in memory of my father: seafood laksa lemak (malaysian spicy coconut noodle soup)

seafood laksa lemak (malaysian spicy coconut noodle soup)
If you are regular reader of this blog, you will know that I often talk about my father, Henry, a larger-than-life character who taught me so much about how to eat and enjoy food, although not about how to cook. (Frankly Henry's cooking skills generally served as a warning to others).

It has been over eight months since Henry died and I fully intended on writing an obituary to celebrate what a lovely man he was. But I just couldn't do it. Call it self-indulgent but I was just too sad.

But I wouldn't be the person I am today if it hadn't been for Henry's wonderful open and questing mind, his love of literature, music and history, his fabulous sense of humour, his quiet moments of mischievous rebellion and his utter delight in food. Henry could be bloody-minded and quite insufferably irritating at times, but so full of charm at others, it was impossible to be annoyed with him for long. I miss him enormously and still indulge in crying jags every time I think about what I have lost; the conversations (and arguments) that we will never have. Henry was a story-teller and raconteur, who delighted in the English language, his tales often finished with his idiosyncratic roar of laughter. But despite my sadness, I can still laugh too as I remember some of my seminal food moments so many of which I enjoyed with him.

Henry never met any kind of noodle that he didn't like. One of our favourite noodle dishes, seafood laksa lemak (Malaysian spicy coconut noodle soup) was recently included in The Guardian's Readers' Recipe Swap. I think it is really a rather fitting tribute for Henry, a story about one of his beloved dishes published in his favourite newspaper.

Seafood laksa lemak
I still remember the childish glee I felt as I ate my first bowl of laksa lemak (spicy Malaysian coconut noodle soup) at a hawker stall in downtown Kuala Lumpur. My mother winced as I slurped and chewed the creamy noodles as soup dribbled down my chin and splattering my once-crisp and clean summer frock.

laksa lemak spice paste
"Daddy says that it's considered polite in Malaysia to slurp your noodles," I said cheerfully. "Your father says a lot of things", my mother muttered darkly. My father, Henry, and I grinned at each other; co-conspirators in our mutual enjoyment of breaking the rules: my mother was probably looking around for a handcart to send the pair of us to hell in for our sloppy table manners. It wasn't as if Henry couldn't be a stern father, he could. He could be quite severe about good manners and polite behaviour. But that's the thing about civilised behaviour and rules . . . once you know what they are; breaking them can be all the sweeter.

"Pandai" said the stall holder and cook looking over approvingly in my direction. “Pandai” is a catch-all word that means “clever,” “beautiful,” “what a little angel” or most likely, in this story, in a “hasn't she done well” sort of way. “Oh yes!" said Henry fondly. "That's my girl!” wiping a mock tear from his eye. (He liked to pretend he was Spike the Dog, from the Tom and Jerry cartoons, which I guess would make me Tyke!), as my mother fumed quietly convinced that this was a lesson I was never going to forget. She was right. Where Henry led, I followed.

seafood laksa lemak (malaysian spicy coconut noodle soup)
Needless to say Henry and I shared many a bowl of noodles over the next 30 years, in fact right up until the week before he died. (Henry did once say that my spicy noodles might be the death of him as I had rather overdone the chillies; he was so intent on wolfing down the noodles that he nearly choked. But I would like to make it quite clear that it wasn't my cooking or his greed for noodles that killed him but grand old age!)

Fragrant with spice, (not too much chilli) and richly creamy with coconut, everyone should try a laksa at least once in their life. Bibs, like good table manners, are optional.

Serves 4 generous portions
Skill level: Easy

vegetable oil
400ml coconut milk
900ml stock (chicken or fish)
1-2 tsp palm sugar
500g mixed seafood - prawns, white fish, shellfish and squid, etc.
500g noodles (Hokkien-style are best)
200g green beans
1-2 tsp fresh coriander, chopped (or more to taste)
1 tsp fresh mint, chopped
salt, to taste
lime wedges, to serve
fresh coriander, to serve
chilli sambal, to serve
spice paste
5 shallots, finely chopped
4-5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh ginger, finely grated
2 bird eye chillies, deseeded and very finely chopped
2 dried red chillies (or 1 tsp dried chilli flakes), soaked in boiling water
1 lemongrass stalk, white part only, roughly (removing the tough outer leaves)
½ tsp ground turmeric (or about 5g fresh turmeric)
30g candlenuts (or macadamia or roasted peanuts)
1 tsp belacan (shrimp paste)
½ tsp tamarind paste
1 tsp palm sugar


  1. Make spice paste by blending all the ingredients in a blender. (Careful if you are using fresh turmeric as it is stains everything it touches, including blenders!) If it is very thick, add a little water or a splash of vegetable oil to thin.
  2. Heat 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil in a heavy-based saucepan. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of spice paste, or to taste. Stir over a low to medium heat for 3 minutes or until beginning to darken and fragrant.
  3. Add coconut milk, stock, sugar, green beans and herbs. Stir well to ensure all the paste is distributed through the liquid. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Check seasoning and add salt if needed.
  4. Add the seafood and cook until cooked through. (If using shellfish, then the shells should have opened.)
  5. Stir through the cooked noodles and serve with extra coriander, chilli sambal and fresh lime wedges.


Deborah W said...

Laksa and laughter, what a lovely story about your father, made me smile and teary at the same time. A lovely tribute to your father and a life well lived!

Deborah W said...

oooops i thought the comment I was trying to post to you was getting deleted every attempt. Sorry i now realise that it must have gone through, even though the box pops up again. You should have about 100 similar comments from me! I was determined to get one through as have read a couple of things you have posted about your father, each time meaning to comment on how lovely they are!

Anonymous said...

This sounds like my kind of soup. My mother comes from Penang so I adore Malaysian food, and am desperate to learn to cook more Malaysian recipes. Will have to give your laksa lemak a go very soon.