When you’re in the mood for a piping hot bowl of soup noodles, you might get the ramen at a Japanese restaurant or you might get the pho at a Vietnamese restaurant. Another excellent option, particularly if you’re looking for a little more heat, is Malaysian laksa.
But it’s not entirely accurate to categorize laksa as a wholly Malaysian dish. Just as Taiwanese cuisine is a fusion of many different cultural influences, laksa derives some of its roots from the early Chinese migrants who settled into Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. The net result is a spicy noodle soup that borrows inspiration from all these sources.
Laksa is very commonly found on the menus of Malaysian, Indonesian, Singaporean and even Thai restaurants throughout Richmond, Metro Vancouver and beyond. That said, as with so many other Asian noodle soups, no two bowls of laksa are going to be quite the same due to regional variations and how each chef approaches the dish. You’ll also find it served in a range of different establishments.
A great example of this is Cafe D’Lite Express (#3210 – 4151 Hazelbridge Way), located in the Aberdeen Centre food court. It doesn’t get much more casual than this, as the soup noodles are served in a disposable plastic container atop your typical food court tray.
Four versions of laksa are sold here, though all of them uses the same noodles and broth; only the topping changes. The Hainanese chicken laksa ($8.95) is both the most common and likely the most popular, but you can alternatively opt for the tofu vegetable laksa, the fish ball laksa or the seafood laksa if you prefer.
The biggest difference that you will encounter between the laksa served at different restaurants is the broth. In the case of Cafe D’Lite Express, the broth has a bright orange-red hue with the creamier coconut milk floating on top. The flavour is that of a spicy curry with a decent amount of heat.
You may also find that different restaurants include different noodles in their laksa. The bowl I received had a combination of a thicker rice noodle, almost soba-like in size and consistency, plus a very thin rice vermicelli. Along with the chicken and noodles, you also get some fried tofu puffs and bean sprouts.
Prata-Man Singapore Cuisine (#180 – 9060 Capstan Way), located in a humble strip mall on the southeast corner of Garden City Road and Capstan Way, is one of Richmond’s best hole in the wall restaurants. That’s perhaps why it shouldn’t be so surprising that it is also the cheapest of the three restaurants featured here, offering its bowl of laksa for just $7.50.
It’s remarkably casual, like a Singaporean take on the greasy spoon diner, complete with folding chairs like a hawker’s stand, offering humble fare like it was prepared by a Malaysian grandmother.
As a general rule of thumb, laksa comes in one of two types. There’s curry laksa and then there’s asam laksa, the latter of which is decidedly more sour. Prata-Man’s laksa isn’t wholly either one of these. Instead of the usual coconut milk to accompany the curry-based broth, the laksa at Prata-Man had more of a slight sweetness to it, possibly from tamarind. The spiciness doesn’t hit you like a brick wall. Instead, there’s a mild heat that slowly builds up in your mouth as you consume the soup, never quite getting to the point of being overwhelming.
The broth is not bright orange, either. It’s more of an earthier brown, reminding me of the colour of a red miso paste (but not tasting at all like miso). You might almost confuse it for the similar curry mee, a name that is sometimes used interchangeably with certain types of laksa.
There’s no doubt that the Hainanese chicken rice at Prata-Man is the restaurant’s signature dish. The meat is flavorful, slightly oily, and terrifically tender, but the laksa’s also worth a try. Like Cafe D’Lite, Prata-Man also includes tofu puffs and bean sprouts in its laksa. You’ll also find a single shrimp along with half a hard-boiled egg.
There’s a reason why Deer Garden Signatures (#1213 – 8338 Capstan Way), found in the far west end of Union Square (with their second location on Alexandra Road), is so popular among locals. The custom soup noodle bowls come with a beverage of your choosing for a very affordable price.
You don’t order the laksa off the regular menu here. Instead, you effectively build your own through the “Noodles combos at your choice” ($10.50) order sheet, selecting laksa as your soup base instead of one of the restaurant’s popular fish soup bases.
I combined the Malay laksa soup with thick rice noodles, deep fried fish cake and fish tofu. You can easily go much more unconventional with some of the other options, like sliced beef brisket, pork intestines, luncheon meat, or even century egg. As with all the other custom soup noodles at Deer Garden, the laksa here automatically comes with green onion, cabbage, mushroom and cilantro too. The portion size is easily the largest of the ones highlighted too.
And even though all three bowls of laksa can technically be classified as curry laksa, they all take a very different approach to the dish. The curry broth at Deer Garden is yellow in colour and not especially spicy at all. When you consider that Deer Garden is probably better thought of as a Taiwanese restaurant, along with the fact that the laksa is a custom creation rather than a set menu item, this is the least traditional of the bunch.
This certainly isn’t to say that one bowl is necessarily superior to the others. It comes down to a matter of personal preference and it really demonstrates just how varied laksa can be. You could get a bowl that is especially spicy or you might not. You could get a bowl with coconut milk or you might get one that has a stronger tamarind flavour. One bowl may have thicker noodles and another bowl may have thinner noodles.
One thing of which you can be certain, though, is that a piping hot bowl of laksa is one of the most comforting things you can eat for about ten dollars or less.