1. It’s a flexible way to use up pantry staples.
Looking to expand beyond beans and rice, and need an excuse to crack into your spice stash? Laksa (a spicy noodle soup that hails from Southeast Asia) is the perfect cause to which you can devote your ginger and garlic, your tins of coconut milk, your chicken stock. And don’t worry if you don’t have all the ingredients to hand: this flexible and versatile dish can be tweaked to match what’s in your pantry. Limes work in place of lime leaves, use lemon zest instead of lemongrass, go for sweet onions instead of shallots, and otherwise adapt it to fit what’s in your cupboards.
2. It’s a good excuse to support your local Asian grocery stores.
If you feel like going ingredient-hunting, making laksa is a good way to support your locals. I’m blessed with three Asian grocery stores within walking distance of my flat, and – despite the fact that I walk past 40-minute-long queues outside Sainsbury’s and Whole Foods to reach them – their shelves are barely depleted and there’s never a wait to get in. This pandemic has been dogged by racism since its beginning and Asian grocery stores are still suffering. If you need a supplier for prawn paste and rice noodles, you know where to go.
3. It’s a multi-hour project.
That might have been off-putting in The Before Times, but if you’re like me, you’re now desperately seeking fulfilling ways to occupy yourself at home. Apart from drinking beer and Netflix, culinary projects have been one of my favourite ways to spend a few hours each day: the demanding physicality of cooking, the chopping of vegetables and watching the bubbling of aromatic broths all have a way of pushing thoughts of The Current Situation to the back of my mind for a while.
4. It’s a perfect transitional dish.
The reason this recipe came into being is that I roasted a chicken last week and decided to use the carcass to make chicken stock (this crisis has made homesteaders of us all). But as the weather has warmed, I didn’t want a chicken and rice soup, or anything too rich and wintry. With its zap of chilli and tang of lime, its mint and coriander garnishes, this soup was made for the perfect, sun-drenched spring we’re now watching through all of our windows.
5. It’s delicious with Vienna lager.
Specifically, the one that Braybrooke Beer Co and Donzoko Brewing Company – two of my favourite British lager brewers – have collaborated on. Lager is the preferred beer pairing option in Southeast Asia, and while Vienna lager may be thin on the ground in Malaysia, this style’s richer malt profile does an admirable job of tempering the laksa’s heat while still refreshing on the way down. Made with Vienna malt and a small amount of caramel malt, as well as classic German hop varieties, this bready, toffee-hued beer is so good that, after downing mine, I immediately ordered four more bottles. Save some for your laksa, and the rest for your socially distanced sunbathing session in your garden.
For the laksa paste:
3 dried chillies (preferably guajillo or another large, medium-hot dried chilli)
4 lemongrass stalks, woody outer layers removed, tender core chopped
1 3-inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2-3 bird’s eye chillies, de-stemmed and chopped
3 échalion (banana) shallots, peeled and chopped
4 teaspoons fermented prawn (shrimp) paste
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
For the laksa:
500g bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and drumsticks
Fine sea salt
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon white or black peppercorns
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 400ml tins coconut milk
2 litres chicken stock
4 makrut lime leaves
1 cinnamon stick
2–3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1–2 tablespoons fish sauce
400g thin rice noodles
Large handful bean sprouts
Large handful fresh mint leaves, torn
Large handful fresh coriander leaves, torn
1. First, prep your laksa paste. De-stem and de-seed the dried chillies, and place in a small bowl. Pour over boiling water and leave to soak for roughly 15 minutes, or until softened. Drain.
2. Add the remaining laksa paste ingredients to a food processor, alongside the soaked chillies. Blitz for roughly 3–4 minutes, pausing to scrape down the sides with a spatula if needed, until you have a mostly uniform paste. Set aside.
3. Remove the chicken thighs and drumsticks from the fridge and season generously with sea salt; leave to warm slightly for 20–30 minutes. Meanwhile, prep your spices. Add the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds and peppercorns to a small frying pan and place over medium heat. Toast, tossing frequently, for 3–4 minutes, or until darkened and fragrant. Leave to cool for a few minutes before transferring to a spice grinder or mortar. Grind finely and transfer to a small bowl, alongside the ground turmeric. Mix to combine and set aside.
4. Place a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the vegetable oil. Once the oil is hot, place the chicken pieces in a single layer. Cook for 2–3 minutes, or until browned; flip and continue cooking until browned on all sides. Transfer the chicken pieces to a plate, but keep the oil in the pot.
5. Add the laksa paste and the ground spices to the pot and cook, stirring frequently, for 2–3 minutes, or until the paste loses its raw smell, looks slightly darker and starts pulling away from the sides of the pot when stirred. Add one of the tins of coconut milk and bring the mix to a boil; cook for roughly 5 minutes, or until the mixture is thickened and reduced. Add the second tin of coconut milk and stir to combine. Add the chicken stock and raise the heat to high.
6. Once the broth is boiling, turn the heat down to a simmer and add the reserved chicken pieces, alongside the lime leaves and cinnamon stick. Cook for approximately 30–35 minutes, or until the chicken is very tender. Transfer the chicken pieces to a plate and leave to cool. Once cool enough to handle, remove the skin and discard with the bones. Shred the chicken meat and return to the pot.
7. Add the brown sugar and fish sauce to the pot. Taste for seasoning and add additional sugar, fish sauce or salt, if needed. Meanwhile, cook the rice noodles according to package instructions. Rinse with cool water to prevent them sticking or becoming gummy. Rinse the bean sprouts well and set aside.
8. Divide the rice noodles between bowls and ladle over the soup. Garnish with the bean sprouts, the fresh herbs, and the sambal oelek.
Claire M Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beerhound and an all-around lover of tasty things. Our award-winning first book with Claire, The Beer Lover’s Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, is out now and available in all good book stores (and at HB&B). Follow her on Twitter at @clairembullen. Get a bottle of Braybrooke’s amazing collab with Donzoko while you can, or try Braybrooke’s Keller Lager if it's sold out again...