You know what smells really, really bad? Shrimp paste. Yes, I know, this should come as no surprise to me: it is made from fermented ground shrimps, after all. Also, I really should get over the habit of sniffing curiously at things which I know will be particularly offensive to my nostrils, especially when I’m going to put those things in my food. I used to do this with fish sauce, too: eurgh, fermented anchovies, yek (surprise, surprise, right?), then I’d put some in my dinner, and then I wouldn’t want to eat my dinner because it smelled of fermented anchovies.
I have just about made my peace with the fish sauce – I went on a Thai cookery course a little while ago, and it turns out that the secret to making Thai food that tastes actually properly like Thai food is to put huge quantities of fish sauce in everything. This is distressing at first, but the trick is not to inhale while you pour, and definitely, definitely not to immediately run the measuring spoon under a hot tap right near where your nose is.
Shrimp paste, though, that was new to me. I’ve put mine back in the fridge in its little self-sealing packet, inside a jar, and we won’t talk about it any more. Really, though, don’t let me put you off – in this recipe, it goes into the spice paste right at the beginning, where it gets mixed up with lots of delicious smelling things and becomes hundreds of times less alarming. In between opening the packet and blending the paste, though, I’d recommend keeping the window open (or developing a stinking cold. You can have mine, if you like).
Aside from making a paste – which is a doddle, if you have a mini food processor – all that’s required is to open a tin of coconut milk and chop some vegetables. For that miniscule amount of effort (oh, alright, you also have to rummage in the freezer for the prawns), you get a bright-tasting dish of exotically scented …well, soup. But with enough noodles and vegetables and toppings to convince even the most ardent of soup-deniers (read, me) that this is actually proper food. Which is lucky, because it’s delicious.
Serves 4. Adapted slightly from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey, mostly because although I quite like beansprouts, I am entirely fed up with buying them half a kilo at a time and only using a handful. I read somewhere that no Thai person would dream of putting baby sweetcorn in their food, but then I decided that I didn’t much care about that. It is my dinner, after all.
A note on kashmiri chillies: they are a pain to find, but substituting ordinary dried chillies is likely to result in having to defect to the pub for an edible meal and your friends never coming over for dinner again. (yes, I speak from experience here). I get mine from the spicery, who not only sell everything you’ve ever heard of and quite a lot that you haven’t, but also have the option of teaspoon-sized bags for when you really can’t think what you’ll do with the remaining 25g of amchur powder or urfa flakes (no, I don’t know what they are either).
for the paste:
5 dried kashmiri chillies
1/2 tbsp shrimp paste
1 lemongrass stalk
12g cashew nuts
20g peeled galangal or ginger
25g fresh turmeric, or 1 tsp turmeric powder
60g onions or shallots
1/2 tbsp freshly ground coriander seeds
1 1/2 tbsp vegetable or groundnut oil
Slit the chillies open and shake out the seeds, then put in a bowl with some hot water and leave to soak for around 25 minutes. Drain and roughly chop. Peel the garlic and shallots, roughly chop everything and put it all into a mini food processor. Blend into a smooth paste.
For the laksa:
3 tbsp vegetable or groundnut oil
400ml tin coconut milk
750ml prawn stock* or water
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp palm sugar (I’d run out, caster worked fine)
175g dried wide flat rice noodles
a couple of handfuls of crunchy veg (I used green beans and baby corn)
For the toppings:
150g piece cucumber, cut in half lengthways and sliced finely
3 spring onions, sliced diagonally
a small handful each of mint & coriander, roughly chopped
1 red chilli, finely sliced
Put some water on for the noodles. Heat the oil in a large pan or wok (bearing in mind that you’re going to add a litre of liquids later on), and fry the spice paste over a low heat for a couple of minutes until fragrant. Add the coconut milk, prawn stock or water, fish sauce and sugar and simmer for 3 minutes.
While this simmers, cook your noodles – drop them into the boiling water, remove from the heat and leave them for 3 minutes, then drain and divide between 4 bowls.
Add the prawns to the soup and leave to simmer while you distribute the vegetables on top of the noodles in the bowls. When the prawns are cooked through, ladle the soup into the bowls, ensuring that everyone has the same amount of prawns (or not, you choose), and top with the cucumber, spring onions, herbs and chilli. Serve with lime wedges.
*If you have raw prawns with heads and shells attached, you can make your own prawn stock by frying the heads and shells in a tbsp of oil, then adding 1.2l of water and leaving to simmer for an hour or so until reduced to 750ml. I didn’t, so I used water instead.