There’s nothing like a steaming hot bowl of spicy yet satisfying curry mee to wash the blues away. I mean, who doesn’t love the comfort of a noodle soup? Combine that with a curry and you’re onto a winner. When I say curry mee I mean curry laksa, which is not to be confused with the sour tamarind flavoured fishy asam laksa hailing from Penang. Curry mee is like the Nyonyan version of laksa with a fragrant coconut laced spicy broth garnished with beancurd puffs, slices of fish cake, prawns, blood cockles, a hard-boiled egg and sambal (the Penang version boasts pig blood cubes, which aren’t as disagreeable as they might sound). Not forgetting the noodles. Laksa noodles are like rotund vermicelli, but you can use vermicelli, egg noodles or even a mix of the two if you prefer.
Despite the balmy weather, I was craving a curry mee. Curry mee isn’t something I’d whip up at home if I lived in Malaysia, as I’d simply pop out to my favourite stall. They serve curry mee in a few establishments over here, but the Bruneians seem to have a sweeter tooth than me as the soup base and sambal are always too sweet and not spicy or tangy enough for my taste. The silver lining is that all of the ingredients to make curry mee from scratch – just the way I like it – are not only readily available but amazingly affordable. It’s just a case of grinding up the bits and bobs to make the rempah or spice paste and you’re set to go.
The secret to a flavour explosion is to fry your rempah long and slow so it is fragrant and the oil separates from the spices. I’m not talking about a couple of minutes here; it can take half an hour or even longer, but this step is crucial for maximising flavour. As I prefer my curry mee on the spicier side with a slight tang, I use less coconut milk in the nearly instant (er, fifteen minutes) prawn head broth with a dash of tamarind. For a creamier finish add a splash more coconut milk and adjust the consistency to your liking by reducing the broth further or adding more liquid. As you may suspect, I’m of the ‘a dash of this and a splash of that’ chaotic school of cookery, but I’m trying my best to write down what I put in (this time) for posterity.
RECIPE: CURRY MEE A.K.A. CURRY LAKSA
Spice paste or rempah
A head of garlic (8-10 cloves)
10-15 dried red chillies
Half an inch of turmeric root
An inch of galangal root
3 stalks of lemongrass (outer sheath removed and lower whitish part sliced)
3 candlenuts (you can substitute macadamias)
10 white peppercorns
1 heaped tablespoon coriander seeds, roasted
1 tablespoon of belacan, a fermented shrimp paste
For the soup base
1 tablespoon of finely ground dried prawns
Thick coconut milk
The heads and shells of the peeled prawns
A spring of laksa or curry leaves
A tablespoon of tamarind paste
A couple of shavings of gula melaka or palm sugar
A sprinkling of salt
For the toppings
Two hard-boiled eggs, halved (I prefer mine medium-boiled)
12-16 prawns, peeled with shells reserved for stock
Two sliced fish cakes
Deep-fried tofu puffs
Blanched snake or long beans
A handful of bean sprouts
INSTRUCTIONS: Grind the ingredients for the curry paste together. It is far quicker to use a blender than a mortar and pestle, but if you don’t mind the extra washing up, I’d recommend using both. Blending first in a food processor chops the spices up very finely, but if you then transfer the paste into a mortar to crush, the amalgamation of flavours is far superior as the oils are extracted. Put a couple of tablespoons of oil into a heavy based pan and fry the rempah over a low heat until it is fragrant and the oils begin to separate. This could take up to half an hour, so keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan and start to burn. You need just enough oil to stop it sticking (the health conscious can add water) but not too much or the broth will be oily.
Make the prawn stock by boiling the heads and shells in water for fifteen minutes with the tips of the lemongrass and strain, reserving the liquid. The less water you use the more flavourful your stock will be. I usually just cover the carapaces with water.
Add the ground dried prawns and curry leaves and fry for a couple more minutes before adding two to three tablespoons of the head of the coconut milk. Fry for five more minutes until the fats start to separate (skip this step if you are using a homogenised tin of coconut milk). Now it’s up to personal taste. For a creamier less spicy laksa add more coconut milk than prawn stock and vice versa. I like a hint of sourness so I add a tablespoon of tamarind and a teaspoon of gula melaka to balance it, but this is optional. Taste the broth and season.
Blanch the noodles and split into two serving bowls, arranging the toppings on top. Ladle over the broth, dollop a spoonful of sambal on top and enjoy.