Malaysian Laksa with Pumpkin (Spicy Noodle Soup)

"There is so much comfort in familiar tastes," writes Nigel Slater in The Kitchen Diaries. Laksa, a spice-strong noodle soup considered by some to be the unofficial national dish of Malaysia, is one of those dishes that serves up both comfort and surprise for me. There are countless variations and almost every state in Malaysia has its own version of the recipe. Depending on where I'm having it, the familiar dish can sometimes be a completely new discovery for my palate. 

"Laksa is a chameleon," says James Oseland in his cookbook Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, "radically changing its ingredients and flavors from one town to the next." Those radical changes are not limited to Malaysia and can apparently be mapped from Thailand all the way down to Singapore and Indonesia. 

The Oxford Companion to Food describes laksa as having many variations in the type of noodle, the seasonings, and the main ingredient. Most people are aware of the two main types of laksa: thick and rich in a coconut milk curry soup or sour and piquant in a tamarind-based stock. In reality, the variations continue to branch out even within these two forms, differing in the balance of spices and method of preparation. 

It is no wonder that the word laksa is believed to be derived from the Sanskrit 'laksha', meaning 'many', but The Oxford Companion to Food claims that it in fact comes from the original Persian word for noodle, 'lakhsha', adding to the complications of its origins.

One thing's for sure, laksa can be traced to the Chinese, Indian, and Arab traders on the spice route, explaining the significant laksa versions that have popped up in port cities Penang (tamarind-based asam laksa), Malacca (coconut milk-based Nyonya laksa), and Singapore (curry laksa, a version not unlike the one popular in Kuala Lumpur, that was included on CNN World's 50 Best Foods in 2011).

Perhaps adaptability is the reason for the widespread reach of laksa, and the reason a vegetarian version powered by pumpkin did not appear entirely strange to me. I first came across the recipe for pumpkin laksa from English food writer Nigel Slater's aforementioned book, The Kitchen Diaries. Entertained by the splendid East-meets-West idea and encouraged by the ridiculously easy recipe, I cooked and tweaked it based on my memory of eating laksa in Malaysia. It became our comfort food, a familiar taste from home. 

Further research pointed me to several more pumpkin laksa recipes that have appeared since the first publication of Slater's book in 2005, leading me to believe that this must be an iteration of the Southeast Asian dish in the West! And why not? The sweetness of pumpkin (or similar winter squash like kabocha and butternut) fits right in with the rich and spicy complexity of the soup, rounding out the pungency and adding nutritious bulk to the vegetarian recipe. 

From all the pumpkin laksa recipes I've come across, I'm most at home with the one from The Natural Food Kitchen by UK-based chef Jordan Bourke, and the recipe shared in this post is an adaptation of his. The main change I've made is adding the pumpkin into the soup earlier to simmer with the other ingredients in order to absorb the flavors and also to impart its own. I also blended half of the pumpkin into the soup to create a thicker consistency, thereby embedding this surprise ingredient into the DNA of this Western version of laksa. 

Like the rendang (a dry curry dish) and spicy tomato recipes I've shared before, the flavor foundation of laksa comes from spices like shallot, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, coriander seeds, cumin, and turmeric that are processed into a paste. Of all the ingredients featured, kaffir lime leaves may be the most elusive (read about them here) so I've made them optional as a way of preventing anyone from giving up on this recipe.

Another ingredient that could be challenging is tamarind paste, but I strongly believe that if there's an auspicious time to be learning about its essentiality in Southeast Asian food, it is in making this rewarding recipe. Hence the step-by-step photo guide below that I hope will help you incorporate tamarind paste into your Southeast Asian cooking. 

Tamarind in Southeast Asian Cooking
Many Southeast Asian dishes just wouldn't be the same without the fruity and citrusy sweet-sour flavor of tamarind, although I've used lime juice as a substitute during desperate times. The tamarind commonly used in cooking comes from the seed pods of the tamarind tree that can usually be found in pod form, as a hard block of pulp, as a concentrate, or in a powder form.

Tamarind concentrate and powder may present themselves as attractively convenient but I find the best results to come from making tamarind paste from the tightly packed pulpy block (preferably seedless), which is usually available at Asian stores and storable in the refrigerator for quite a long time. Based on my experience cooking in Malaysia, online research and trials at home, this is how you can prepare tamarind paste:

To make about 1/4 cup of tamarind paste, cut off 80-100g (about 1/2 cup) of tamarind pulp from the block. You don't have to be exact but these measurements are a useful guide. Place in a bowl and add about 1/2 cup of boiling water or enough to cover the pulp. Let the pulp sit in the water for 15 to 20 minutes to soften. 

Using a fork or your fingers, incorporate the pulp into the water as much as you can. Then pour the pulp into a fine mesh strainer atop a bowl and push the pulp through with a fork, spoon or spatula to separate the pulp from the fibers (and seeds).  

