I’ve been spending a lot of my time over the least few weeks eating laksa. As a foodwalker I would be remiss if I didn’t – it’s one of Singapore’s premiere foods, even if loyal Malaysians argue that it’s not actually ours. But like so many things splashing over the rim of Singapore’s melting pot, the initial origin of a food does not bestow proprietary rights. Even before the early days when the legendary Mr. Janggut pedaled his short-noodle version in Katong, laksa has been one of Singapore’s most popular dishes. Today it’s found in nearly every hawker center in every heartland neighborhood. It’s in food courts, restaurants, hotels – even the airport and the Botanic Gardens. And it’s found at home, too. One stroll through a grocery store will reveal many brands of instant laksa, each extolling superior quality and taste.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Prepackaged laksa on the shelves of your friendly neighborhood grocer? That’s treading dangerously close to that other ubiquitous meal-in-a-minute: Ramen. And comparing real ramen – a culinary discipline taking a lifetime to perfect – to those cellophane squares of stale noodles and foil packs, 10 for a buck, is much like comparing Sean Connery and George Lanzenby as James Bond: the name, pistol and cocktail are the same, but that’s as far as it goes.
Taking issue with my dour view of pre-packaged versions of any soup that normally takes all day to make, however, was a comrade in my world of food exploration. We were sitting in a hawker center eating kway chap (stewed pig organs) and beef laksa, having just talked to the guy in the stall who for the last forty years has been coming to work at 1:00 am to start his soup for the afternoon crowd. "Well, there is one instant brand that’s pretty good," my friend murmured under his breath, avoiding eye contact and the risk of physical reprisal. What’s that?" I clamored, shocked at such a statement. But he stood his ground, cleared his throat and almost looked me in the eye. "Prima Taste," he said.
I wanted to disagree with him as a matter of principle. No way a small package from the deep shelves of Fairprice can spawn anything remotely similar to the rich, coconut, fish, spices and chili elixir that takes so long to make. But I let logic supersede my welling desire to ridicule. He is, after all, a committed eater both respected and knowledgeable about local food. Plus he’s Singaporean Chinese, so I figure he might know a thing or two. Prima Taste?
Just hours later I found myself scanning the rows of instant soups. I counted 9 brands of laksa, each claiming to be authentic. Some were better packaged than others – even going beyond cellophane and opting instead for a box (with essentially the same ingredients). I found the Prima Taste laksa and – purely in the name of food science – grabbed four, hid them beneath the toilet paper in my shopping cart and absconded as quickly as I could.
In the kitchen I examined the package more closely. The instructions were clear and simple and the level of fat suggested that this did, indeed, have some real laksa ingredients (read: this stuff is really bad for the waistline).
As this was an impromptu and somewhat dubious experiment, I did not have additions which are de rigueur in any decent laksa: fishcake, tofu, prawn and laksa leaves. So I decided to first taste the laksa as it was presented in the package, then add other ingredients from the fridge; a little cooked chicken, some sliced porkballs and fresh coriander.
The package consisted of packed Laksa premix powder, laksa spice paste smelling of balachan and a round block of nicely formed noodles. Still doubtful, I gently cooked the paste before adding the premix and water.
The noodles plumped and thickened in minutes as the broth roiled. And in just seven minutes I had before me a surprisingly fragrant pot of soup.
In the bowl, the laksa was both visually tantalizing and tasty. The noodles had a firm bite but then softened in the mouth, delivering a well incorporated noodle-to-broth balance. The curry itself had a rich coconut background against which the pronounced seafood and spice tastes might almost fool one into thinking it had been made with the real thing. The spice level was also well defined; lighter than most authentic versions (presumably toned down for a mass market) but piquant enough to satisfy your average chili craving.
When I slurped my last noodle and drained the bowl of any remaining drops of the bright orange broth I realized that somewhere in the midst of my meal I had forgotten my predisposition against packaged soup. The laksa was, indeed, delicious, in a last minute, whip-it-up-at-home sort of way. And while it may not displace the toiling of laksa masters who have for generations been carefully blending fresh ingredients into the masterpiece that is well-made laksa, it will also not make the great Janggut roll in his grave.
In other words – much as it pains me to say – Prima Taste Laksa is worthy of a spot in my quick-cook kitchen cupboard.