Wednesday, January 23, 2008

In search of perfection

Penang Post #6. After pigging out at Pulau Tikus market for breakfast (previous post), we decide to head off to Ayer Itam for lunch. This gave us a chance to see the Kek Lok Si temple, a sprawling hillside complex of prayer halls, outdoor statues and pagodas before checking out the well-known assam laksa stall in the market there.

We were a little apprehensive though, since I had heard one or two mutterings about it – too touristy, not as good as before – and even Robyn had blogged about her taxi driver’s sneer at the mention of this stall. But J was on a quest for assam laksa heaven and could not be stopped.

After working off our breakfast walking through the Kek Lok Si temple, we settled on a table by the side of the market. The stall had been in existence, according to Rasa Rasa (which recommends it), since the 1950s and is now run by a father and son team. They operate not out of a coffeeshop, but just on the five-foot way alongside the market.

While the assam laksa did not blow our minds away, it had many things going for it. The fish-based soup was thick and flavourful, although it was sweeter than we expected. The balance of the ingredients was just about right – tart and spicy, without either overwhelming the other. The mix of fresh ingredients – onions, ginger bud, lettuce, cucumber, mint – is added to provide a welcome contrast to the strong soup and the dollop of hae kor (prawn paste) that is usually mixed into the broth. The fish, however, pieces were too small, and I wouldn’t have minded more fresh ingredients. But we were ultimately bothered by the sweetness of the broth. Was this a concession to its hordes of Singaporean customers mentioned in the guidebooks?

I asked the father if I could take a picture or two. He broke into a wide grin and said it was sure, sure. He then very obligingly proceeded to model for me, going through the motions of preparing a bowl (even though there weren’t any orders waiting to be filled at that moment), and making sure to look up in my general directions now and again. The man has great PR! Customer service: A+; food: B+.

In our drive around the island that afternoon, we passed through Balik Pulau, and remembered that this quiet neighbourhood on the other side of the island is well known for two assam laksa stalls. Alas, it was a Wednesday, when both normally close.

It would be the next day when we ate our second (and last) bowl of assam laksa for the trip. This was at the stall run by an old lady and recommended by Robyn’s taxi driver. She operates out of G Town coffeeshop on the junction of Jalan Burma and Lorong Kinta.

You can tell visually that this was somewhat different from the Ayer Itam version. The soup was lighter, there were more of the chopped fresh ingredients, and the fish pieces were chunkier. Although the lighter broth was flavourful, it lacked that extra depth and heft that is needed to carry the dish. The fish pieces were delicious while the onions, cucumbers, mint and other fresh ingredients provided a pleasing burst of lightness that moderated the sourness and spiciness of the dish. A– would be a fair grade.

As we hopped from one cluster of street stalls to another during our four days in Penang, we noticed that almost all clusters had a few standards – char kuay teow, prawn mee, koay teow thng. But in smaller clusters of stalls, there was often no assam laksa stall, probably because dish is so damn difficult to cook, as I found out one day when trying to learn how my brother-in-law does it. Shadowing him in his kitchen from morning to evening, I took copious notes, then swore, much to J’s disappointment, that I would never, ever try to replicate it (especially in lands far away) – it just takes too much work to do it the right way.

Alas, disappointed at not finding assam laksa heaven, I called my sister to find some sympathy. She ventured that perfection was to be found not in Penang, assam laksa's spiritual home, but in her kitchen! And so, some days after we returned from the island, we drove to a quiet suburb in Petaling Jaya, and had the perfect bowl of brother-in-law assam laksa.


Jen L. said...


What I wouldn't give for a bowl of perfect BIL assam laksa right now....

Anne said...

At least u guys hv the chance to eat it once in a way. Sigh, we poor culinarily deprived non-BIL-connected Singaporeans can only leave pools of drool at the keyboard. If only perfect cooks could be cloned ...

Aromatic Beans said...

We can arrange for some BIL specialties (especially Nyonya ones) if you and the gang make a trip up!!