The result of all that hard work is a tamarind paste the consistency of apple sauce. It's not difficult although the process can get a little messy and requires some patience. I usually make a big batch of tamarind paste and portion it out into freezer bags to be frozen for later use. 

A Celebration of Noodles
Noodles are important in Asian culture for their length symbolizes longevity, and for this reason noodle dishes are always served during a birthday celebration. The significance of noodles is also acknowledged in other food cultures globally. United by a noodle obsession, several friends and I are having a #noodleholicsparty to share noodle recipes from all over the world. Check them all out at the bottom of the post. Slurp up! 

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Malaysian Laksa with Pumpkin
A spicy noodle soup with a coconut milk curry base. Pumpkin or other similar winter squash like kabocha and butternut adds solidity to this vegetarian version. Adapted from The Natural Food Kitchen by Jordan Bourke. Serves 4. 

2 to 3 cups pumpkin/ kabocha squash/ butternut squash, peeled, deseeded, and cut into chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt

3 fresh red chillies, deseeded
2 teaspoons chilli flakes
4 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
5 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
3 lemongrass stalks, outer leaves and woody ends removed and chopped
1-1/4-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon ground coriander seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
4 kaffir lime leaves (optional)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
4 tablespoons laksa paste
3 tablespoons coconut sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons sea salt
Zest and juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons tamarind paste (alternatively use another 2 tablespoons of lime juice)
3 cups coconut milk
1-1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
A large handful of spinach leaves

4 servings of rice noodles, cooked according to package instructions
1/2 red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 fresh red chilli, deseeded and thinly sliced
A small handful of fresh mint leaves
1 lime, quartered

Start by cooking the pumpkin either roasted in an oven at 350° F for 30 minutes with some olive oil and sea salt or steamed on medium high heat for 15 minutes until tender. 

To make the laksa paste, in a blender or food processor, add all the ingredients with 6 tablespoons of water and blend until you get a smooth paste, scraping down the sides when necessary. Set aside. 
In a large pot, heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat. Add the shallots and stir-fry for a few minutes until softened. Then turn down the heat and add 4 tablespoons of the laksa paste and cook for 5 minutes until the aromas are released. (There should be enough laksa paste left for another 4 servings, which can be refrigerated up to 1 week or frozen for much later use.)

Stir in coconut sugar, salt, lime zest and juice, and tamarind paste, and cook for another few minutes until the ingredients are incorporated and sizzling. Add 2 cups of the cooked pumpkin, coconut milk, and stock, and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat and allow the soup to simmer for 10 minutes. 

Using an immersion hand blender, gently blitz the soup to get some of the pumpkin pieces to blend into the soup. Alternatively, you can scoop half the soup into a blender to process but do be careful of the heat. Leave some chunky pieces of pumpkin in the soup or add another cup of cooked pumpkin.

Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning accordingly with more salt, lime juice or coconut sugar to achieve a nice balance of sour, salty, and sweet flavors. You can also add more stock or water if the soup is too thick. Once you're satisfied with the taste, add a large handful of spinach leaves and stir into the soup until they are slightly wilted. 

To serve, place the cooked rice noodles into separate bowls and ladle the hot soup onto the noodles until they are submerged. Top with thinly sliced red onions, sliced chilli, and mint leaves. Serve immediately with the option of lime wedges on the side to squeeze over.

Join the #noodleholicsparty for more delicious noodle recipes from around the world!
Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup (Pho Ga) by Beyond Sweet and Savory
Vegetarian Manchurian with Stir Fry Noodles by Box of Spice
Beef Ragu with Pappardelle by Cloudy Kitchen
Indonesian Boiled Noodles (Mie Rebus) by Pique Cooking
Chestnut Tortellini & Fettuccine in Sage Cream Sauce by Cuoco Contento
Vegetarian Tteokbokki by Husbands That Cook
Shrimp Scampi with Tagliatelle by Up Close and Tasty
Juniper Berry & Barley Noodles with Creamy Chantarelles by North Wild Kitchen
Vegan Jjajangmyeon by The Korean Vegan
Duck Noodle Soup by The Feast
Avocado Pesto Cream Sauce with Homemade Fettuccine Noodles by Lyndsey Eden
Homemade Ramen Noodles in a Lapsang Souchong Broth with Crispy Tofu by Twigg Studios
Kuching-Style Laksa by Pass Me the Dim Sum
Shanghai Scallion Oil Noodle (Cong You Ban Mian) by Omnivore's Cookbook
Oak-Smoked Pasta Cacio e Pepe by Harvest and Honey
Noodle in Burmese Coconut and Chickpea Broth (Oh-no-khao-swe) by Lime and Cilantro
Aceh Noodles (Mie Aceh) by What to Cook Today
Persian Noodle (Reshteh) by Noghlemey