Tony Johor Kaki Travels for Food · Heritage · Culture · History

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Origin of Sarawak Laksa · Breakfast of the Gods · Noodles of Obsession

Laksa is probably the most widespread noodle dish in the world with many regional versions e.g. Russian lapsha, Afghan lakhchak, laksa Johor, Siglap laksa, Katong laksa, Penang laksa, Sarawak laksa, etc.

Sarawak laksa is arguably the most complex laksa and without a doubt, it is the late Anthony Bourdain's favourite.

A lot has been written about Sarawak laksa. Google search yields:

Sarawak laksa - 2.3 million results

Nyonya laksa - 1.1 million results

Singapore laksa - 1 million results

The global interest, I believe is thanks to Anthony Bourdain's mentions.

Bourdain called it "weapons grade plutonium of breakfasts" 💣

"Best breakfast ever".

"Breakfast of the Gods".

Sarawak laksa is also the favourite of Jason Brooke, the grandson of Anthony Brooke, the last White Rajah of Sarawak who handed the independent kingdom of Sarawak to the United Kingdom in 1946.

A brief history of Sarawak.


What is Sarawak laksa?

It is rice vermicelli & beansprouts bathed and submerged under a spicy blend of hot chicken and prawn broth rich with coconut milk, spiced with complex rempah (spice mix) of over 20 types of spices. 

The spicy noodles are topped with chicken, prawn, and strips of egg crepe. There are variations of toppings depending on the stall e.g. some have pork balls, even clams.

In Singapore Nyonya laksa, daun kesum which we call laksa leaves are a must - what is laksa without laksa leaves!? For Sarawak laksa, daun kesum is not a must and I observed that coriander (cilantro) is more often used.

The crustacean umami and chicken sweet broth with loads of spices should be flavoursome enough for most people, but the dish is always served with a dish of sambal belacan and calamansi, standing by to give the broth an extra boost. 

The Spicy Broth is the Life & Soul of Sarawak Laksa


Sarawak laksa is all about its spicy broth.

Ideally, the spice paste (rempah) for the broth is made from scratch but with the easy availability of pre-mixes, most chefs / cooks / stall holders today start with the basic ready made spice paste.

These are ingredients commonly found in typical, ready made, basic spice paste:


cumin seed

coriander seed

star anise 





sesame seed


fennel seed


dried chili



Chefs, cooks, stall holders tweak the factory mass produced basic spice paste with their own recipe, topping it up with fresh spices from spice shops.

Chefs also boost their Sarawak laksa broth with fresh aromatics and vegetables such as lemongrass, shallots, chili pepper, etc.

To make the signature broth, the basic spice paste is sautéed in oil with aromatics such as shallots, garlic, galangal, red chili pepper, lemongrass, rehydrated dried chillies.

When flavours from the aromatics are released, pour in the prawn and chicken stock. While boiling, add in the coconut milk.

The signature Sarawak laksa broth is ready to give life to the bowl of blanched rice vermicelli (bee hoon).

Origin of Sarawak Laksa

The word "laksa" is commonly attributed to the Persian word lakhshah which means vermicelli or noodle.

A copper plate inscription from Biluluk (today's Bluluk), East Java in Indonesia dated 1391 (Majapahit empire era) mentioned "hanglaksa" or "vermicelli maker". So, noodles have been in the Malay archipelago and the term "laksa" has been used here for at least 600 years.

In this cargo manifest published in the Singapore Chronicle dated 1833, a cargo ship sailing from Batavia (today's Jakarta) to Singapore, was carrying 24 baskets of laksa which is clearly referred to as vermicelli.

Penang laksa hawker in the 1930s. The laksa is described as "elongated rice cake" which is served with fish curry, onions, leaves and chilis. The spicy concoction is said to give you "stomach troubles" if overindulged.

In the Indian system of counting, the word laksa means 100,000 (known as lakh today). Laksa or lakh are believed to be from the Persian or Hindi word lakhshah, which means vermicelli.
(This is an advertisement for bricks in Singapore Free Press in 1902. $140 for 100,000 common bricks.)

So, laksa refers to both the rice vermicelli (bee hoon) or rice noodles as well as the vermicelli dish with curry or broth.

There are many regional or community variations of the curry or broth which are named Johor laksaSiglap laksaKatong laksa, Nyonya laksa, Penang laksa, etc. Sarawak laksa is rice vermicelli with the Sarawak blend of spicy broth.


There are other theories often bandied around loosely that are not supported by evidence (so far).

One theory suggests that laksa in Hokkien means six ingredients as lak 六 means six and sa 沙 supposedly means vermicelli (so claims this theory). 

