Cooking to live out an experience: Take your taste buds to Malaysia

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A few years ago, I was living in Southeast Asia. It was an amazing time in my life. On a personal level it showed me a culture and lifestyle that was so foreign to me that I felt as if I was in school every day. From a professional perspective, it made my taste buds stand at attention and demand to know why they had been neglected for so long.

I have often told people that if you go to a museum or gallery, you can get a feeling for the country. But if you really want to experience it, go to where the locals eat, and no one speaks your language. When you need to please the locals daily and tourist dollars don’t matter, you really need to step up your cooking game.

Cooking to live out an experience
Not everyone has the time, the means, or the ability to travel all over the world to eat and experience the cultures that my career has shown me. That does not mean you should not experience it as close to the real thing as you can. What I want to share with you is something new I have been working on called cooking to live out an experience.

All too often today, most American families do not have the time or finances to cook like the days when I grew up. We have lost our connection to food as dining and just use it for sustenance. What a bland culture we are becoming.

In Southeast Asia where I spent much time, I was first taught the lesson that when you are eating your present meal, it is quite common to discuss with the present company where you should meet for the next meal of the day. Many meals were consumed by street vendors or in hawker centers, which would be the equivalent of outside food courts usually with a metal roof, lots of tables, plastic chairs and a mind-blowing variety of food choices.

The second and perhaps more important lesson was to look for, and stand in, the longest line. This goes completely against the American way of looking for the shortest line and getting things done as quickly as possible. It made sense though. If I was going to eat something, I should have the best representation of the dish, vouched for by the longest line of customers.

One dish that brings back such vivid memories whether I was in Thailand, Singapore or Malaysia was curry laksa. Now, I have eaten a lot of varied foods in my life, but when I read the article and discovered that curry laksa was the #2 must-try dish, I called everyone I knew who shared this dish with me! It beat out sushi in Tokyo and brisket in Texas, which are also among my top 10 personal favorites. How cool that Lonely Planet, one of the organizations that I always turn to for unbiased advice when travelling, would feature this as a must have!

Take your family on a culinary journey
Here is a simplified version of Malaysia’s “laksa lamak” or what you may see on a western style menu as curry laksa. This dish hits every taste center of your palate. There is coconut, lemongrass, turmeric, tofu, egg, shrimp, little clams and the laksa leaf. In Malaysia, you are given a little bowl of the chili paste sambal and quartered limes on the side to season to your desired taste.

Thanks to the sriracha and hot-sauce boom, sambal is becoming well-known to many American cooks. It can usually be found in the international or Asian aisle of your supermarket. Sambal oelek, the most basic kind and the one most familiar to Americans, is typically made of red chilies, vinegar and salt. Its heat is comparable to sriracha, but sambal oelek has a slightly chunkier consistency. It also has a slightly more vinegar tang. If you can’t find sambal oelek, it’s okay to substitute sriracha.

Curry Laksa
Serves 4-6
Chef Gerard Viverito


Laksa Paste

  • 3 dried red chilies, stems and seeds removed
  • ¼ cup Malaysian palm oil
  • 4 tsp Thai shrimp paste
  • 1 2-inch piece galangal or substitute ginger, peeled, finely grated
  • 3 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 6 small shallots, chopped
  • 3 lemongrass stalks, tough outer layers removed, finely grated
  • 1 ½ TBSP coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • ¼ tsp ground white pepper
  • 4 ea candlenuts or substitute macadamia nuts


  • ¼ c Malaysian Palm oil
  • 3 cups homemade chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 14-ounce cans coconut milk, divided
  • 2 teaspoons palm sugar or light brown sugar
  • 12 tofu puffs (optional)
  • 1½ pounds peeled and deveined shrimp
  • 8 ounces wide cooked egg noodles or substitute rice vermicelli
  • Kosher salt
  • 4 large soft-boiled eggs, halved
  • 2 medium Persian cucumbers, cut into julienne 1/8”
  • 1/4 cup laksa leaves or mint, chiffonade about 1/8” wide
  • 2 cups bean sprouts
  • 2-3 limes, cut into wedges
  • sambal oelek (for serving)


Laksa Paste

  • Make the paste by soaking the chilies in warm water until soft, about 30 minutes. Drain them and get out as much excess liquid as possible. Set aside.
  • In a blender, puree the remaining paste ingredients until semi smooth. Make sure the liquid goes into the bottom of the blender first to make the pureeing easier.
  • Chef Tip: Laksa paste can be made 1 week ahead or frozen in ice cube trays for up to 2 months.


  • Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high. Cook laksa paste, stirring often, until paste is slightly darkened and fragrant, about 2 minutes. Taste it; it should not taste raw. The oil will also start to separate from the paste for a visual clue. Add the stock and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the coconut milk and sugar. Bring back to a simmer while stirring. Meanwhile, cook noodles according to package directions.
  • Add shrimp and tofu if using, and cook through; season with salt. Divide soup and noodles among bowls. Top with eggs and cucumbers; serve with toppings.
  • Do Ahead: Curry base (without chicken) can be made 3 days ahead; cover and chill. Reheat over medium-low, adding water to thin as needed.

This recipe is available in a printable version here: