Penang’s Balik Pulau district on the West coast of Penang island is well-known for its rustic countryside atmosphere, compared to the urbanised East coast where the state capital, George Town, is located. Food-wise, Penangites go to Balik Pulau for its famed durians - probably the best in the world - when the fruit is in season. Balik Pulau’s assam laksa - rice noodles in a sourish-spicy fish soup, garnished with fresh herbs and vegetables - is also acknowledged as some of the best in Penang since the 1960s.
I finally got to visit one of Balik Pulau’s dining gems, Laksa Janggus, last weekend. In contrast to the other famous assam laksa spots in Balik Pulau - Nan Guang, Chuan Heong & Balik Pulau market - which are all Chinese-style assam laksa, Laksa Janggus serves the milder-flavoured Malay-style assam laksa. Both Chinese and Malay styles of the assam laksa use the same base ingredients: fresh sardine or mackerel-flavoured broths, spiked with tamarind juice (the Malay word for tamarind is “assam”, hence the name of the dish), chillis, torch ginger and garnished other herbs like fresh mint leaves and “daun kesum”. Finely-sliced raw onions, cucumber and pineapple round off the dish. Chinese-style assam laksa also includes a drizzle of the strong-smelling “hae koh”, Penang-style fermented shrimp sauce, but which the Malays do not use. Hence, the gentler, more subtle flavour of Malay-style Penang assam laksa.
Laksa Janggus started off as a small stall under the shade of a cashewnut (Malay term: janggus) tree - hence its original name Laksa Pokok Janggus (laksa stall by the cashewnut tree) when it started operating about 25 years back. These days, the cashewnut tree is gone, as the dining area is covered by a large zinc roof to accommodate tables that can cater to up to 100 diners at a time.
The service area of Laksa Janggus has three main stalls: the middle one serving its famous Laksa Janggus, in-between a very busy first stall (as you enter the eatery) serving batter-fried bananas (Malay term: pisang goreng), and the last stall serving “Air Batu Campur” (flavoured shaved ice with beans & jelly), cold Malay drinks like “air jagung” (sweet-corn juice) and “sirap Bandung” (rose syrup-flavoured iced drink).
The busiest stall, and one with the longest queue - i.e. the fried banana one, warrants quite a wait: crisp, batter-fried bananas (halved lengthwise) at an amazing price of 8 pieces for MYR2 (less than 50 US cents). Customers will order by the dozens at a go:
The middle serving station is where we get to order the real object of our visit: the famous Laksa Janggus. One other difference between the Malay and Chinese assam laksa is that the Malays add hard-boiled egg to their laksa as a side, but which the Chinese never do.
What I really loved about the laksa here is its use of handmade noodles, with the tell-tale uneven surface, as compared to smooth machine-made noodles. The handmade version also has a softer texture, and the fish broth was really tasty with the perfect balance of sweet and sour flavours:
The last stall serves some pretty good “Air Batu Campur” or better-known as Ice Kachang (shaved ice dessert) with a variety of beans, jellies and nuts. Flavoured with rose syrup and sarsaparilla, given added richness with lashings of evaporated milk, the mound of shaved ice is the topped with a scoop of ice-cream
Absolutely loved the dessert - perfect ending to the meal.
Owner-chef, Fatimah Saad, 49 (known to her customers as Kak Timah) is friendly and loquacious, showing no sign of tiredness eventhough she starts her day at 6am each morning as she goes through 200kgs of fresh sardines to prepare the broth for the assam laksa in time for the eatery’s opening time of 3.30pm. It closes at 8pm.
Jalan Baru (Km 6.50)
Kampung Perlis, Balik Pulau
Opening hours: 3.30pm to 8pm daily, except Wednesdays (closed)