Laksa Noodles: A Short History of Cosmopolitanism

I really, really, really like noodles. That’s the long and the short of it.

I wake up wanting to eat noodles for breakfast. Around 3pm, between lunch and dinner, the craving returns. Dinner staves this off for a while but by 9pm, it’s back in full force.

I think about noodles all day long, and because I think (and talk) about noodles all day long – I get a lot of photos of noodles. Friends living in Beijing, or Tokyo, or travelling through Malaysia, my cousins in Singapore or other academics, will send me photographs of the noodles they’re devouring. Zooming their way through fibreoptic cables at 1015bits/s, it’s a gesture of mutual appreciation, a virtual noodle network pinging its way across earth.

And of all the noodles dishes in the world – and I’ve tried to find noodles everywhere I’ve ever gone – I’ve never encountered a dish more controversial than laksa.

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All over Southeast Asia – in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia – I’ve found people ferociously insisting the real, the best, the authentic laksa comes from Penang or Malacca. Or Medan or Palembang. It should have a coconut curry base – or a clear mackerel and tamarind stock. It should have thin strands of the finest vermicelli, or flat thick slices of rice noodle, or thicker white udon-like strands, and sometimes it absolutely must include yellow egg mee.

It might have prawns, cockles, and a spoonful of sambal. Or shredded coconut and pineapple – or thinly sliced omelet and slivers of chicken.

For me, laksa has a terasi base – crushed and fermented shrimp – with the deep, warm heat of dried chilies balanced by creamy coconut milk. This is called curry laksa, or nyonya laksa. It is, in no uncertain terms, heavenly. And how could anything other than the divine induce this kind of controversy?

This kind of laksa takes its name from the women born into Peranakan communities – known as nyonyas – and laksa is often labeled a quintessentially Peranakan dish. But Peranakans are as varied as the dish itself. The term Peranakan is a Malay word meaning “person born here, descended from elsewhere.” It refers to several distinct communities whose descendants married into indigenous populations across Southeast Asia.

The Peranakan Chinese migrated from Mainland China’s southern provinces and married into the indigenous populations of Southeast Asia in the 15th century. They settled in the ports across the Dutch East Indies, Thailand, Burma, and the Straits of Melaka. Those who settled in Melaka, Penang, and Singapore – later part of the British territories known as the Straits Settlements – are also known specifically as the Straits Chinese.

But Peranakans don’t just represent Sinophonic migration patterns. There are also the Chetti Peranakans whose descendants came from the Tamil Nadu, the southeastern coastal state in India, and the Eurasian Kristang Peranakans whose descendants were white Portuguese colonialists.

In some ways – in their cuisines and clothing – Peranakan communities have more in common with each other than their elsewhere country of ‘origin’. They’re often labeled as “hybrid” cultures, and laksa is sometimes seen as a syncretic mixture of influences too. But of course, Peranakans (and laksa) is only hybrid if we insist on thinking along national, and nationalist, lines.

After the rise of independent nations in Southeast Asia during the 1950s, many Peranakan dishes came to be subsumed into nationalist narratives. Laksa came to be the unique property of nation states – now quintessentially Singaporean, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Thai.

We find laksa in ports all over Southeast Asia and we find Peranakan communities here too – but correlation isn’t causation so this isn’t a clear indication of laksa’s magical origins either.

Here, the history of words gives us a different glimpse into (one of) laksa’s inception stories. The word laksa doesn’t exist in Malay texts before 20th century but if we look beyond Southeast Asia’s borders, we find find lakča in Turkic languages, loksha in Russian, lokshyna in Slavic languages, and luksh or loksh in Yiddish – all of which mean noodles.

These terms probably wiggled their way across the world from the Persian term lakchah, lakshah and lakishah meaning “vermicelli, or slices of paste put into broth” – a translation discovered by the scholar Peter Lee in an 1829 dictionary of English, Arabic, and Persian terms. Lee’s theory is that Dutch colonialists brought the term from Persia to Southeast Asia on their journey eastwards during 16th to 18th centuries.

The earliest reference to laksa is found in a letter in 1719 from Chuan Jamqua, a Peranakan from Melaka, conducting business with an Englishman, John Scattergood. In the letter’s postscript, Chuan asks, “Be kind enough to bring on my account two picos of Misoa, called in that land Laqasi, for incidental expenses.” (It’s the 18th century’s version of a fibreoptic network of noodle exchange. Chuan was a man after my own heart.)

The letter tells us that before it became any of many dishes we have today, laqasi, or laksa, was probably used to refer to noodles in general. So here, at long last, I’d found my evidence: of all the noodles, in all the world, in etymology and flavour, laksa is the ultimate noodle. It is the first and best.

Noodle allegiances are hard fought and hard sought – some people will never be convinced of laksa’s hegemony.

I believe a bowl of laksa, any kind of laksa, has the power to soothe your soul. But I also believe laksa is an alternative history of the cosmopolitan trajectories which noodled their way across Southeast Asia and the world.

Laksa confounds nations, transcends borders, spans oceans, and links languages. It couldn’t be contained by the rise and fall of colonial occupations or nationalist movements.

It is a story about connection and communion: our story of being here and elsewhere.

Originally published as “Laksa, lakča, loksha, lokshyna, luksh or loksh” for Daikon* magazine, Issue #4 Winter 2018, March 2018.

Words: Rebecca Choong Wilkins

Illustration: Katherine Shapiro

Banner Image: Anthony Zinonos

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