Unless you want to come off as a tourist, that is (not that we'll ever be mistaken for locals).
Malaysia is the land of laksas. There's laksa assam and curry laksa, Johor laksa and laksa utara. And Sarawak laksa, which in Sarawak is known simply as 'laksa'. Local-style laksa rules in Kuching; cruising around the small city's streets, we didn't see a single hawker offering any kind of laksa other than, well, laksa.
That's fine with us, because in Kuching we can - and did - eat laksa day after day.
Coconut milk-based Sarawak-style laksa gravy incorporates a spice paste made from belacan, lemongrass, galangal, coriander, chile, and black pepper, among other things (Sarawak laksa recipes are hard to come by). Into the gravy go beehoon (rice vermicelli) and bean sprouts; shrimp, chicken, omelet strips, and fresh cilantro crown the bowl.
On a dull, rainy Saturday we found our laksa heaven at Min Heng, a small Chinese coffee shop just a couple of blocks from Min Joo. Laksa is breakfast fare in Sarawk (most vendors are closed before lunch) and, indeed, at 8am this stall owner and his wife were serving several tables of regulars and while fielding dozens of takeout orders. She told us that on Sundays their packing it up by 9:30am.
This couple's attention to detail comes through in the final product. His soup, fully lemak (rich with coconut milk), is, at the same time, light. Black pepper comes through clear and strong on the palate, as does ground coriander and lemongrass, and chile takes a back seat - until, that is, the accompanying sambal is stirred in. With the addition of a squeeze of kalamansi the gravy assumes a perfect balance, coconut milk's sweetness playing off citrus tartness and acting as the perfect foil to the kick of black pepper and red chile.
This laksa cook doesn't prepare his chicken in advance but keeps it on the bone, poaching in a pan of stock on his cart, ready to be pulled out and chopped to order (note the whole chicken lower right, above). The result is juicy, flavorful pieces of bird rather than the rubbery bits of protein to be found in many a Sarawak-style laksa. His wide omelet strips taste fresh and eggy, and he's generous with shrimp as well.
Satisfied as we were with our this laksa at Min Heng, we felt compelled - for our readers - to sample the version served by an elderly hawker almost kitty corner, in an open food court across from the Carpenter Street Teochew temple. It boasted little of our previous laksa's subtlety and seemed heavy with coconut milk in comparison. Neither sambal nor kalamansi was served on the side; a polite inquiry ('Sambal?') earned us a grunt, a sneer, and a jerk of the vendor's thumb at our bowl.
Now, we can certainly appreciate that a proud cook may not wish a diner to mess with his creation. But in Malaysia, where some like it fiery, others like just a touch of tingle, and the rest prefer it blandish, heat on the side (in the form of sambal, chile sauce, and/or pickled/fresh chilies) is ubiquitous. This vendor's refusal to come up with a saucer of sambal seemed born more of orneriness than genuine insult.
The next morning we returned to Min Heng. And just in time, too. It was 9am and we were among the last customers of the day.
Laksa stall at Min Heng Cafe, 6 Carpenter Street, Kuching, Sarawak. Mon-Sat 7-1030 or 11a, Sun 7-9 or 930a. No set off day. (This shop serves a nice cup of kopi too.) 3 RM per bowl.