Most Americans could tell you that having a gooey bite of multi-layered deep dish pizza in a Chicago diner is a completely different experience from noshing on a Neapolitan crisp-crusted slice from a steamy pizzeria on the streets of New York City. You’d be hard pressed to find someone from either of these regional pizza hubs who didn’t have a dozen reasons why a pie from their city trumps all others (and a dozen restaurant recommendations to prove it!).
Regional differences in classic American cuisine are what makes ordering a barbecue sandwich, a piece of pizza, or even something as simple as a donut and a cup coffee an exciting experience that is completely dependent on where you are in the country. Chicago and New York aren’t the only places staking claims to the most unique (and ultimately, the most delicious) pizzas in the US. Square focaccia-style from the Ohio Valley, free range egg and avocado-topped in California, or the increasingly famous “jumbo” sized slices from Washington, DC all assert the preeminence of their precious pies.
Perhaps even more contentious than the regional pizza debate is the culinary tour-de-force that is good old fashioned American barbecue. If you’ve ever been to the south or southeastern US (or, if you’ve ever watched the Neelys or Paula Deen get saucy on screen), you’ll understand: barbecue ain’t no joke, y’all! In fact, it’s an American cultural phenomenon. Though arguably the two most famous varieties are the vinegar-based North Carolina ‘cue and the sweet, sauce-slathered chops from Memphis, other distinctive flavors typify regional claims-to-fame: Sauces, spice rubs, cuts of meat, side dishes, and even presentation styles define South Carolina, Kansas City, Texas, and even St. Louis style barbecue.
In Malaysia, a similar controversy emerges over which state can claim to serve the most delicious version of a classic Malaysian dish: Laksa. In its purest form, Laksa is a bowl of noodles in broth. But variations in the meal’s preparation, garnishes, and taste vary so completely from city to city and state to state that it is impossible to generalize any further. Two styles dominate the Laksa scene: Assam Laksa and Curry Laksa. Assam Laksa, a thick, fish-based based soup flavored with sour tamarind and a dollop of spicy belacan, is most widely found in West Malaysia and Penang. Curry Laksa, a coconut curry broth soup with noodles, tofu, and bean sprouts, is predominantly found in East Malaysia, though is widely replicated throughout the west under the pseudonym of Curry Mee (meaning simply curry noodles). Confused yet?
To make matters more perplexing, last week I had the pleasure of sampling an entirely new variety of Laksa in the Eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak. Let it be known: when it comes to picking my favorite Laksa in Malaysia, the Sarawak variety has my vote. To be honest, I could have chugged the light, pungent, spicy pink broth in which the light vermicelli rice noodles were so delicately suspended. Topped with shrimp, lime, and strips of omelet, my $1 bowl of bliss achieved the perfect balance of sweet, sour, and spicy, and didn’t leave me feeling oil-logged as some Malaysian dishes tend to do. I found Sarawak Laksa lacking the slightly disarming fishiness of Assam Laksa, yet was more inventive and complex than the somewhat basic Curry Laksa. It was love at first slurp.
Regional differences in signature dishes provide an excellent opportunities for culinary-themed travel: a road trip through the southeastern US in search of the most mouthwatering barbecue sandwich, or a tour through the street stalls of Thailand’s famous markets in search of the tastiest Pad Thai could lead you to some of the world’s best-kept food secrets if you talk to the right people. Letting smells, sights, and sounds become my gustatory guide led me to legendary Laksa. So–just this once–I’d recommend ditching your Lonely Planet and hitting the open road (or city sidewalks) with an open mind, a healthy appetite, and your nose as a GPS. You may just find the meal of a lifetime.