I wish I could tell you more about the menu at CO, an Asian-inspired restaurant in Charlotte’s Park Road Shopping Center.
I’ve taken bites from my friends’ bahn mis, pork belly steamed buns and spring rolls. I once ordered the sausage-studded Com Chien fried rice for a story on odd menu terms. It was all good enough.
One bite of Curry Laksa, though, and the rest of the menu was lost to me forever. That golden coconut-milk broth with an elusive, almost haunting taste of curry was it: I can’t ever order anything else. I make excuses to meet people there, under that eye-popping wooden sculpture, just so I can eat it again.
How much do I love that soup? It’s messy to eat, what with navigating slippery noodles into your mouth with chopsticks and occasionally dropping a whole shrimp with a golden-yellow splash. I have to resort to the indignity of tucking a napkin into my neckline to save my shirt. And I’m willing to do it, people. I don’t wear bibs for lobster, but I’m willing to wear a bib for this soup.
Sitting at my desk in November, contemplating the annual “best things I ate or cooked” roundup that food writers usually do this time of year, I got an email from the publicist for Co, which has locations in Charlotte, Charleston, Savannah and Myrtle Beach. (Three more are coming this year, including one in Raleigh although a company spokesman said Tuesday that the lease is still being negotiated and an exact location could not be disclosed.)
The offer: CO’s first anniversary in Charlotte was coming up in December. Would I be interested in writing a story about this crazy soup they have, called Curry Laksa? Now, I get pitches like that from restaurants all the time: Let the owner tell you his life story. Let the chef tell you how much you’re supposed to love this dish or that one.
You know how many I usually accept? Pretty close to zero. I’d rather make my own discoveries and share my own opinions, not dutifully record someone else’s script.
This was different, though. I was already in love with this soup. And here was my chance to find out how to make it.
So I went over to CO to watch Japanese-born executive chef Masanori Shiraiahi – he just goes by Chef Masa – make a bowl of it.
Curry Laksa, it turns out, is part of a whole group of dishes from the Peranakan culture, the descendants of Chinese immigrants in Malaysia. Versions of laksas turn up all over Southeast Asia, though, in Singapore, Indonesia and southern Thailand, too. There are curry laksas, asam laksas (with tamarind and pineapple, but no coconut milk) and sarawak laksas (red curry with coconut milk topped with sliced cooked egg). Laksas get so complicated, the Wikipedia definition includes a chart to keep them straight.
CO’s owner, Greg Bauer, lived in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, and got hooked on the dish there. In Charleston, where the restaurant started, he found an elderly Vietnamese man named Mr. Ha who taught him a lot of the dishes, and the restaurant adapted them.
“(Bauer) said he loved it so much, he wanted to bring it here,” says Chef Masa. “Why a dish a lot of people didn’t know? But now, it’s a signature dish.”
Chef Masa was a little puzzled about why I’d want a recipe. Would American cooks really go to the trouble? It takes a few steps: You have to make the laksa, a cooked paste, and the yellow curry soup base, then you have to get all the ingredients ready before you put it together.
No, not everyone will make it, I told him. But some will. With good Asian supermarkets, like H Mart and Grand Asia, both in Cary, the ingredients aren’t hard to find. For a dinner party, when you have friends coming over on a cold winter night, you could make most of it in advance and put it together at the last minute.
And if that’s not something you’d do, you know where you can find it. Just don’t forget to get extra napkins.
CO’s Curry Laksa Soup
From executive chef Masanori Shiraiahi at CO. You’ll have leftover laksa paste. Refrigerate it for a few days or freeze it until you need it again.
1 cup vegetable oil
4 tablespoons annatto seeds
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 ounces dried shrimp, soaked in hot water and minced
4 tablespoons minced peanuts
4 tablespoons peeled, minced galangal
2 tablespoons minced lemongrass
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons paprika
1/8 cup coconut milk
1 small can coconut milk
2 tablespoons Madras curry powder
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon sambal oelek (red chile paste)
8 ounces bun noodles, cooked (can be made ahead, covered with water and refrigerated)
About 2 cups shredded, cooked chicken
About 1/2 pound raw shrimp, peeled
1 or 2 heads baby bok choy, leaves separated and steamed until crisp-tender
Garnishes: Cilantro, chopped green onions, sliced cucumber and bean sprouts
Make the laksa paste: Heat the vegetable oil in a skillet and add the anatto seeds. Fry them until the seeds are black and oil is red. Remove the seeds with a slotted spoon and discard them.
Place the garlic, shallots, rehydrated dried shrimp, peanuts, galangal and lemongrass in a food processor and puree. Add to the red oil with the sugar, salt, paprika and coconut milk. Cook, stirring, until it comes together. Place in an airtight container and refrigerate.
Make the yellow curry: Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Refrigerate until you’re ready to make the soup.
Finishing: Combine about 1 cup chicken stock, 1 cup yellow curry, 1 tablespoon laksa paste (including the oil on top) and 1 tablespoon sambal in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Add the shrimp and cook several minutes, just until cooked through.
Place the well-drained noodles in wide, shallow soup bowls. Top each serving with about 1/2 cup shredded chicken. Use a slotted spoon to remove the shrimp from the yellow curry and place 4 or 5 on each serving. Add several bok choy leaves to each bowl. Pour the yellow curry soup over and around the noodles. Serve with the garnishes on the side.
Yield: About 4 servings.