Craving coconut curry

The fish soup enriched with coconut milk came in a very large bowl. It was flaming red in color and turned out to be fiery in taste.

Malaysian Curry 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Malaysian Curry 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I first tasted laksa, a curry-flavored noodle soup, at a Malaysian-Indonesian restaurant in Vancouver, Canada.  The fish soup enriched with coconut milk came in a very large bowl.  It was flaming red in color and turned out to be fiery in taste.
Unfortunately, I could eat only a few spoonfuls.  I was about to tape a cooking segment for TV, and I knew that eating something that spicy might make my face as red as the soup.  I had to leave most of my soup uneaten; but I didn’t forget that unfinished bowl of heavenly laksa.
In Los Angeles my friend Linda Burum, author of “Asian Pasta,” introduced me to another bowl of coconut noodle deliciousness--kao soi, a specialty of northern Thailand.  As soon as I tasted the spicy soup, it reminded me of laksa.  Indeed, some theorize that kao soi is a Thai adaptation of Malaysian laksa.  The kao soi had chicken and a sprinkling of bean sprouts.  Unlike the laksa I tasted in Canada, which was made with rice noodles, this soup contained wheat noodles, and was topped with crisp noodles as well.  
Laksa, wrote Burum, is the Malaysian word for noodles, and noted that there are hundreds of regional variations of this popular noodle curry served throughout Malaysia and Singapore.  “All use thick (usually fresh) spaghetti-size rice vermicelli, seafood and coconut milk sauce...Rich, smooth coconut milk mellows the fiery curry, while noodles, soaking up the creamy sauce, are balanced by the textures of seafood and crunchy bean sprouts–piquant but subtle and very addicting.”  Laksa lemak, for example, has a paste of fresh and dried hot chiles, lemon grass, turmeric, garlic and often galangal (a relative of ginger) that’s fried and cooked with coconut milk; the soup contains seafood, fish balls and noodles.  For those who want the soup even hotter, Burum passes shredded fresh hot peppers at the table.
Recently I was surprised to discover laksa on the menu of a Los Angeles food truck, Wicked Kitchen.  Tina Yeretsian, the chef, told me how she makes it: She prepares a coconut milk chicken curry flavored with red curry paste, ginger, garlic, turmeric, soy sauce, lime juice and palm sugar, and spoons the curry over egg noodles.  Instead of being served in bowls as a soup, the laksa is served on a plate as an entree in order to make it easier for diners to eat it outdoors. Like Thai kao soi, it is topped with crispy noodles.  
Laksa does not have to be lip-burning hot from chiles.  The curry from Wicked Kitchen had gentle heat.  Dina Yuen, author of “Indonesian Cooking,” leaves the degree of spicing up to the cook.  There are no hot peppers in her coconut noodle chicken laksa; it gains its savory flavor from ginger, garlic, turmeric and ground and fresh coriander.  (See recipe below.)  If someone wants chili heat in the soup, Yuen recommends serving Thai chili sauce on the side.     Coconut Noodle Soup - Nyonya Laksa
This recipe is from “Indonesian cooking.”  Author Dina Yuen notes that the coconut milk blends with the other ingredients to create a rich and succulent stock.  Yuen adds 3 pieces sliced fresh galangal along with the ginger, but the soup has plenty of flavor without it. You can substitute lemon for the lime wedges that garnish the soup.
Coconut milk, wrote Yuen, burns easily and boils over easily.   When using it, “whether you’re cooking a curry or a stew, it’s important to stir often to avoid any ingredients sticking to the bottom of the pot or wok.”Makes 4 servings
2 cups water6 cups chicken stock4 chicken breasts or thighs, skinless, bone-in (1.35 kg or 2 3/4 lb)3 stalks lemongrass, tender inner part of bottom third only, bruised15 to 20 cloves garlic 3 large slices fresh ginger, peeled and cut in thin pieces2 tablespoons oil1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric2 cups coconut milk3 teaspoons ground coriander2 teaspoons salt (if using unsalted chicken stock, add 1 more teaspoon salt)250 grams (8 or 9 ounces) dried rice vermicelli noodles, soaked in warm water for 1/2 hour, drained4 hard boiled eggs, shelled and sliced
Garnishes:1/2 cup bean sprouts, rinsed and drained4 green onions, cut into small diagonal pieces1 lime, cut into wedges4 tablespoons fried shallots (see Note below)4 tablespoons chopped coriander leavesHot chili sauce, such as Sriracha (optional)
Bring the water and chicken stock to a vigorous boil in a large pot over high heat.  Add chicken and lemongrass.  Boil 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and simmer the soup for 30 to 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, using a mortar and pestle or food processor, grind the garlic and ginger to a smooth paste. Heat the oil in a small pan over high heat, and saute the paste for about 2 minutes until it becomes fragrant and just begins to brown. Turn off the heat and add the turmeric.  Saute until well mixed.
