In our new cooking series Workaholics, we invite chefs, bartenders, and other personalities in the world of food and drink who are serious hustlers to share their tips and tricks for preparing quick, creative after-work meals. Every dish featured in Workaholics takes under 30 minutes to make, but without sacrificing any deliciousness. These are tried-and-tested recipes for the super-busy who also happen to have impeccable taste.
"Laksa is the king of noodle soups in Malaysia. It's essentially a curry noodle soup, but it's the best kind of noodle soup—it's comforting, spicy, and complex with a great balance of flavours."
Chef Mandy Yin is excitedly describing her nation's signature dish. She loves it so much, she started a pop-up laksa bar, Sambal Shiok, and has been cooking all over London to spread the good word about this fiery Malaysian curry.
Sambal Shiok began as a street food stall, then moved onto residencies at various pubs and Vietnamese eatery Salvation in Noodles; winning over restaurant critics and locals alike with its aromatic broths.
I manage to pin Yin down at the pop-up's latest location at a cafe in Haringey to learn how to make after-work curry in a hurry.
"Normally, when making a laksa, it's a lengthy, labour-intensive process, but this simplified version is the perfect winter warmer or whenever you need a hit of spice," says Yin. "I've used a few shortcuts such as using a chicken stock cube, a pack of egg noodles, and ready-cooked prawns—but there's been no compromise on taste. Promise!"
Yin kicks things off by roughly chopping onions, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass, and throwing everything into the food processor. Once it has been ground into small pieces, she adds vegetable oil, salt, cumin, coriander powder, turmeric powder, and shrimp paste, and blitzes everything together again to form a smooth paste. This is what creates the base for most laksas.
"In Malaysian cooking, we use spice pastes a lot," Yin explains. "Back in the day, we'd use a mortar and pestle to break everything down, but using a food processor really helps speed things along."
Next, she moves to the hob and cooks the spice paste for ten minutes.
"This is a very important step because you need to cook the paste down until it's darkened in colour, then you'll start to see the oil separate from the paste," advises Yin. "You've got to take your time with this step and fry the spice paste off slowly to allow all the different ingredients to get to know each other."
She notices me peering into a giant bubbling pot next to the smaller one we're working on.
"This is our full-blown laksa for tonight's service. We make about 30 kilos at a time, it features a lot more ingredients and normally takes about three hours to make—if this tips over there'll be no food for anyone tonight!"
While we wait for the spice paste to sizzle, Yin starts chopping laksa leaves for the garnish.
"If you can't find laksa leaves anywhere, you can substitute it with coriander or mint leaves," she suggests. "As long as you have some sort of light herb in your laksa, it will really add an element of freshness to the dish."
Moving back to the hob, the oil has separated from the paste and it's time to add chicken stock. Yin also adds dark brown sugar and tamarind paste.
"If I didn't cook the paste down and let the oil separate earlier, you'll end up with loads of oil floating around and clumped together in your laksa, which is no good," advises Yin. "You'll start to see floating red specks on top meaning that the oil in the laksa has evenly spread out, that's when you know it's ready."
After the red speck sightings, Yin adds half a can of coconut milk into the soup mixture to give the base extra creaminess. Once combined, she lets the mixture thicken and simmer until bubbling.
With the laksa base is ready, Yin begins assembling the other components of the dish. She places the egg noodles, bean sprouts, and pre-cooked prawns into a bowl, then pours the laksa soup base over everything. Finally, she garnishes with the chopped laksa leaves and it's time to dig in.
"The type of laksa I make is a combination of curry laksa and a fusion of other laksas, which feature a lot of strong coconut and Penang Assam flavours," Yin explains as I grab a spoon. "My background is Peranakan, which originated in the 15th century, when Chinese male traders came over and intermarried with indigenous Malay women to create our unique Peranakan culture. That's where I draw a lot of inspiration for my dishes."
Yin presents me with the finished laksa. The broth is thick and perfectly spiced, with creamy hints of coconut milk. I slurp it down appreciatively, the plump pink prawns and crunchy bean sprouts bobbing enticingly in the bowl. Who knew you could achieve such spicy Malaysian deliciousness with just half an hour, some store cupboard spices, and a packet of egg noodles?
"I love making laksa, it's just so satisfying and fresh," says Yin proudly. "If you make it yourself, it's a great warming, comforting dish."
As I drip laksa broth down myself in my haste to finish the bowl, I'm inclined to agree.