Friday, 26 August 2011

Nasi Lemak (Coconut Milk Rice, with Sambal Chilli and Crispy Roasted Anchovies and Peanuts)

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)
serves 4-8
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.


  1. I may have to make a trip into Boston to find a Thai market...I want to make this so badly bit I know I won't find the key ingredients.

  2. No coconut rice ? Then no nasi lemak anymore. Love the "lemak" aroma and taste. And so, basmatic rice might be a secret to famous nasi lemak? Hee heee....maybe...since basmatic rice tend not to be as sticky as the typical long grain. I also enjoy nasi lemak as simple as that - cucumber, sambal chili, anchovies, fried egg!

  3. I am so hungry!!! As a standby, i always keep a packet of preserved coconut milk... just in case of my coconut rice cravings. Anyhow it will never be the same as the fresh ones :) Great job dear!

  4. Yum! One of my favourite local dishes too! :)

  5. Ohh, yummm! This loos great! Love peanuts in a curry! x

  6. HI Shu Han!

    Thanks so much for coming by The Best of this Life!
    I posted a reply comment on my post - but wanted to drop by :)
    This looks absolutely yummy! The combination of flavours is out of this world!


  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. I've never heard of this dish but it sounds so good! Thank you for sharing. Is there anything you can substitute for pandan? I don't think I'll be able to find it by me.

  9. Oh wow! You are making my hungry just looking at this!!

  10. Salivating! I have a weak spot for nasi lemak, my all time favorite!

  11. How delicious. I lived in Singapore as a child, your blog brings back tastes of my childhood. Thank you

  12. This is absolultely one of my all time faves and I can't go past at least 2 of these little packets each day whenever I am in Malaysia.

    I hardly bother with pandan but I'm sure yours taste really great with the fresh leaves.Can't get enough of the ikan bilis too!

  13. sue: I think I've been taking all these for granted, because I usually have these ingredients on hand in the larder, except for the pandan leaf. I hope you manage to try this one day, or maybe you could just try the rice,sans pandan. still really really delicious!

    shuqi: yes! esp with otak.

    gwltg: the peanuts aren't in a curry actually haha, they're roasted, as sides!

    emily: thanks emily! i'm also following your wonderful blog (:

    katherine: you can skip the pandan, i don't think there's a substitute out there for it, it's quite a distinct fragrance, actually many nasi lemak nowadays don't even bother with the pandan, the key is still the coconut milk(:

    mycookinghut: thanks!

    little corner of mine: yes, or i should say one of my all-time favourites, i have too many ahha!

    atr: thanks, i love the food i grew up with too(:

    chopin: 2 each day? wow, cannot, must save space for other goodies haha. yes, i finish the ikan bilis like popcorn!

  14. Hey, I'm hungry now ..... no wonder, it's near dinner time!

  15. i wish to have a plate right now, look so yummy!

  16. Wow! Figure friendly? I will have 2 ! Thanks for the recipe. This my favourite! Unfortunately, I don't have any screwpine , banana or coconut tree growing in my backyard. But that is not going to stop me from trying your recipe, soon...If.. I could find them in a freezer somewhere at the Asian supermarket. Wish I was good in cooking when I was 20 or equally funny.

  17. Yum! This reminds me of stuff my dad use to make. I am itching to try this recipe now.

  18. My mum cooks great nasi lemak. She once cooked for family in Aystralia and had no screwpine leaves. So she used cinnamon stick. works great

    1. heya! No doubt it will taste and smell awesome, but I guess it's a different kind of awesome! Sometimes my mum adds lemongrass to rice (:

  19. Thanks for the recipe! I use basmati rice as you have advised. It's great :))

    1. Yes it makes it extra light and fluffy I find! Glad you found it great!

  20. Hi - ur cups measurement, is it a normal rice cup or those US metric cup?

  21. Thanks for the information and links you shared this is so should be a useful and quite informative!
    Premium Basmati Rice

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