For the love of assam laksa

GEORGE TOWN, April 20 — It has been described as being as pungent as a clogged drain or as fragrant as a bowl of hot spicy fish soup.

Yes, the Penang assam laksa is one hawker dish that you either love or hate from the first sip of its sourish, spicy broth.

This is originally a Nyonya (Straits Chinese) dish but today it is so well-known, it is essentially one of the top Penang must-eat hawker fare.

The murky brackish colour and strong aroma of a bowl of assam laksa can be daunting to those not familiar with its contradictory flavours — both sweet and sour — but a mouthful of it is enough to convince many discerning foodies that this is what Penang hawker food is all about.

Many will discover that assam laksa is a burst of flavours that switches from spicy to sour to sweet to a deep taste of fishy richness, all beautifully brought together by the garnishing of fresh greens, mint leaves and grounded by the smooth, soft, thick rice noodles.

There is nothing else quite like it and no words can fully describe how the many flavours of the dish seems to work without leaving a bad fishy smell despite its fish-based broth.

The sweet and sour tastes of the broth, rounded off by the spicy, fishy taste, are all derived from natural spices, local herbs and the main ingredient — fresh mackerel.

The underlying base of the fishy broth is made from boiling the mackerel whole in a pot of water before the fish is removed and deboned.

Next is the tamarind (locally, it is known as assam) that gives the dish its strong sourish taste and it is also where it got the “assam” for its name.

After the thick fishy broth is boiled with tamarind for its tangy flavour, a blend of spices consisting of fresh ground chillies, shallots, lemongrass and naturally, a dab of belacan (preserved shrimp paste) are added to the broth to give it the overall spicy, pungent aroma and taste.

A complete bowl of assam laksa means a hot steaming broth of scalded thick rice noodles and garnished with small pieces of mackerel (from the soup), shredded cucumber, mint leaves, laksa leaves (polygonum leaves), shredded bunga kantan, chopped onions, shredded lettuce, chopped chillies, strips of fresh pineapple and finally, a spoonful of heh ko (sweet shrimp paste different from belacan).

To get a taste of the delectable Penang assam laksa, here are 10 hawker stalls to try in Penang:

1.  Nan Guang Coffee Shop, Jalan Balik Pulau
GPS: 5.351887,100.235814
Time: Noon — 3.30pm

2.  Taman Emas Coffee Shop, Jalan Gottlieb
GPS: 5.433557,100.302939
Time: Noon — 5pm

3.  Jalan Bukit Bendera, at the Air Itam roundabout
Time: 1.30pm — 6pm

4.  Pengkalan Weld, junction of Pengkalan Weld and Gat Lebuh Acheh
Time: 1pm — 6pm

5.  Joo Hooi Coffee Shop, Penang Road
Time: Noon — 5pm

6.  Lorong Ipoh, near Jelutong Post Office
Time: Noon — 5pm

7.  Jalan Dato Ismail Hashim, Sungai Ara
Time: 1pm — 5pm

8.  Jalan Sempadan, Air Itam
Time: Noon — 5pm

9.  Bee Hooi Coffee Shop
Time: 9pm — 11pm

10. Stall at pasar malam (night market), Farlim & Sungai Dua
5.389626,100.282592 (Medan Angsana — on Wednesdays)
GPS: 5.350717,100.297365 (Jalan Sungai Dua — on Saturdays)
Time: 7pm — 11pm