A whole lotta Laksa
The spicy dish gets a popularity boost after Mariposa adds it to its menu
ABOUT 10 years have passed since tiny Triple One, specializing in Chinese, Malaysian and Singaporean food, started offering, among other dishes, laksa, a spicy seafood curry noodle dish.
The fast-food booth at the makai end of the Maunakea Marketplace Food Court quickly gained a following among those tired of the same old Chinese-Japanese-Thai-phó circuit.
Come to think of it, not much has changed since then. Yet, it looks as though the mainstream dining market might finally catch on to laksa.
Yes, these things take time, and the imprimatur of an established, respected restaurant is often what is required to get people to overcome their fear of the new -- even if it's not new at all to millions of people in Southeast Asia.
There's nothing like a place on the menu at Mariposa, on the third floor of Neiman Marcus, to give a dish a seal of approval.
A revamp of Mariposa's kitchen led to burnishing the dining room as well, and executive chef Douglas Lum said it was also a good opportunity to update both lunch and dinner menus. The most profound changes have taken place at lunch, where 7 1/2 years of serving primarily salads and grilled sandwiches -- you can never be too thin for the store's designer apparel -- have given way to an elegant menu of entrees comparable to what you would have found at dinner time.
NADINE KAM PHOTO
Triple One's laksa, right, was one of Honolulu's first.
Lum added Laksa Seafood Curry to the lunch menu to replace its Thai Yellow Curry.
It proved an instant hit, as it was, he said, when he first tried a homemade version cooked up by a friend from Singapore. That love at first taste was reinforced by a food trends conference he attended in Napa Valley, Calif., two years ago, during which he noted Singaporean cuisine was quickly becoming an international star, moving up from street-hawker fare to haute cuisine.
"I've had nothing but positive feedback on the laksa," Lum said. "The Thai Yellow Curry was an extremely popular dish, but virtually no one said anything about how they missed it, so I guess no news is a good indication of how much people like the laksa."
While laksa has appeared on special menus at restaurants such as Alan Wong's and at the former Kahala Mandarin's Plumeria Cafe, these days it's possible to find laksa regularly at every price point.
Triple One still serves its laksa with yakisoba noodles and thin Singapore noodles, called mei fun, for $6, which puts it in somewhat of a little price war with neighboring 369, which offers its laksa for $5.50.
The laksa starts with the thick fermented shrimp paste known as blachen, blachan and belacan, mixed with lemon or lime juice, to which is added curry spices, garlic, galangal, fish sauce, coconut milk and chili spice paste that lends the dish its vivid red-orange color.
Of course, there are always those who refuse to set foot in Chinatown, imagining all manner of unsavory creatures cavorting in 100-year-old kitchens. Come on, bug parts are an important protein source in many countries. Then there are the sheltered, squeamish, hypocritical types who, while eagerly eating hamburgers and steaks, lose their appetites knowing pig's heads and other animal parts are sold just around the corner from the food court.
They might find sanctuary instead at Panya Bistro at Ala Moana Center, where laksa is $11.95 and served in a pristine, modern setting.
Annie Yeung, who owns the bistro and bakery with her sister Alice, said that although they grew up in Hong Kong, they traveled a lot and always enjoyed spicy food, seeking out laksa whenever they were in Singapore.
Also using mei fun and yakisoba, she said they wanted noodles that would hold up to the rich, heavy curry without becoming mushy. Into this creamy coconut blend go shrimp, fishcake, calamari, bean sprouts, tofu and corn kernels.
Marveling at the popularity of the dish, she said, "Hawaii is such a special place. Even though it's hot, people like soup noodles."
Lum takes the Hawaii spirit further and serves his $19 kaffir-accented laksa -- the rough edges smoothed to a velvety finish and spiciness toned down so as not to sear delicate palates -- with rice, the only aspect of the dish that alarmed one diner who insisted it wasn't laksa without the noodles.
But Lum's not budging, saying, "People in Hawaii just love rice. I love rice, and I just thought that would be a way to bring the dish closer to home."