My first experience with Penang Assam Laksa was at the Gurney Drive beachfront before it all got relocated because of serious erosion. It was an epiphany for me on the balance of flavors. On the seafront with a strong wind blowing in, it was comforting yet spicy and very playful. Much like the shoes of Jimmy Choo, a Penangite.
It was as if the entire troupe from Riverdance were having a party in my mouth. With fireworks. Within a space of 10 minutes, I had slurped down 3 bowls of Assam Laksa. It was an experience I have not forgotten.
The closest I’ve ever been to recreating the experience in Singapore was the Penang Hawkers Fare at the York Hotel. Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to them. Thus, I’ve been on a lookout for a nice Penang Assam Laksa.
Recently, I’ve noticed a small restaurant called Penang Recipe on Upper Thompson Road that featured Penang cuisine. It had Assam Laksa and the other famous Penang dish Lor Bak. So there’s no helping but to give it a try no?
Penang Recipe is run by the Gao Feng group that owns the Gao Feng Abalone Noodle store next door. The restaurant itself is surprisingly run-down for something that opened recently after a renovation. The air-conditioning isn’t turned on because, according to them, it leaks onto the tables. A quick look at the menu tells of better times when desserts like Cendol and appetizers like Penang Rojak were available. But my focus, since I was solo, was the Assam Laksa and the Lor Bak.
On first blush, the Assam Laksa ticked all the correct boxes. The pineapple, red onions, mint and cucumber were all there providing a sweet vibrant crunch punch. I was pleased with the generous amount of flaked Ikan Kembung (Mackerel) and the presence of Hae Kor (Prawn Paste) that provided loads and loads of umami. I was happy slurping as fast as I could, savoring the complexity of flavors.
Then the more critical part of me emerged. There were two things that stopped Penang Recipe’s Assam Laksa from being excellent. First the rice noodles were overcooked. It was limp, overly soft and tasteless. Quite different from the slippery, slightly chewy slightly sweet rice noodles you’d expect.
Second was the Assam broth; it was watery, lifeless shadow of what would have been an exciting dance of flavors. The Ikan Kembung and Hae Kor contribute very heavy and earthy flavors that need the acidity of the Assam broth to cut through and lift the whole ensemble to a greater stage where the mix of fruit and herbs dance. Without the acidity, what you get is a dull laborious thudding of earthy flavors against your palate. This is what I experienced and when the salad of fruit and herb was gone, I left half the bowl of lifeless noodles and brown broth untouched.
The Wikipedia definition of Lor Bak is wrong. It’s gotten confused with Ngor Hiong (or Ngo Hiang). True-blue Penangites will tell you there’re major differences starting with the fact that Lor Bak does not contain minced pork.
It’s sliced pork loin (or belly for the more luxe versions) and the different ways of slicing results in different textures but in general this results in the Lor Bak having a more satisfying chew than the Ngor Hiong. While the other components of the filling vary from secret recipe to secret recipe, Lor Bak always includes 5-Spice, Soy Sauce and Garlic.
Also, Lor Bak is served with Sambal Belacan (with a squeeze of lime) and Tee Chune (Sweet Soy Sauce), none of that “thick broth thickened with corn starch and beaten eggs” crap.
The Penang Recipe version of Lor Bak is fairly authentic in the sense that it’s not minced pork. Unfortunately, they were heavy-handed with the 5-Spice powder so you taste nothing but 5-Spice. The pork’s rather dry, so expect a long chewing process. Sadly, the Sambal Belacan was too weak and flavorless to be counterpoint to the richness of the Lor Bak. It was unsatisfying.
I think “Unsatisfactory” would be how I would describe my dinner of Assam Laksa and Lor Bak at Penang Recipe on Upper Thompson Road. The service was perfunctory and the environment was uncomfortable. While the Assam Laksa should initial promise, it eventually fell flat; nice but not good. The Lor Bak showed promise but the 5-Spice powder overpowered everything, the pork was dry and the Sambal Belacan was too weak to lift it out of the doldrums.
Perhaps someone else might try out the rest of the menu at Penang Recipe but as for me, I’ll give it a rest for a while.
i heard Penang Recipe isn’t that good … have you tried Penang Roade Cafe at Novena?
I’ve heard of it but never been inclined to try. Is it good?
You can also try the one at Penang Seafood Restaurant beside Aljunied MRT station.
the penang ckt is pretty good =)
ok thanks for the heads up. Think I’ll stick to the one at the Geylang for now.
The photo you took made it look really tempting though.
I was born and bred in Penang. For fifty years I had been eating Penang food. Since I came to Singapore I had been looking around for as authentic Penang Food as I could. Yes, I tried the one at York Hotel and would just give it a 45% as the food was prepared in lump. No Penang guy will ever approve of food prepared that way and yet claim to be Penang Hawker Food. I have been to Suntec, Jurong East IBP, and every place where I hear has Penang Food but the best I can award is just around 65%. Once I saw a signboard at a food centre, ‘Authentic Penang Hawker Food’. I was so happy. I ordered a plate of ‘Char Koay Teow’ to begin with, emphasising more chillies. When the girl handed me the plate of fried char koay teow I was shocked when I laid my eyes on it. It was black in colour with a shelled prawn. I told her that I ordered more chillies and she pointed to a bowl of cut chillies. What about cockles, she said they did not use cockles. I was so disappointed and angry that I shouted at her to take down the signboard. She was insulting my Penang Food.
Recently, I discovered yet another place selling Penang Food. It is at ABC Brickfields hawker centre in Bukit Merah Road, near the CPIB. If you are from Penang or if you know how to enjoy Penang Food in Singapore, go there. The price is ridiculously cheap, $2.50 a big plate of Char Koay Teow, Laksa, Koay Teow Soup, Curry Mee and Hokkien Mee. If you like more ingredients pay $3. You will not be disappointed. This is the best example of cheap and good in Singapore. Save the airfare and in fact nowadays the true hawkers are fading. Now, in Penang the young hawkers are predators just wanting to make a quick ringgit or lousy food. I was asking the couple in ABC Brickfields to sell loh bak too. Keep in touch with me at email@example.com if you can find another place better than this.
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