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Nasi Lemak (Malaysian Coconut Rice) Recipe

Why It Works

  • Steaming the rice in a steamer basket as an alternative of a pot ensures completely cooked rice each time.
  • Pre-cooking the rice and coconut milk combination previous to steaming helps the rice higher take up taste whereas lowering mess within the steamer

Say the phrases “nasi lemak” in Malaysia and also you’ll spark quite a few debates. What’s the splendid texture of the rice? What accompaniments are non-negotiable? Which roadside nasi lemak distributors have the perfect sambal? These questions can evolve into full-blown arguments, at occasions drifting to social media with 1000’s of parents providing their two cents on the place to seek out the perfect nasi lemak. Aside from one’s mom’s home, yow will discover nasi lemak at roadside stalls (or gerai), college canteens, shopping center meals courts, and high-end resort eating places. Mainly, wherever and in every single place. 

Whereas incessantly served with toppings and condiments, at its most simple, nasi lemak is rice cooked in coconut milk. “Lots of people translate it to ‘fatty rice’, as a result of coconut milk is fatty,” says Ahmad Najib “Nadge” Ariffin, a cultural historian and self-professed gastro-anthropologist. “The phrase ‘lemak’ on this explicit context truly factors to the richness of the rice, a comforting softness.” 

The dish is what many Malaysians crave once they get up within the morning, regardless of the place they’re on this planet. Certainly one of my brothers went to college in Indiana within the Nineteen Nineties, and I bear in mind his Malaysian buddies weeping with pleasure when my mother served them nasi lemak on a chilly winter morning in South Bend.

Severe Eats / Michelle Yip


Like most conventional Malay dishes, it’s troublesome to pinpoint nasi lemak’s origins, although rice cooked with coconut milk is a widespread follow in areas the place rice is cultivated and coconuts develop, in order that, a minimum of, probably goes again fairly far. In accordance with Nadge, the earliest written proof of nasi lemak is present in British colonial-era information as early because the 1910s that make word of native dishes. A greater method of guessing when folks began making nasi lemak with its varied toppings could also be by when all of the substances—like chile peppers for sambal tumis—turned accessible. Although rice, coconuts, and ikan bilis (dried anchovies) all existed in Malaya (a time period that refers back to the area pre-independence in 1957), it wasn’t till the seventeenth and 18th centuries that European colonizers introduced chiles from the Americas. 

The dish’s “origins are more than likely from the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, however even that is by oblique inference,” says Nadge. Within the 1800s, the well-known Malayan author Munshi Abdullah wrote of his visits to the peninsula’s east coast. Although Abdullah detailed the various dishes he ate, notably absent is any point out of nasi lemak. “If you happen to ask older folks in Kelantan and Terengganu [on the east coast], they don’t take into account nasi lemak as ‘theirs’. It’s a Malay dish, certain, however not from there.”

You’ll be able to serve nasi lemak with any variety of dishes and accompaniments, with or with out sambal. Heck, you may even prepare dinner it within the microwave or a multi-tier stovetop steamer. So long as it’s rice cooked in coconut milk, you may technically name it nasi lemak. We’ll get to the dishes and accompaniments in a bit; let’s speak concerning the rice first.

The Rice

Cooking rice in coconut milk is widespread amongst communities that reside across the equator, together with the area of Southeast Asia of which Malaysia is part. Coconut milk is among the best methods so as to add taste, richness, and extra vitamins to what would in any other case be a plain bowl of rice. Historically, cooks put together nasi lemak with freshly squeezed coconut milk (‘santan’ within the Malay language), which can be found to buy at most grocers and markets in Malaysia. Some people choose to purchase freshly grated coconut to make the milk at residence, and a few might go even additional and grate the coconuts themselves. Today, many Malaysian cooks select to make use of boxed coconut milk for consistency and shelf life, and reserve the freshly squeezed stuff for particular events.

