Nora Haron's Laksa

Photo by Eva Kolenko

Photo by Eva Kolenko

When Chef Nora Haron hosted laksa pop-ups, bowls of her iconic version of the Singaporean noodle soup, imbued with spice, funk, and plenty of complexity, would sell out in a heartbeat. Because once you dig a spoon in, you can’t stop until the last drop is gone. Then, all that’s left is to dream about enjoying it again. Belacan is extremely pungent when toasted, so be sure to open your kitchen window and turn on your exhaust vent.

One of those rare chefs who is equally accomplished in both sweet and savory, Nora Haron has cooked many things for many restaurants in her career. Now, she couldn’t be more thrilled to share the food closest to her heart and soul.

At the casual Bijan, the Singapore-born Haron serves unique creations, including croissants rippled green with matcha, airy chiffon cake fragrant with pandan, and Singaporean chicken rice, in which traditionally poached chicken gets flash-fried for unexpected crunch. “My food is not fusion,” says Haron. “It’s my interpretation, and it’s authentic to me.”

Haron grew up with a single mom, a caterer who could cook or bake anything, and who wanted her daughter to be a doctor or lawyer. Haron chose to work for a high-fashion shoe designer in Italy instead. But after a while, cooking beckoned, bringing her to the Bay Area to study at the San Francisco Baking Institute before becoming head kitchen manager for Blue Bottle Coffee.

Now, folks are drawn to her Oakland spot— named for the Malay word for “sesame seed,’’ one of her favorite ingredients—by her very personalized cooking. “When people think of Asian food, they think Chinese, Thai, and Japanese,” she says. “I want them to think of Singaporean now, too.”

She’s given them a potent reason to do so.

SERVES 6

For the Sambal Condiment

  • ½ cup dried California chiles, soaked in hot water until softened

  • ½ cup Fresno chiles (about 2 peppers), stems removed

  • ¼ cup sliced shallots

  • 1 clove garlic, crushed

  • ½ inch piece ginger, peeled and chopped

  • ¼ cup finely chopped lemongrass

  • 1 tsp belacan (shrimp paste), toasted in a dry skillet until fragrant

  • 3 Tbsp canola oil

  • ½ tsp kosher salt, or to taste

  • ¼ tsp granulated sugar, or to taste

For the Laksa Paste

  • 4 tsp belacan (shrimp paste)

  • 2 cups sliced shallots

  • 2 cups dried California chiles, soaked until softened

  • 1 cup Fresno chiles (about 4 peppers), stems removed

  • 1 cup finely chopped lemongrass

  • 1 cup macadamia nuts

  • 2-inch knob galangal, peeled

  • 3-inch knob turmeric, peeled, or 1 ½ Tbsp ground turmeric

For the Laksa Broth

  • 1 cup canola oil

  • 1 ½ to 2 ½ qts prawn or chicken stock (divided)

  • 2 cups coconut milk

  • 2 tsp kosher salt, or to taste

For Assembly

  • 1 lb dried laksa rice noodles (about 6 cups when cooked)

  • Grilled prawns

  • Soft-boiled or fried eggs

  • Rau ram leaves

  • Julienned cucumbers

  • Fried tofu puffs

  • Lime wedges

DIRECTIONS

For the Sambal condiment

  1. Drain California chiles, then remove stems and seeds. In a food processor or high-speed blender, combine both types of chiles, shallots, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, and belacan until a smooth paste is formed. Add a little water to thin out, if necessary.

  2. Heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add paste and sauté until fragrant, stirring continuously until oil has separated. Season with salt and sugar to taste. Set aside. Makes about 1 cup. (Leftover sambal condiment can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a few weeks.)

For the Laksa paste

  1. Wrap belacan tightly in aluminum foil, then use your palm or a spatula to press down on it to slightly compress. Using tongs, place the foil packet over a gas stove burner and heat over low heat for 30 seconds on each side. (Alternatively, preheat oven to 375 F. Place belacan in a small roasting pan and roast for 2 to 4 minutes, until edges start to brown. Let cool.)

  2. In a food processor or high-speed blender, combine belacan with remaining ingredients and process to form a smooth paste. Add a little water to thin out, if necessary. Set aside.

For the Laksa broth

  1. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add laksa paste and sauté until fragrant. Add 1 ½ quarts stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Add coconut milk and salt and bring back to a boil, stirring continuously. (The broth should be thick but add another 2 to 4 cups of stock if you prefer it thinner.) Turn off the heat.

For Assembly

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add rice noodles, stir, and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until al dente. Drain, rinse, and shake dry again. Divide noodles among six large, deep individual bowls. Ladle broth into each and top with prawns, egg, rau ram leaves, cucumber, and tofu puffs. Serve lime wedges on the side, along with the sambal, so that guests can help themselves.

Reprinted from East Bay Cooks by Carolyn Jung with permission by Figure 1 Publishing, 2019

Brian Stewartrecipe, east-bay-cooks