The humble pumpkin can have a hard time standing out in the crowd. Enter this recipe for pumpkin laksa. It’s a real homecoming winner this fall, and a dish that will bring a new dimension to your soup repertoire. Laksa is a spicy noodle soup that is found in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Singapore. There are three basic types of laksa. Curry laksa (shown here) is a coconut-based broth traditionally made with rice noodles and may include proteins like shrimp, chicken, or fish. Asam laksa omits the coconut milk in favor of something sour, often tamarind, as its base. A third type of laksa, sarawak, features both coconut milk and tamarind.
The foundation of laksa soup is laksa paste. Sure, you can buy it, but making your own yields a much more vibrant and fresh version. Don’t be scared by the list of ingredients, which includes chiles, shrimp paste, galangal, turmeric, and lemongrass. You should be able to find most ingredients at your mainstream grocery store, with the exception of the galangal and shrimp paste, which will require a visit to an Asian market or an online order.
Even if you’re tempted, do not omit the fresh galangal or try to replace it with ginger. Although galangal is a member of the ginger family, it has a more peppery and piney flavor than ginger.
As for the shrimp paste, it will be funky and pungent. Don’t be alarmed. It mellows out with cooking and adds a unique dimension. The paste is essentially a fermented mixture of shrimp and salt. It will last almost indefinitely in your fridge, and you can use it in all sorts of Asian cooking. Similar to adding an anchovy or two to your favorite Italian red sauce, shrimp paste gives laksa an added depth of flavor.
I’ve also called for kaffir lime leaves. They are completely optional, but they impart a really interesting floral, citrusy component to the dish. So seek them out and use them if you can.
Lastly, a tip: I find it helpful to make the laksa paste and steam the pumpkin in advance (say, on a weekend) so that when you’re ready to make the soup, all you need is 15 to 20 minutes for cooking.
1 pound cubed (1½ to 2 inches) pumpkin or winter squash (e.g., butternut, kabocha, kuri)
2 tablespoons coconut (or vegetable) oil
¾ cup laksa paste (see below)
2½ cups chicken (or vegetable) broth
1 (13.5-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk
3 to 4 fresh kaffir lime leaves (optional)
8 ounces cooked rice vermicelli noodles
1 tablespoon fish sauce
Optional: cooked shredded chicken, raw shrimp (peeled and deveined), cubed fish, or tofu
Fresh herbs (e.g., cilantro, mint, Thai basil)
Scallions, thinly sliced
Thinly sliced chile or sambal chile paste
1. Set a steamer basket into a large pot. Fill the pot with water until the water just touches the bottom of the basket. Place the pumpkin cubes in the steamer basket and cover. Bring the water to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and steam the pumpkin until fork tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Set aside.
2. Heat the coconut oil in a Dutch oven or large soup pot. Add the laksa paste and cook 3 to 4 minutes until fragrant. Add the chicken broth to deglaze the pan. Add the coconut milk and the optional lime leaves, and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Add the fish sauce, steamed pumpkin, and a squeeze of lime. Next, add the optional shredded chicken, shrimp, fish, or tofu. Continue cooking for a few more minutes until your protein of choice, if using, is cooked and the soup is warmed through. Taste, adding more fish sauce or lime juice as needed.
3. Divide the cooked noodles among the bowls. Ladle the laksa into each bowl. Top with fresh herbs, scallions, and sliced chiles. Serve with sambal on the side (for those who wish to stir it into their soup) and lime wedges.
Makes ¾ cup (enough for one laksa soup recipe)
2 to 4 dried chiles, more or less based on desired level of heat
2 to 4 fresh Thai chiles, minced, more or less based on desired level of heat
1 tablespoon shrimp paste (referred to as Belacan in Malaysian cooking)
2 tablespoons peeled and minced galangal
1-inch piece fresh turmeric (about 1 teaspoon), peeled and minced (or 1 teaspoon dried, ground turmeric)
2 stalks lemongrass, outer tough leaves removed, finely chopped
6 small shallots, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1. Soak the dried chiles in hot water for 20 minutes to soften. Drain. Roughly chop.
2. To roast the shrimp paste, wrap it in foil and (with tongs) place it over the fire of a gas range or dry-fry in a pan over a low flame for 30 seconds to a minute until the shrimp paste sizzles and becomes fragrant.
3. Place all the ingredients in a food processor or mortar and pestle and process until you have a smooth paste. If preparing in advance, refrigerate the paste in an airtight container for up to two days.