Laksa Story

Most visitors to Darwin are shocked – and delighted – at the quality of Asian food, especially the laksa. Some say that the city serves the best laksa this side of Asia; others say that the fresh, top-class ingredients make it the best anywhere in the world. Postings on Tripadvisor range from “awesome” to “unbelievable” to “addictive”. One says simply: “To die for.”

Malay diver in a diving suit, on board a ship, 1930
Malay diver in a diving suit, on board a ship, 1930. Bill & Betty Eacott Collection, PH0444/0010, Library & Archives NT.
Chinese market gardener watering garden
Chinese market gardener watering garden. William Stanley Collection, PH1034/0013, Library & Archives NT.

Praise is heaped on our laksa whether it is served in a classy restaurant or from a market stall – the best market laksa stalls attract long queues of patient, salivating customers.

In fact, laksa is now so much an integral part of the Darwin diet that a stall selling excellent laksa can literally “make” a market. Some laksa cooks have become minor celebrities – and they guard their recipes like … well, like Coca-Cola and Heinz baked beans.

One laksa maestro, Guo Yang Yei, who is known as Mary, says the secret to her success is simple: fresh ingredients. Not surprisingly, she has gained a cult following at Parap market.

Many eateries claim the title of Best Laksa in Town. One restaurateur was known to have been deeply insulted when his laksa was described as the “second best” in Darwin – the interstate diner who posted the comment thought he was being complimentary, not realising he was blundering into a culinary debate where angels fear to tread.

A food critic from television station SBS described one Darwin laksa as “soul-affirming” – nobody but the author knows what that means but it sounds like a compliment.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the “are we the best in the world” argument, there is one indisputable fact: Darwin is the laksa capital of Asia.

Indonesia and Malaysia have traded insults – and once had a minor diplomatic incident – over the origins of laksa. Both claim it as their own.

One fact is known: it is a lovechild.

The Chinese Lion Dance celebrating the Chinese New Year
The Chinese Lion Dance celebrating the Chinese New Year. Chinese males in costume, small boys and women in European style clothing. A four-wheeled buggy stands in front of verandahed buildings made of corrugated iron facing unsealed footpath and road, 1920. Roy Edwards Collection, PH0274/0005, Library & Archives NT.

The spicy noodle soup originated in the Peranakan culture, which developed after Chinese traders settled in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, mainly from the 15th to 17th centuries – and married Malay women. The Chinese brought their noodle soup with them. And the Malay women immediately thought: “I know what this needs – something to spice it up.”

Laksa was born … fusion cooking at its finest.

The origin of the name is unclear. It may originate from the Sanskrit word “laksha”, which means many in Hindi – a reference to the many ingredients. Or it may come from the Persian “lakhshah”, a kind of vermicelli. Or it may stem from “la sha” – pronounced “latsa in Cantonese” – which means “spicy sand”, a reference to the gravy.

Of course, there is no one laksa – communities have always mixed and matched ingredients according to availability and taste. So, in reality, there are as many laksas as there are cooks.

The key ingredients in most Darwin laksas are chicken and seafood. But one adventurous cook has dabbled with crocodile. And it’s even possible to get laksa ice cream.

Passions about types of laksa run hot.

Chinese families at Emungalan, Katherine, approximately 1906-07
Chinese families at Emungalan, Katherine, approximately 1906-07. Henry & Gwen Scott Collection, PH0663/0121, Library & Archives NT.
Three Chinese women in ceremonial dress to celebrate Chinese New Year, Darwin City 1923
Three Chinese women in ceremonial dress to celebrate Chinese New Year, Darwin City 1923. William Stanley Collection, PH1034/0004, Library & Archives NT.

One restaurant critic even referred to the Johor laksa from southern Malaysia as being ”heretical”.

It is not known when laksa first came to the Top End.

Darwin has long been known as an “Asian city” – Chinese outnumbered Europeans 6-1 in 1900; Darwin kids, regardless of ethnic background, are more likely to be brought up eating rice than potatoes.

It’s not surprising that laksa is to the Top End what souvlaki is to Greeks and ragu alla bolognese is to Italians.

After all, Darwin is the most multicultural city in Australia – nearly 30 percent of the population was born overseas.

Well-travelled people say that it is also one of the happiest and most harmonious multiracial places in the world, a city proud to have a humble but delicious Asian soup as its “national” dish.

Two Chinese children probably Pine Creek 1910
Two Chinese children probably Pine Creek 1910. This photo appears in Masson, E. R. “An Untamed Territory” (1915) p.30 and is attributed to Dr. Maplestone. David R. Miller Collection, PH0188/0101, Library & Archives NT.
Chinese garden and hospital, 1883
Chinese garden and hospital, 1883. Foelsche Collection, PH0754/0012, Library & Archives NT.