Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have always been known for their naturalised ethnic Chinese citizens, oftentimes called “Peranakan”, which means native-born, as they often descended from long-time immigrants from Southern China between two to six centuries ago.
But Penang (and, to a lesser extent, Singapore & Melaka) is also home to the Jawi-Peranakan, indigenised Muslims resulting from the inter-marriage of native Malays with their Muslim brethren who’re immigrants from the Indian sub-continent and Middle-East. Within the Jawi-Peranakan diaspora are the “mamaks”, South Indian Tamil-Muslims who’re famed throughout Malaysia and Singapore for their tea & coffee kiosks.
In Penang, “mamaks” outnumber native Malays on Penang Island & especially the capital city, George Town, and their cuisine has become synonymous with Muslim food in Penang, with dishes like “nasi kandar”, “pasembor” (also known as Indian rojak" in Singapore) and “mee goreng”.
Mamak laksa is rarer. Penang is renowned for its asam laksa - rice noodles in a sourish-spicy fish-based broth, garnished with finely-chopped cucumber, ginger torch, onions and sprigs of fresh mint. In Malaysia & Singapore, it’s also known as Penang laksa, as laksa from Singapore and other Malaysian states do not have the sourish slant which Penang laksa has, due to its use of copious amounts of tamarind in the preparation of the broth.
Penang asam laksa broth will also contain fish flakes, usually fresh sardines, although other similarly-textured fish are also used sometimes, e.g. yellow-tail scad or mackerel.
In Penang itself, there is also Chinese-style asam laksa ([Penang] Air Itam Asam Laksa), which is thicker and has more pronounced sourish/fishy flavours compared to Malay-style asam laksa ([Penang] Malay-style Laksa Noodles from Laksa Janggus, Balik Pulau). Other than that, both versions use pretty much the same ingredients and garnishes. However, some Malay asam laksa places also sometimes add a hard-boiled egg into their laksa - something the Chinese version will never have.
Besides the Chinese and Malay sub-categories of the Penang asam laksa, there is also a Penang Nyonya asam laksa, almost identical to the Chinese asam laksa, but redder in hue, due to the use of fresh chilis in the “rempah” (spiced blend) used as a base for its gravy. Penang Nyonya laksa bore no resemblance at all to Malacca Nyonya laksa, which has a spicy broth enriched with coconut milk (no fish is used in Malacca Nyonya laksa). Dried shrimps is added into the spice mix to give the dish a seafood tang. Malacca Nyonya laksa is, of course, the forerunner of Singapore’s famous Katong laksa (which is also called Nyonya laksa in the old days in Singapore).
Yesterday, I came across yet another sub-category of the Penang asam laksa. This one is the “mamak” (Indian-Muslim) laksa. The mamak laksa is a close cousin of its Malay counterpart: spicier than the Chinese or Nyonya versions, yet, less fishy. Besides the usual garnishes, it also incorporates “cucur” (Tamil fritters) and “popiah goreng” (deep-fried spring rolls) into the dishes. Hard-boiled eggs is also available as an add-on.
The itinerant vendor, Hamid Khan (a “mamak”/Tamil-Muslim) hawks his fare outside RHB Bank in Batu Lanchang, from his small motorbike. The laksa broth is kept simmering on a charcoal brazier perched on the back of his bike.
It’s amazing how he’s able to move around, then set-up shop to sell his laksa from that tiny, improvised hawker “stall” of his.
His mamak laksa was spicy, with very concentrated fishy flavours. The addition of crisp-fried Indian fritters and spring rolls - very tasty, when dipped into the spicy-sourish broth - is very nice, but pretty substantial.
Hamid & Habiba Khan’s Mamak Laksa
in front of RHB Bank Batu Lanchang branch
112, Jalan Tan Sri Teh Ewe Lim, Jelutong
11600 George Town, Penang
Operating hours: Noon to 6pm Mon-Fri.
After 6pm, Hamid will sometimes move to Batu Lanchang market’s carpark area.