How to Make Borneo’s “Breakfast of the Gods”

Sarawak has a reputation for diverse cultures but what is not so well known is the delectable food these diverse cultures have created. But wait, you may think that under a global lockdown it’s impossible to taste any of Sarawak's unique cultural food and normally you’d be right. But not anymore. For the first time ever, we are sharing our unique recipe for Sarawak Laksa so that you can experience it at home and help soften the burden of lockdown!

Even if you have never tried or miss eating this Sarawakian speciality, our simple and authentic recipe will teach you how to replicate this unique dish in the comfort of your own homes.

A bowl of delicious Laksa Sarawak

Most states in Malaysia have their own version of Laksa. Many are built around one core ingredient such as mackerel or fish balls. Others around a very thick, rich broth. Some Laksa’s are spicy, while others are sweet or sour. All of them draw their primary influence from one dominant community, generally the Chinese, Malay or Peranakan.

Sarawak Laksa is unique because its influences are not from one dominant community. Instead, it’s a cornucopia of local tastes and flavours unique to the varied people of Borneo. So what makes this dish so vastly different from every other kind of laksa?

The base ingredient of Sarawak Laksa is sambal belacan. But equally important are sour tamarind, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, all lightly thickened with just the right amount of coconut milk.

Sambal belacan, otherwise known as spicy shrimp chilli paste

Sarawak Laksa is typically served with rice vermicelli, more delicate and less prominent than the thicker noodles used in Laksas from the Peninsular. A typical serving is topped with generous portions of chicken and omelette strips, fresh, succulent local prawns, bean sprouts, coriander and fresh lime is added to taste. It’s this unique combination of ingredients, flavours and textures that makes Sarawak Laksa so different to every other laksa.

The late, great celebrity chef, Anthony Bourdain, dubbed Sarawak Laksa "Breakfast of the Gods" in a 2015 Instagram post of him eating it at Kuching’s famous Chon Hui Kopitiam while filming for his "No Reservations" series on the Travel Channel.

He loved Sarawak Laksa so much that when he returned to Kuching ten years later, he visited the same cafe to document the dish for his award-winning show, "Parts Unknown" aired on CNN. The production team also paid the bill for every patron of Chon Hui Kopitiam during the filming!

Bourdain’s enthusiasm for the dish made him a cult hero amongst Sarawakians, and for a good reason. Once you’ve tried Sarawak Laksa, tell the next Sarawakian you meet how much you like it and their reaction will show you what it means to them as they smile with pride.

Anthony Bourdain eating Laksa Sarawak at Choon Hui Kopitiam in Kuching

OK, back to the job in hand! How do you cook this award winning dish at home? Although it does feature a long list of ingredients, and has a long cooking process, don't worry, it's not that hard to put together. But follow the instructions carefully because each component will ensure the flavours are layered correctly.

So here goes!

Ingredients for the Laksa paste:

  • 5 small red Thai chillies with removed stems
  • 4 chopped shallots or 1 chopped medium onion
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh chopped galangal
  • 3 peeled cloves of garlic
  • 2 stalks of lemongrass cut into large chunks
  • 6 macadamia nuts or a handful of cashew nuts
  • 2 tablespoons of ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon of ground cumin
  • 3 tablespoon of tamarind paste
  • ¾ cup of warm water
  • 2 tablespoons of canola oil or vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon of coconut palm sugar or brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of curry powder
  • 1 tablespoon of paprika
  • 2 teaspoon of coarse sea salt

Photo by Baehaki Hariri on Unsplash

Like any Malaysian broth dish, the Sarawak Laksa creation begins with a spicy paste. The spicy paste is a mixture of blended herbs, aromatics and spices that are gently sauteed in a pot of oil over a long period, usually forty minutes. The combination of ingredients and the long cooking process provides a broth with an intense depth of flavour.

For Sarawak Laksa, you will need chillis, shallots, lemongrass, ginger, galangal (also known as 'blue ginger') and tamarind pulp. You will need to blend all the ingredients together with a food processor and cook it over medium heat with some oil for about 1 hour.

If you are in a hurry and can find it, try using Pes Laksa Sarawak Hj Manan which is a ready-made Laksa Sarawak paste that many Sarawkians swear by!

Ingredients for the broth:

  • 4 cups of chicken broth
  • 1 (13.5oz) can of coconut milk

Ask any Sarawakian what the most important part of the recipe is, and they will all tell you that it is the broth! Traditionally you would use chicken stock. However, you can substitute it with prawn or shellfish stock if you prefer a more fishy flavour. Then you need to add in the coconut milk and some natural palm sugar to round out the body of the dish.

You might think it's a little odd to add sugar to a savoury dish. Still, like most Malaysian food, a broth must balance five flavours for the recipe to be considered successful - saltiness spiciness, sourness, savouriness (umami) and sweetness. So don't think twice about the sugar in the recipe, you must add it to make it a laksa soup. Palm sugar has a very low glycemic index so treat yourself!

Ingredients for the toppings:

  • 1 pack of cooked and drained rice vermicelli noodles
  • 2 seasoned chicken breasts cooked and shredded
  • 12 boiled and halved large shrimps
  • 4 fried omelette-style eggs cut into thin strips
  • 1 pack of boiled and drained tofu puffs
  • 1 julienned cucumber
  • 1 pack of washed and boiled bean sprouts
  • 2 limes cut into wedges
  • Laksa leaves or freshly chopped cilantro leaves

The toppings you will need for your Laksa Sarawak

After you've completed the broth, you need to prepare the toppings. While it might not seem important, these ingredients are not just garnishes. They round out the dish, and its combination of toppings will add layers of flavours and textures that will provide the dish with a sense of completeness.

The final part of the preparation stage is preparing the vermicelli rice noodles, poached shredded chicken, thinly beaten egg omelette strips, bean sprouts, thinly sliced cucumbers, fresh lime and Vietnamese coriander. The Vietnamese coriander is crucial. Its name in Malaysia is 'Laksa Leaf'. However, if you can’t find it at your local supermarket, fresh cilantro will do.

Now that you know the importance of each step and process, you are more than prepared to get cooking. The cooking process is an experience in itself as the flavours fill the air around you. It's going to make you feel like Sarawak has come to you in the best way possible.

Once the broth is ready, serve in a bowl. The vermicelli, prawns, chicken, egg and other toppings can be served in small bowls on their own so that those eating can add what they prefer. For a truly authentic experience, use chopsticks and a spoon and slurp away!

Now, you can satisfy your Laksa Sarawak cravings in your own home! Knowing how to make a breakfast fit for "gods" is a pretty nifty thing to share with your friends and family. But be warned. The smell of this dish is so good, your neighbours will start loitering outside your front door in the hope of an invitation to eat!