I’m sure that finding the top laksa in this city is about as easy as choosing the best pizza place. And instead of the thin-crust vs pillowy crust debate or traditional vs gourmet smackdown, here we’re talking varying degrees of Malaysian: Chinese-Malay (nyonya) style, sour style, Malacca style, Assam style, Johor laksa and Sarawak laksa, curry laksa, etc.
I’m probably even repeating myself. I can’t yet call myself a laksa expert, but today I’m doing some dedicate research.
A bit of Google fossicking and Twitter soliciting, and I get the nod from a number of food people I respect – the Sydney International Food Festival’s Joanna Savill being one of them – that cite Kaki Lima in Kensington as the best laksa joint in Sydders. So I pack up the laptop, hop onto the Vespa and beeline there for lunch to survey the stock for myself.
And what I discover isn’t what I expect of a place that’s potentially making our best bowl of Malaysian soup – aside from another solo diner, it’s empty. I spend half of my meal wondering if there’s no day trade in this stretch of Kensington, until a chat with my friendly server helps illuminate me. “It’s Ramadan this month; that’s why it’s so quiet,” she explains.
Apparently everyone else, aside from a nice agnostic Jewish boy like me, is fasting for the holy month. Mariam – yes, my server and I have now been formally acquainted, as we’re two out of the only three people in the room – directs me to the evening’s paper-inscribed special: a Ramadan feast with a choice of main, dessert and drink, all for for a whopping $15. It looks like I can afford to come back in the evenings, when the hungry hordes come out after 5.30pm to have their post-fasting fill.
For now, it’s all about the laksa. And what’s curious is that the laksa isn’t even on the main menu, but rather on the specials board. Still, it is the first thing Mariam suggests when I ask her for some favourites, and I’m offered a choice of chicken, seafood or prawn. I go with the chicken, plus another plate of nasi lemak with beef randang for a bit of variety.
The laksa is as good as advertised. It’s rich but not overly creamy, the broth a vibrant orange from sambal paste, with blood-orange droplets from the coconut and vegetable oils. It’s filled with spongy triangles of rehydrated dried tofu, thin rice vermicelli noodles, camouflaged bean sprouts and two diagonal slices of green chilli. There are also cucumber batons that aren’t always cut through, so they’re sometimes joined together and look like fat Freddy Krueger fingers. Hey, it might not pass a TAFE knife skills exam, but with so much flavour in my bowl, I can overlook finesse.
There’s also a complexity in the broth that I can’t quite taste, so owner/chef Aida later informs me that it’s got a subtle layer of lemongrass in there. It’s probably why there’s enough acidity that I ignore the lemon wedge that floats on the far edge. Other ingredients include garlic, dried prawn and tamarind juice. “It’s not like a nyonya laksa,” Aida says, noting that the Chinese often use evaporated milk instead of coconut. “It’s more like Malacca style.”
Yes, the laska is a stunner, and true to its reputation. In fact, the only rival I can think of thus far is an old favourite from Melbourne – Blue Chillies in Fitzroy.
The nasi lemak, however, is simply serviceable. The coconut rice is fine, and a sprinkling of fried red shallots on top are so pungent, I nearly think they’re ginger… in a pleasing way. The paired beef rending is tender yet mild and undistinguished, while the halves of hardboiled egg have plenty of green around the yolk, a sign of overcooking (or, more likely, a lack of quick cooling afterwards). It’s also hard to distinguish the beef from the similar-hued ikan bilis, or dried anchovy sambal – the latter is chunky with whole anchovies, also mild and conjures childhood smells of fish food (for the guppies and angel fish, not me). With the rending and sambal, I’m craving some chilli heat.
As I tuck in, the sound of passing buses on Anazc Parade consistently hums behind me, slightly offset by Pearl Jam politely playing on the speakers. There are old black-and-white photos of Malaysia grouped together on a wall, while tiny faux birds dwell in half cages surrounding lights – switched off while the afternoon sunlight radiates through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The tables are covered in clear plastic, protecting colourful tablecloths endowed with flower patterns. it’s a kaleidoscope of tables that ranges from violet to lime, midnight blue, black and rose.
Two dishes mean that I’ve already overeaten, but I can’t pass up dessert. There are a handful of sweet offerings in a glass display by the counter, so I peruse the pandan- and tapioca-dominated serves. I go for the baked pandan custard, a Kermit-green square of spongy goodness. It’s a delicate taste, an intermingling of coconut milk, sugar and pandan flavour. Just as much taste comes from the sesame seed topping, but my favourite part are the browned edges that have a whisper of custard about them.
The laksa and dessert are enough to make me want to return, so I listen to Aida as she recommends I come back for her satay, her Indian Muslim-style northern fish curry and for her teh tarik (Malaysia sweet tea). Until she tells me she started the restaurant as a Malaysian coffee house, I hadn’t even considered that the drinks were a specialty. Plus there are several other sweets to try, so I’m determined to have enough repeat visits to get through them one-by-one. As you do.
Gosstronomy dined at Kaki Lima courtesy of the Malaysian Kitchen, a group blogging initiative that encourages unbiased opinion.