ll make you go for second and thirds! I know because I did!
Laksam (recipe adapted from here) for 3 – 4 portions
for Laksam (produces 6-8 20 x 20 cm sheets to be rolled)
3 cups of rice flour
1/2 cup plain flour
5 cups warm water
500 g ikan kembong (can be substituted with similar varieties)
3 slices of asam gelugur
300g coconut milk
1 inch of ginger
a dash of black pepper
salt ands sugar to taste
1/2 a cucumber (timun)
5-8 long beans (kachang panjang)
1 torch ginger bud (bunga kantan)
a handful of vietnamese coriander (daun kesom)
Other vegetables like cabbage and beansprouts can also be used.
To prepare ikan kembong,
1. Gut and wash fish thoroughly.
2. Arrange fish in a wok or deep saucepan and add a cup of water, 3 slices of asam gelugur and a pinch of salt.
3. Bring the mixture to a boil and reduce flame to a low simmer for 5 min until fish is just cooked.
4. Open lid and set aside to cool.
5. Discard the asam gelugur but set aside the fish poaching liquids for later use.
6. Scrape fish meat with a fork and pulvierise with a food processor with some water added into a thick paste. Set aside.
To prepare laksam,
1. Mix all the laksam ingredients and mix well with a hand whisk
2. Grease pot lid or shallow tray and place it over a wok of water.
3. Bring a wok of water to a strong boil and pour the batter over the lid/tray and steam in 3-4 minutes.
4. Remove tray from work and leave to cool slightly (appro. 30s)
5. Carefully roll the rice flour sheet and set aside.
6. Grease tray again and repeat until all the batter is used up.
To prepare gravy,
1. Blend ginger and shallots in a food processor.
2. To a cooking pot, pour in coconut milk, pulverised fish paste, blended ginger and shallots and appro. 300 ml of water made up with the fish poaching liquids.
3. Bring the mixture to a strong boil before lowering flame to a gentle simmer, lid off.
4. Add salt and sugar to taste and reduce liquids to the desired consistency.
5. Add freshly ground black pepper the gravy and turn off the flame.
To prepare Ulam,
1. Finely juilenne cucumber slices into matchsticks.
2. Thinly slice torch ginger bud and long beans into rings
3. Chiffonade vietnamese coriander into small bits.
1. Place a portion of chopped up laksam into a serving dish.
2. Ladle the hot gravy over the laksam.
3. Garnish with ulam mixture and serve with sambal belachan and lime.
Overall, it is a very very satisfying experience to have made this dish from scratch. The dish is really lovely, owing much to the simple yet robust textures and flavours throughout. My only regret is not to have known and made this dish earlier! 🙂