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Tom Parker Bowles samples some of the best laksa in London

Laksamania

92 Newman St, London W1T 

Rating:

Sambal Shiok

171 Holloway Rd, London N7

Rating:

Laksa. Far more than mere soup, rather an edible epic of travel, trade and immigration, the beloved bastard child of two great food cultures. As Chinese traders set off in search of fortune, they settled in coastal South East Asia – British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and Southern Thailand, in particular. And once settled, found the need, as one does, for a local wife. So the Peranakan Chinese (or Straits Chinese) were born. And with them, laksa, that beautiful fusion of Chinese noodle soup with local coconut and spice.

But hang about, I hear you cry, this is all very pat and romantic. A jolly tale indeed. And while it’s clear that the Chinese could be seen as the father of this dish, what about the mother? In your typical neo-colonial, posh white male way, you’re plonking a whole mass of diverse cultures and countries (modern Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand, for a start) into one bubbling pot. And reducing them to a conveniently homogenised whole.

Laksamania, just north of Oxford Street, all dark wood and neon lights. The Melaka laksa is a good ’un

Laksamania, just north of Oxford Street, all dark wood and neon lights. The Melaka laksa is a good ’un

Sambal Shiok, on the Holloway Road. From the moment I walk in, nostrils caressed by the sweet scent of lemongrass and coconut, I know all will be OK

Sambal Shiok, on the Holloway Road. From the moment I walk in, nostrils caressed by the sweet scent of lemongrass and coconut, I know all will be OK

You may have a point. Because there are as many stories as to the roots of laksa as there are variations of the dish itself. And everyone, in every town, village, state and land will claim that theirs is the original, the most authentic and best. I’ve certainly eaten my fill over the years, in strip-lit food courts and flashy upstarts alike, but I’m no expert. And would never dream of pronouncing Singapore curry laksa superior to Penang assam laksa, say. Both have noodles, and broth, and a fishy undercurrent (usually), but that’s where the similarities stop.

All I know is that when it’s done, well, I love the stuff in its every form, at once homely and exotic, immediately comforting and thrillingly complex.

But London laksa lovers never had it easy. There was always C&R in Soho. And Singapore Garden too. For the true obsessive, though, times could be tough. Then two places opened, in quick succession. Laksamania, just north of Oxford Street, all dark wood and neon lights. Chicken satay is charred, fatty and succulent, although the fried chicken is drearily average, and comes garnished with what looks like one of Carmen Miranda’s more outré creations. Grapes, strawberries, and the ridiculous dragonfruit, that looks like Dalmatian fur and tastes of nought. The Melaka laksa, though, is a good ’un. Sharp, sour, spicy and rich, with a mixture of egg and vermicelli noodles, squeakily bouncy fish balls and puffed bean curd. Plus that all-important whiff of fermented fish.

 There are as many stories as to the roots of laksa as there are variations of the dish itself. And everyone, in every town, village, state and land will claim that theirs is the original

 There are as many stories as to the roots of laksa as there are variations of the dish itself. And everyone, in every town, village, state and land will claim that theirs is the original

At Sambal Shiok the laksas are magnificent (as is the wine list): the special, murky with profoundly fishy depth and a base chilli grunt

At Sambal Shiok the laksas are magnificent (as is the wine list): the special, murky with profoundly fishy depth and a base chilli grunt

Sambal Shiok, on the Holloway Road, is better still. From the moment I walk in, nostrils caressed by the sweet scent of lemongrass and coconut, I know all will be OK. We slip into the last two seats at the bar, escaping a bitterly cruel January night. The windows are fugged with steam, the place packed and warm with bonhomie and good cheer. There’s immaculate fried chicken, crisp and succulent in all the right places, with a satay dip unsullied by an excess of sugar. Morning glory comes with shrimp sambal that reeks like an algae-covered pond. This is, of course, a good thing.

The laksas are magnificent (as is the wine list): the special, murky with profoundly fishy depth and a base chilli grunt. Textures – thin rice noodles, charred aubergine and fried tofu puffs – are a glorious symphony of chewy, spongy, and soft. Childlike, yet grippingly grown up. It’s rich as a Malaysian prince, with the pungent punch of a crustacean brawler. On Wednesdays, they do a special assam laksa too, fiery and fruity, sharp with tamarind and pineapple, heavy on the mackerel, with a wonderfully fetid honk.

It takes something rather special to drag me up to the Holloway Road on a chill Wednesday night. Black Axe Mangal and Xi’an Impression. Spurs v Arsenal. And now Sambal Shiok. My laksa yen is at long last fed.

Both around £20 per head

 

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