I remember the first time I tried chicken laksa.
I was in the hospital in Darwin, Australia, and had been for two weeks. After jumping off the wrong rock (and into the wrong rock) at Litchfield National Park, half my kneecap had been blown into what the doctors called “bone dust.” I’d had two surgeries to try to stitch together the larger fragments with wire and was due for a third.
My injury had abruptly ended a trip from Sydney to Darwin in a Holden Jackaroo, run only on used French fry oil. Now, my prolonged hospital stay (and consistent need to jump off cliffs both metaphorically and literally) was millimeters from abruptly ending my relationship back home.
All of this to say: I was not in a good headspace the day I tasted this dish for the first time. It was a dark moment of the soul. Until a voice broke through my morning self-loathing session.
“Hey mate, you want a chicken luxor?”
The hospital rooms in this WWII-era building were shared — six men together, all bedridden and in various levels of discomfort. I looked across from me to see a cheery Aussie with a broken foot. I forget exactly how he broke it but remember that it was some very cliche Darwin accident. “Backflipping off a keg” or “twisted while evading a croc” or “my mate stepped on it during a pickup footy game.”
“Sorry, a what?” I asked.
“Luxor! Me girlfriend is going to the market, I’ll have her get you one. How spicy do you like it?”
I still had no idea what food we were talking about, but was definitely ready to get away from bland hospital meals.
“As spicy as it gets,” I said.
An hour later, the girlfriend arrived with two giant plastic tubs full of thick, oily noodle soup. The broth itself was orange-pinkish. Herbs and bean sprouts floated on the top of the transparent container. At the bottom, I saw a one-inch thick pad of what I assumed was egg — like a sponge.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked.
“Our shout!” the girlfriend said with a smile. (Generally speaking, Aussies are the freaking best and Darwinians the cream of the very friendly crop.)
The soup itself shook me right out of my misery. It tasted like nothing I’d had before, though I could tell it was SE Asian in origin. There were seafood flavors layered over chicken stock and coconut milk, along with so much spice that my forehead was slick with sweat. The herbs added those classic bright notes that typify some of my favorite soups, especially pho — lemon basil, shallots, lemongrass. But this was richer and deeper than pho. A good pho should taste clean, but the “luxor” was hearty.
That “sponge” at the bottom? Tofu, soaked in flavor and spice. I’ve never enjoyed tofu before or after but I wolfed down that broth-laden slab.
This meal was, without a doubt, one of my best food experiences ever. More importantly, it pulled me out of the spiral I was in. When my buddy Sam came to the hospital the next day to visit, he saw the empty carton and said, “Ahh, you had a luxor!” Cheery for the first time in weeks, I asked him and my new hospital pal how we could get another order. They told me we’d need to wait for Darwin’s famous Mindl Beach Markets the next weekend. They were wrong, but I had no way to know that.
Regardless, broken foot guy was sent home midweek and, with my visa set to expire, I had to fly to the states straight from the hospital. It was not to be.
I was only home for a day or two before I hobbled to my computer to search “Chicken Luxor.” Google immediately redirected me to the actual dish I’d eaten — chicken curry laksa — which is commonly served in Southern Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and parts of Indonesia. It’s also hugely popular in Darwin, where there are vibrant Malay and Indonesian communities. (The whole “luxor” confusion had just been the local accent tripping me up.)
It would take two years for me to get that market-style chicken laksa again. I cooked it myself with varying degrees of success and tried it at Malaysian restaurants in California, but it was never quite as lush. It was always good, but I was craving the street food version — with flavors and spice turned up to 11. For that, I’d have to go to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, or back to Darwin.
I made it to Australia’s Northern Territory two years later, but the trip was off-season for the Mindl Beach Market. That wasn’t enough to stop me. By asking around with some locals, I found Chok’s Place, which was once voted Darwin’s best laksa. The fast-casual joint’s version of the dish was just as thick and creamy as I remembered it. It even had the tofu chunks. And it was spicy enough to completely shut down all conversation. Bliss achieved.
I went back three times in three days.
With the Darwin International Laksa Festival coming up later this month, I asked Jason Chin, chef at Chok’s Place (and 2019 Laksa Festival winner), to share his recipe. Check it out below and start to plan a trip to “the Territory” to try it for yourself when the pandemic ends (flights are easier to change than ever right now). Or make it in your kitchen at home.
Because take it from a guy who found this dish in a hospital bed while doctors prepped him that he might not ever be able to run again: If there was ever a comfort food for when you’re feeling a mixture of weary, wary, and anxious — this is the one.
Jason Chin’s Chicken Laksa
PART I — Ingredients:
- 2 cups (500 ml) chicken stock / broth
- 1 cup (250 ml) water
- 3 chicken drumsticks
- 1 1/2 tbsp oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 3 inch pieces of ginger, finely grated
- 1 lemongrass stalk, white part grated
- 2 bird’s eye chilies, finely chopped
- 2 tbs of laksa paste [There’s some debate here. Uproxx’s Zach Johnson makes his own, naturally. Using laksa paste is the easiest method. I order this one.]
- 400 g / 14 oz can coconut milk
- 2 tsp fish sauce
LAKSA CHILI SAUCE:
- 1/2 tsp sugar, white
- 1 1/2 tsp soy sauce, light or all-purpose
- 1/2 garlic clove, minced
- 1 1/2 tsp laksa paste
- 1 tbsp Sriracha sauce, or other chili sauce
- 1 tbsp chili paste from a jar, or more Sriracha
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil (any plain oil)
NOODLES + TOPPINGS:
- 50g / 1.5 oz vermicelli noodles, dried
- Cooked and peeled prawns (optional)
- 100g / 3.5oz hokkien noodles (optional) [That first version I had used spaghetti noodles.]
- 80g / 2.5 oz bean sprouts
- 80g / 2.5 oz tofu puffs, cut in half
- Fresh cilantro (recommended)
- Lime wedges (recommended)
- Crispy fried shallots, optional
- Finely sliced red chili, optional
PART II — Directions:
- Place chicken stock ingredients in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to simmer, then reduce to medium-high heat.
- Cook for 25 minutes or until chicken flesh is “fall off the bone” and liquid reduces by about 1/3.
- Discard skin, pull the flesh off the bone, and place in bowl. Discard bone. Set broth aside.
- Mix Laksa Chilli sauce ingredients together in a small bowl. Set aside.
- Add 2tbs of laksa paste to chicken broth and simmer on the stove for 20 minutes to allow paste to infuse.
- Once paste has infused into stock, strain the liquid to remove the laksa paste particles.
- In a large saucepan, heat oil over low heat. Add garlic and ginger, sauté for 20 seconds, then add lemongrass and chilies. Cook for 1 minute.
- Add laksa-infused chicken broth, coconut milk, fish sauce, and 2 tsp of laksa chili sauce. Place lid on and simmer for 10 minutes
- Adjust to taste using lime juice and fish sauce. Add tofu puffs. Leave on turned off stove with the lid on for 5 minutes.
- Divide noodles between 2 bowls. Top with shredded chicken.
- Pour broth over chicken. Top with beansprouts, prawns (if using) and add chosen garnishes. [Lemon basil is a standard for me.]
- Serve with laksa chilli sauce on the side.