Penang assam laksa, a Malaysian fish noodle soup with a true cult following, is a rarity outside of restaurants in Southeast Asia. But Atlantans can find the celebrated dish at one metro area restaurant: Penang Malaysian Cuisine in Kennesaw.
With its zesty undertones, aromatic blend of spices, and rich heritage, the mackerel-based fish broth of Penang assam laksa is light and packed with a flavorful combination of sweet, sour, tangy, and umami notes. Thick, chewy rice noodles provide a satisfying texture to the soup and become even more essential to the dish once fully submerged in the spicy broth. The assam laksa at Penang Malaysian Cuisine sees fragrant lemongrass added to the broth, which lends floral hints.
Some might say Penang assam laksa is an acquired taste. But for those who love this Malaysian fish noodle soup, they’re hooked.
Here are nine reasons why you should add Penang assam laksa to your list of must-eat dishes around Atlanta.
1. It’s considered one of the “World’s 50 Best Foods”
Ranked number seven according to a CNN list of the World’s 50 Best Foods, Penang assam laksa is hailed as one of the most delicious dishes found in Southeast Asia, and renowned as a uniquely Malaysian culinary experience.
2. It has a real cult following
There aren’t many noodle dishes in the world with this much of a cult following, but Penang assam laksa is definitely one such dish. In 2012, the late Anthony Bourdain put assam laksa on the global culinary map when he featured the soup in an episode of “No Reservations”. Bourdain later described Penang assam laksa as “the breakfast of gods,” an accolade that helped solidify its reputation as a must-try dish for any adventurous food lover.
3. It’s rooted in Nonya heritage
To truly appreciate the significance of Penang assam laksa to Malaysia, one must understand its culinary roots in the country’s Nonya (or Nyonya) people. The Nonya are descendants of Chinese immigrants who centuries ago married local Malays in the Straits settlements. This merging of cultures ultimately created a distinct cuisine known as Nonya or “Peranakan”. Dishes characteristically blend traditional Chinese and Malay flavors together, which define dishes like Penang assam laksa in Malaysia.
4. It boasts a unique tangy broth infused with umami-rich mackerel
At the heart of Penang assam laksa lies its signature tangy broth, which is derived from one of its key ingredients: tamarind pulp. Intermingled with this tanginess, the addition of flaked mackerel fish infuses a rich umami savoriness, giving Penang assam laksa flavorful depth.
5. It’s all about the art of toppings
Although the broth of Penang assam laksa is at the heart of the dish, the experience is heightened by pops of flavor from crisp and herby toppings. Thinly sliced cucumber, red onions, red chili peppers, and fragrant mint leaves garnish the noodle soup, providing further textural contrast and fresh aromatic notes.
6. It’s a Malaysian street food sensation
While Penang assam laksa has gained international recognition in recent years, the dish still remains deeply rooted in its Malaysian street food origins. In Penang, and throughout the rest of Malaysia, assam laksa is commonly found in hawker stalls and open-air markets, where both locals and tourists can enjoy a bowl any time of day, even for breakfast.
7. It’s a culinary ambassador for Penang
When visiting Penang, a coastal region known for its vibrant street food scene, both Malaysians and international visitors often seek out the best assam laksa stalls to indulge in (or try for the very first time) the fish noodle soup. And while there are many Malaysian dishes that contributed to Penang’s culinary reputation worldwide, including char kway teow and oyster omelette, assam laksa remains its most iconic ambassador.
8. It’s a powerful symbol of cultural fusion in Malaysia
Penang assam laksa is a true testament to the power of cultural fusion, something that characterizes present-day Malaysia. The noodle soup is an intricate, yet harmonious blend of Chinese and Malay flavors and ingredients, further illustrating the culinary traditions of different ethnic groups that now call the country home and make Malaysia unique in Southeast Asia.
9. It’s not easy to find outside of Malaysia
Despite having international recognition, Penang assam laksa is still relatively hard to find outside of Malaysia. A myriad of herbs, spices, and ingredients, along with traditional cooking methods, contribute to its scarcity. But this limited availability only adds to the allure of the dish, making it a special experience for those fortunate enough to find Penang assam laksa at restaurants beyond Malaysia’s coastline.
Penang Malaysian Cuisine, 491 George Busbee Parkway, Kennesaw.