After soup has simmered for at least 30 minutes, remove chicken. Spoon the sauteed paste into the soup along with the coconut milk, ground coriander and salt, stirring thoroughly. Continue to simmer.
With your hands or two forks, take chicken meat off the bones and shred into thin slivers. Return chicken to simmering soup.  Turn heat to high and allow soup to come to a vigorous boil.
Meanwhile, arrange the drained noodles in serving bowls. Place 1 egg in each bowl. Ladle the soup over the noodles in the bowls.  Garnish with bean sprouts, green onions, lime wedges, fried shallots and coriander leaves and serve.
Note: To make fried shallots: Heat 4 tablespoons oil in a skillet or small wok over medium high heat. Add 1 cup thinly sliced shallots and stir-fry for a few minutes, allowing the shallots to rest briefly every few seconds. Fry until they are golden brown and crisp. Drain on paper towels.  Once they are completely air dried, use immediately as a garnish or store in an airtight container.
Vermicelli Noodles with Vegetables and Easy Curry Coconut Sauce
You can serve this dish as an appetizer or as a hearty accompaniment for roast chicken or fish.  If you’d like it as a main course, add cubes of tofu or cooked chicken strips to the soup for the last few minutes of simmering, or top each bowl with sliced hard boiled eggs.
Discard the seeds and ribs from the hot peppers if you prefer less heat; or omit them and adjust the seasoning of the cooked sauce with red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper.
Makes 6 servings
3 tablespoons vegetable oil1 medium onion, chopped4 teaspoons minced peeled gingerroot5 garlic cloves, chopped2 fresh hot peppers, minced  1 tablespoon ground cumin1 teaspoon turmeric1 teaspoon ground coriander1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, or to tastean 800-gram (28-ounce) can tomatoes, drainedSalt, freshly ground pepper and cayenne pepper to taste1 1/2 cups green beans, halved1 carrot, cut in diagonal slices about 1 cm (1/2 inch) thick1 zucchini, halved and sliced1 cup fresh or frozen peas1/2 cup canned coconut milk1/3 cup chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)350 grams (12 ounces) vermicelli noodles
Heat oil in a heavy medium saucepan.  Add onion and cook over medium-low heat about 7  minutes  or  until soft but not browned.  Add gingerroot, garlic and hot peppers and cook 1 minute.  Add cumin, turmeric, coriander and pepper flakes and cook, stirring, 1/2 minute.  Add tomatoes, salt and pepper  and  stir  well  to  combine with spice mixture.  Bring to a boil.  Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally and crushing tomatoes,  about 20 minutes or until tomatoes are soft.
Add green beans and carrot slices to a medium saucepan of enough boiling water to cover them easily.  Return to a boil and cook for 3 minutes.  Add zucchini and peas and cook for 2 minutes or until nearly tender.  Transfer to a medium bowl with a slotted spoon; reserve the cooking liquid.
Add vegetables to tomato sauce and bring to a boil.  Add coconut milk and simmer uncovered, stirring often, for 2 minutes or until thickened to taste.  If sauce becomes too thick, add a few tablespoons of the vegetable cooking liquid. Stir in 3 tablespoons cilantro.  Taste and adjust seasoning, adding cayenne pepper to taste.
Cook vermicelli uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, separating strands occasionally with a fork, for 6 to 7 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite.  Meanwhile, reheat sauce over low heat if necessary.
Drain pasta well and transfer to a heated serving bowl.  Toss with 2 cups of vegetable-sauce mixture.  Sprinkle with remaining cilantro. Serve remaining sauce separately.
Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.