Another theory proposes that laksa means spicy 辣 sand 沙 in Hokkien because the spices leave a gritty residue in the soup.

Kuching's Main Bazaar in the 1930s (or earlier).

A Teochew immigrant from Chaoshan, Guangdong, China, Goh Lik Teck is widely cited as the inventor of the Sarawak style of laksa, peddling his concoction at Carpenter Street in the 1940s.

The source is the 17-page chapter on "The Flavours of Sarawak" written by Edgar Ong in the Official Guide to Sarawak, jointly published by the Sarawak state government and Leisure Guide Publishing in 2015.

Edgar Ong, however, did not describe how Goh Lik Teck's Sarawak laksa look, taste or smell like, nor mention the spices or other ingredients in it.

When the Second World War ended in 1945, the economies of British Malaya, Sarawak and the whole of Asia began to rebuild. However, jobs were scarce and many people became hawkers to survive.

Laksa hawkers, some carrying their wares on their shoulders while others on pushcarts appeared in Johor Bahru, Singapore and Kuching. The laksa hawkers in Singapore peddled Nyonya style laksa in Katong which the Hainanese domestic workers learned from their Peranakan employers. (No Peranakan will allow their heirloom laksa recipe to be leaked and peddled as street food.)

A bit of Singapore Katong laksa DNA (coconut milk & spice) might be in Sarawak laksa (as there's a lot of human traffic between Singapore and Kuching). 

Tan Yong Him's Obsession

Today's version of Sarawak laksa can be attributed to 
Tan Yong Him who created and sold a spice premix under the Swallow brand (Cap Burung Layang Layang) in the 1960s. Tan Yong Him who was a fruit seller wasn't the first person to come up with the Sarawak laksa recipe. Tan like other laksa hawkers had his own concoction and made their own spice mix (rempah). 

We have no idea how similar or different is Tan's Sarawak laksa with Goh Lik Teck's version. But, I imagine Tan, like a mad alchemist. was trying to create the ultimate laksa, the laksa of all laksa. Going by Anthony Bourdain's repeated ringing endorsement and how Tan's concoction has conquered East Malaysia and beyond, he has been very successful in his ambitious endeavour.

The prawn stock seems to be inspired by Hokkien prawn noodle, chicken stock by Cantonese, coconut milk by Nyonya & Malay, peanut by Malay satay sauce, etc. Tan Yong Him could have scanned the food horizon for inspiration, and tried to put together as much flavours as possible in his creation. It is said that Sarawak laksa could be related to mie kari Santubong, which is plausible too as Tan Yong Him would have left no stone unturned. 

Ultimately, Sarawak laksa is bigger than the sum of its many inspirations.


Tan was also an entrepreneur, the first to mass produce and market a premix spice paste for Sarawak laksa in scale. 
Sarawak laksa hawkers soon relied on Tan's Swallow brand spice paste for their basic laksa stock, each tweaking, tuning, souping up their respective signature stock with additional spices and aromatics. The Indian spice shops of Jalan Gambir became a regular haunt of Kuching's Sarawak laksa hawkers.

Sarawak laksa boomed in popularity and soon other "bird" brands, such as Parrot, Eagle, Double Swallow and Rooster jumped on the premixed Sarawak laksa spice paste bandwagon. Rooster brand was established by Barrett Tan Boon Tiang, one of Tan Yong Him's sons. Another of Tan Yong Him's sons Tan Boon Kiat run the original Swallow brand. 

(Tan Yong Him passed on in 1993.)

Sarawak laksa that I have tried and like:

63 Cafe in Miri, Sarawak 👈 click

Sarawak Delicacies in Bedok, Singapore 👈 click

Tracy's Sarawak Kitchen in Geylang, Singapore 👈 click

Kantin @ Jewel Singapore 👈 click

My favourite from this list is 63 Cafe in Miri. I shall update this list as I taste more Sarawak laksa.

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Written by Tony Boey on 24 Feb 2024



  1. Well, hopefully 'someone' isn't gonna steal ur article now 😁

    And YES! Not many can do the exact taste of the Sarawak Laksa other than those in Sarawak themselves. It's that big a difference. Tasted many places. Funny, huh... LoLs

  2. Thank you Tony, for such a comprehensive article on Sarawak Laksa!

    Kuching has a special place in my heart - my parents lived there for many years! I just returned home, on a mission to trace their trotted paths; and in doing so tasted bountiful of Kuching’s amazing local foods 😊 In fact I brought back a packet of Sarawak laksa paste - can’t wait to make it to reminisce how mum used to cook!

    Keep up the good work - you have one more follower from Melbourne!


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