Google Translate never fails to confuse/amuse. I don't know why I bother, since almost everyone knows this famous Malay rice dish, whether you come from Singapore/Malaysia or not. Well, nasi lemak literally translates to something like fat rice, nasi being rice and lemak being fat. In actual fact, lemak here refers to coconut cream, the key ingredient in this rich and fragrant Malay rice. I guess google translate isn't that far off here, because coconut milk is infamous for its high amount of saturated fat and calories-- both of which I cannot be bothered with. Saturated fat is in fact good for you, and coconut in particular is heart-heathy and figure-friendly. So, no more guilt trips by the Health Promotion Board, eat away!
There's another ingredient in nasi lemak that isn't getting the attention it deserves, and that's pandan (screwpine leaves). Pandan is used to add that very distinct and unique fragrance I can't even begin to describe, to all manners of sweet and savoury Singaporean/Malaysian food. And I have it growing in my backyard. When meant to be brought about or eaten later ie. takeaway, nasi lemak is also often wrapped in banana leaves (also in my garden heh heh), which impart even more fragrance.
Our pandan plant on the right, sparse because I've just plucked the leaves
Nasi Lemak (Coconut Milk and Pandan Rice)
2 cups of long grain rice (I used white jasmine, but suggest basmati instead -see note below. Traditionally, though, it's made with broken local rice which is dry and light)
1 cup THICK coconut milk, preferably fresh
2 cups water (plus minus. for me, it's more like 1 2/3 cups. depends on age/type of rice- adjust according to the ratios you normally use, but you'll want to replace about 1/3 of the water with coconut milk)
6 pandan leaves, loosely tied into knots
generous pinch of unrefined sea salt
1. Rinse rice with water until water is almost clear.
2. Put all ingredients into the rice cooker. Let cook. Then do the "close and wait, open and fluff, close and wait, open and breathe". It's also the same when you cook rice in a pot.
(i.e. When it's done, do not open for 10 min. Then open, give a fluff through with a chopstick or fork but no spoon. then close and let steam for another 5 min. Then open for a min or so to let excess moisture evaporate, take the time to breathe in the wonderful fragrance. You can then eat or let it stay warm in there for a while longer till you want to eat.)
Nasi Lemak actually refers to the coconut milk rice, but is often used to describe the whole dish served with its side dishes. There are many many accompaniments, from the more elaborate fried ikan (little fishes)/ chicken wings, beef rendang, otak otak (grilled fish paste in banana leaves) and achar (sweet, sour and spicy pickled vegetables), to the most basic hardboiled/fried egg and cucumber slices. All faff aside, there's just 3 things you really need, in order of importance:
1. The rice
3. Crispy ikan bilis (dried anchovies) and peanuts
We've got 1 and 2 settled. Ikan bilis is slightly different from the anchovies we're used to seeing in Italian food. These little fishes are dried but pack just as much salty flavour with less of the fishiness, and are dirt cheap in most Asian dried foods stores. Roasted along with the peanuts (also dirt cheap), this is a super addictive combination of salty nutty umami that I find myself snacking on even without the nasi lemak.
Ikan bilis, dried anchovies- you eat it bones and heads and all- excellent delicious source of calcium and iodine
Crispy ikan bilis and peanuts
1 cup ikan bilis (dried anchovies) + 1 tbsp unrefined cane sugar
1 cup raw peanuts, shelled, skin-on
1. Rinse ikan bilis, drain well and dab dry.
2. Oil roasting: Heat peanut/coconut oil in a hot wok. Add the ikan bilis and fry till crisp and golden brown, about 8 min. Scoop out to drain on kitchen towels. Dry roast the peanuts but remove from heat just after you smell their aroma because they'll continue to cook and will burn. OR
Oven roasting (less messy): Preheat oven to 180 degrees celsius. Spread ikan bilis on a baking tray and bake for about 10 min, till dry, before adding in the peanuts and baking for another 15-20 min till all are crispy and golden and aromatic.
Some people like to go on to fry the roasted ikan bilis and peanuts with the sambal, but I quite like them separate so I can smear the sambal chilli over the cucumber and egg too.
Yummy no-frills nasi lemak on banana leaf
Though easy to make and nothing much to look at, nasi lemak is extremely flavourful. It's a very simple but powerful combination- the fluffy fragrant rice together with the nutty salty aroma of the roasted crispy peanut ikan bilis, and of course, that sweet spicy all-important sambal belachan chilli. But do also add the cucumbers for a refreshing contrast to all that richness and spice, and an egg just because everyone likes a fried egg (I usually go for runny, but for nasi lemak, I like it fried all over.)
Note: I had the famous nasi lemak from Adam Road again recently, and I don't know why I've never noticed that they use basmati rice, which makes for beautiful, separate, light, fluffy grains that balances out the rich coconut milk much better, but I will duly copy from now on and suggest you all do the same.