Then there are the aromatics which are cooked with the rice. Pandan leaves lend a grassy sweetness that pairs properly with the richness of coconut milk; that is the aroma most individuals affiliate with nasi lemak. Past that, contemporary ginger is widespread, as are slices of onion, fenugreek seeds, cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, and cardamom. To keep away from overwhelming the rice, I normally persist with pandan and ginger.

The rice could be cooked in quite a lot of methods, although nowadays it’s most typical to make use of a rice cooker. The factor about utilizing a rice cooker to make nasi lemak, nonetheless, is that it’s trickier than cooking fundamental rice, with the strategy altering relying on the kind of rice, the kind of coconut milk, and the kind of rice cooker used. With time, particular person cooks work out find out how to make it work with what they’ve, however this is not sensible when writing a recipe that should work as constantly as potential for as many individuals and cooking setups as potential. I’ve discovered that this type of consistency is finest achieved by utilizing a particular piece of apparatus: a tiered stovetop steamer (or another steamer setup if you do not have a devoted stacking one).

Utilizing a tiered steamer to prepare dinner rice could seem fussy, however it produces constant outcomes—fluffy grains separate from each other with ample coconut taste—whatever the form of rice you utilize. On this recipe, I pre-cook the rice in a wok or skillet with the opposite substances, which permits the rice to start out absorbing taste from the get-go. As soon as the grains have soaked up a lot of the liquid, you’ll switch the rice to the tiered steamer to complete cooking. 

Not like cooking in common rice cookers or cooking pots, this technique allows the prepare dinner to verify the doneness of their rice on occasion with out worrying about shedding important steam, since a steamer can proceed to offer increasingly more steam till the rice is finished (distinction that with cooking rice in a pot or rice cooker, the place the right ratio of water to rice must be measured out earlier than sealing the pot; opening the lid unnecessarily merely lets that exact quantity of water escape as steam).

The Many Methods of Serving Nasi Lemak

There are as some ways to serve nasi lemak as there are folks consuming it. Nadge describes 5 “ranges” of nasi lemak:

  1. Simply the rice itself, cooked in coconut milk.
  2. Rice with plain sambal tumis, a spicy condiment made by slow-cooking chillies right into a paste, a critically necessary element for many nasi lemak connoisseurs that requires the strategy of pecah minyak, or “splitting of the oil,” an indication that the sambal is correctly cooked.
  3. Rice, sambal tumis, and fundamental accoutrements: fried ikan bilis (dried and salted anchovies), a slice of hard-boiled egg. Some take into account fried peanuts and sliced cucumbers part of this set as properly. 
  4. Ranges 1-3, plus any dish underneath the solar. Squid sambal tumis? Fried rooster? Beef rendang? Fried beef lungs? Extra is extra. 
  5. Ranges 1-4, all served on a banana leaf. Whether or not you’re consuming it with utensils or along with your fingers, the inadvertent scraping of the leaf helps launch its aromatic oils and perfumes your nasi lemak even additional.

Ranges 4 and 5 are the place people have essentially the most enjoyable. Head up north to Kedah and Perlis and also you’ll see nasi lemak served with curries (known as ‘gulai’), many occasions omitting the sambal tumis fully. Head down previous Malacca and also you’ll discover it served with fried kangkung (water spinach). Go additional south to Singapore and revel in nasi lemak with fried small complete fish or one in every of my favourite Singaporean Chinese language variations: seared luncheon meat. Many Peranakan variations are accompanied with some form of seafood cooked within the sambal. At Malaysian-Chinese language meals court docket stalls, nasi lemak with pork curry is the norm. If it goes with rice, chances are high wonderful that it’ll go along with nasi lemak.

Nasi lemak tends to be served with all its condiments and accompaniments on the identical plate. Sometimes, if the place is fancy, it’d include any merchandise that has numerous gravy in a separate bowl, however most would simply pour it on high of the rice to combine with the sambal.

What I’m attempting to say right here is: Whereas particular person opinions run robust, there’s no proper or mistaken method to serve and eat nasi lemak. So long as it’s received coconut rice, it is all good. Simply don’t publish about it on-line when you worth your sanity.

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