Not quite Italian, not quite Peranakan, that strange hybrid called laksa pesto pasta has been appearing on more and more menus. The dish is essentially an Asian take on the Italian herb sauce called pesto.
Pesto alla Genovese (the original and most popular variant of pesto) is made with basil, salt, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, European pine nuts (sometimes toasted) and a grated cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano. But there are many variations, including the exclusion of cheese, that make a less creamy sauce. Sometimes almonds are used instead of pine nuts, and sometimes mint leaves are mixed in with the basil leaves. Pesto in the US is commonly available in supermarkets in either green (original) or red (with sun-dried tomatoes or red bell peppers) varieties. Cashew nuts, walnuts or Chinese pine nuts are often used instead of European pine nuts, because they are less expensive and have a similar texture (although not the same taste). Cheaper oils and other herbs, like parsley, may also be used to further reduce the price.
Laksa or Vietnamese coriander is an herb whose leaves are used in Southeast Asian cooking, but above all, the leaf is identified with Vietnamese cuisine. Also called Cambodian mint or hot mint, it is not actually in the mint family but the general appearance and odor are reminiscent. In Malaysia and Singapore it is called laksa leaf because the shredded leaf is an essential ingredient of laksa, a popular spicy noodle soup from the Peranakan culture, which is a merger of Chinese and Malay elements found in Singapore and to a lesser extent, Indonesia.
The pungent, aromatic laksa leaves, an important garnish for Peranakan laksa, are used as the main ingredient of laksa pesto sauce. In this dish laksa leaves are used for the distinctively local fragrance, while roasted cashew nuts are added to give the dish an aromatic sweetness. You can control the level of spiciness by removing the seeds out from the chilli.
Recipe for Laksa Pesto (Serves 4)
- 1 packet 250g spaghetti (cooked in salted boiling water)
- 3 cups laksa leaves (plucked without any stalks)
- 3 large red chilis, roughly chopped
- 5 cloves garlic
- 200g roasted cashew nuts, unsalted
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 5-6 tablespoons olive oil
- 8 large prawns, peeled and de-veined, blanched in slightly salted boiling water
- Place laksa leaves, garlic, chili, cashew nuts, salt in a blender and process until a loose paste is formed (the hard nuts help break down the laksa leaves that may be stringy).
- Stir in the fish sauce and oil until the paste is sticky (but not too oily).
- Add hot spaghetti and prawns and toss with the pesto.
- Serve immediately.