Every Malaysian and anyone who has ever lived in Malaysia for a period of time would know about Nasi Lemak. This ever popular and ubiquitous dish can be found at the humblest street corner stands to the poshest hotel restaurants. In the old days, one does not have to look far to get a taste of this dish. Vendors came round with baskets filled with little pyramid shaped packets of nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaves and newsprint during ball games and public events. Yet, it is still cooked at home for picnics, parties, and regular meals.
Malaysians love their nasi lemak and can’t leave home without it. It is as popular abroad as it is in the homeland. You will likely find this dish in a gathering of homesick Malaysians and it is offered in every Malaysian restaurant I have encountered overseas. One can indeed say that Nasi Lemak is the de facto national dish of Malaysia.
Nasi Lemak means creamy rice. The rice is cooked in coconut milk infused with pandan leaves. A little ginger is sometimes added. The most basic accompaniments to this rice are sambal ikan bilis (spicy anchovies), hard boiled egg, slices of cucumber, and peanuts. Other popular add-ons include chicken curry, rendang (dry beef curry), sambal sotong (spicy squid), and acar (spicy vegetable salad).
Traditionally, nasi lemak is wrapped in newsprint lined with banana leaves. The banana leaves enhances the dish as it imparts a light fragrance to the rice when wrapped warm and allowed to sit for a short period of time. Nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaves are becoming scarcer as more and more vendors use waxed paper. Restaurants normally serve them on plates.
I do eat my fair share of nasi lemak whenever I visit my parents in Malaysia. These pictures were taken in the summer of 2010. I also ate lots of nasi lemak bungkus but unfortunately I did not take a picture of the pyramid shaped packages. I must remember to do so the next time I visit.
- 2 cups (400g) long grain rice (equivalent to 2¾ rice cooker cup)
- 2 pandan leaves, knotted
- 1-inch knob ginger, crushed
- ¼ tsp salt
- 2½ cups (600ml) light coconut milk*
- ½ cucumber, thinly sliced
- 4 hard cooked eggs, sliced
- ½ cup Spanish or roasted peanuts
- 8 pieces 10-inch x 8-inch banana leaves (optional)
- 8 pieces of 12-in x 7-inch newsprint (optional)
- 4 oz (100g) ikan bilis (dried anchovies), trimmed and peeled
- 4 tbsp canola oil
- 1 tsp tamarind paste
- ¼ cup (60ml) water
- 1 tsp sugar
- ¼ tsp salt
- 6 dried chilies
- 4 red chilies
- 1 serai, white part only, sliced
- 1 onion or 6 shallots
- ½-inch cube belacan
Wash and drain rice 4 to 5 times in rice cooker insert. Cover washed rice with water and allow it to soak together with knotted pandan leaves for 20 minutes. Drain rice and dry exterior of rice cooker insert. Add pandan leaves, ginger, and salt. Pour in coconut milk. It should come up to about the 2¾ cups level.
Place insert into rice cooker and press the start button. When rice is cooked, unplug the rice cooker and allow rice to sit for 10 minutes. Fluff rice with a pair of chopsticks or a fork before serving.
Wash and drain rice 4 to 5 times in rice cooker insert. Cover washed rice with water and allow it to soak together with knotted pandan leaves for 20 minutes. Drain rice and add pandan leaves, ginger, and salt. Pour in coconut milk. Place pot on the stove over medium heat. When coconut milk comes to a boil, reduce heat to medium low and allow rice to cook until all coconut milk is absorbed. This will take about 10 minutes. Turn heat down to the lowest possible setting and continue to cook for another 5 minutes. Turn off heat. Let rice sit for 10 minutes before fluffing rice with a pair of chopsticks or a fork before serving.
Break dried chilies in half and shake off seeds. Soak in warm water for 15 minutes. Wash and soak ikan bilis separately for 15 minutes. Drain and blot dry with paper towels.
Blend all spice paste ingredients until fine, adding a tablespoon of water if needed. Remove and set aside.
Heat oil in a medium sized pan. Add ikan bilis and fry till golden brown, about 7 to 8 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Add remaining tablespoon of oil and spice paste in the same pan. Fry spice paste for until fragrant, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Mix tamarind paste and water in a small bowl. Pour into span and stir to get spices and tamarind juice well mixed. When it comes to a boil, add sugar and salt.
Finally, return fried ikan bilis to the pan and cook for 2 to 3 more minutes. Remove.
Place a bowl of rice on plate with half and egg, a few slices of cucumber, some peanuts, and sambal ikan bilis pile on top of rice.
Alternatively, place warm nasi lemak portion on a piece of newsprint lined with banana leaf. Banana leaf should be slightly longer but narrower than newsprint. Bring both long edges of banana leaf and newsprint to meet in the center with the one edge overlapping slightly on one end. Criss-cross the flaps in the center by placing bottom flap on the top on the opposite end. Fold both ends under to form a pyramid shape package.
Let package of rice sit for 10 minutes before serving so that rice will absorb some of the banana leaf fragrance.
The quintessential Malaysian breakfast is nasi lemak bungkus accompanied by a cup of sweet kopi-o. When ordering coffee in Malaysia kopi-o means coffee with sugar only. If you just said “kopi”, it will come sweetened with condensed milk. If you added the words “kurang manis” then you will get it less sweet. For black coffee, say “kopi kosong” which is like zero coffee with no sugar and no milk. For iced coffee, say ” kopi peng”.
Malaysian coffee is strong coffee. For some it is an acquired taste. The beans are roasted with butter or margarine and sugar, giving it a slightly burnt smell. Coffee is made by pouring boiling water through ground coffee held in a cloth sock filter in a koleh or enamel mug. This resulting brew is thick, strong, and bitter. It can be drunk hot or iced. Do give it a try if you get a chance to visit.
Biren is not much of a coffee drinker. So what kind of coffee does she drink in Minnesota? Löfbergs Lila Swedish coffee ….. err decaffeinated and brewed in a coffee brewer.
Don’t be surprise if you see someone doing this in the warong (Malay eatery) or Indian stall. Some Baba Nyonyas do eat with their fingers too but usually only at home. Always use your right hand even if you are left-handed. Food should never go above one’s knuckles. If other dishes are served together in a meal, use your clean left hand to take food with the serving spoon provided. Do clean both hands with the bowl or flask of water set on the table specifically for that purpose before and after the meal. I have known of visitors to Malaysia who have unwittingly drank from the hand washing bowl much to the consternation of the host!
Enjoy…..and have a wonderful day!