Auntie Ruby's Nasi Lemak Recipe

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The "Essential" Nasi Lemak

Nasi Lemak is the national dish of my country of birth.

It was also my Mum's favourite party spread.

If you have 10 guests or more and you are thinking of a buffet approach, Nasi Lemak never fails to please. Except for the rice, everything else can be served at room temperature. Most of the dishes can be made well in advance. This will help you avoid the last minute rush to get the food ready. 

If cooked as it should be (not with luncheon meat!), it can compete with other popular international fare. It can be plated the fine dining way (looks gorgeous), lined as a buffet or served cheaply but deliciously as a banana leaf wrapped breakfast meal.

I have made it for various parties, including a group of South Africans who were simply 'wowed' by the local experience.The ingredients are all local and cheap. What is cheap is not necessary inferior. It is cheap because it is local, easily available and fresh to boot. This works well in my favor as it will not burn a hole in my pocket.

There are two "lists" to a good nasi lemak party spread: the essentials and the extras.

Essentials: Remember the essentials that make Nasi Lemak, well, Nasi Lemak. "Nasi" means rice. The rice must be good. "Lemak" as in the milky way of the coconut. And then, the sambal chili, fried anchovies (ikan bilis), fried ikan kuning (photo), roasted peanuts, eggs and cucumber. When it comes to the egg, only hard-boiled will do (more about this later).

Perhaps you can try to picture a seaside Malay village. A typical family with simple means will eat off the sea and land. Coconut trees are aplenty. The ikan bilis (anchovies) and ikan kuning are cheap. An 'essential' Nasi Lemak should include some seafood ingredients.

Get these essentials right and you are on your way to cooking satisfying NL at home.

Extras: Nasi Lemak can go beyond the essentials, and it has. With increased wealth, globalisation and as with all evolving cuisine in cosmopolitan cities in Southeast Asia, the humble Nasi Lemak has become Nasi Lemak extra, supreme or special

Malays will add beef rendang, curry chicken, rempah fried chicken and chili sotong (the brown cuttlefish, not squid). Nonyas added otah, pickles and fried tamarind (assam) prawns. In Singapore, Chinese stalls have added a whole array of dishes. And the rather sacrilegious luncheon meat! Nasi Lemak with pork just sounds wrong. Not that you can't have it that way if it pleases you.

Most of these extra dishes are still relatively cheap if bought and cooked locally. The good thing about making these extras is that you can cater to your guests' preferences for fish, meat, veg etc. You can leave it to them to decide what they prefer on their plate.

I am not going to blog every dish recipe here, especially the "extras." Recipes for curry chicken, spiced fried chicken (rempah chicken) and beef rendang have already been blogged. We will focus on the 'essentials' here.

The "Essential" Nasi Lemak Recipe

Nasi Lemak Sambal Chill

Without Sambal, there is no Nasi Lemak. And without a good one, your Nasi Lemak will be great either.

This sambal, unlike Sambal Belachan is not a dipping sauce. As it is to be eaten with rice in more generous portions, it should not be as chilli-intensed as other sambal varieties. Add more shallots/onions and moderate the spiciness of from the types of chilies you are using. It should also be sweeter, adding a contrast to the savoury coconut rice. A good Nasi Lemak Chili should be sweet with some salty and sour undertones.

I have below a recipe for a more complete version but you can easily simplify it. I have made versions where it was just chili paste, shallots, oil, salt and sugar. If your Nasi Lemak is a rich version, i.e. with extras like curries, sayur lodeh or assam prawns, simplify the flavours in your sambal.

Ingredients (for 12 pax):

60 pieces of dried chilies, dehydrated and deseeded
20 pieces of shallots
2 large onions, sliced
3t of Gula Melaka
3t of sugar
2t of table salt
A bowl of oil (250 ml)

For the dried chili, I used the wrinkled long variety which is less spicy compared to the smoother shorter ones. Soak the dried chili in hot water. When soft, snip into two and de-seed with a small spoon or the tip of the scissors. Be kind to your fingers.

Blend the shallots coarsely.

Heat up the oil in the wok. I will normally use the leftover oil from frying the ikan bilis. Add the blended onions, anchovy paste and sweat it for in low flame for 10 minutes. This releases the sugar in the onion and also removes the sulphuric fumes.

Then add the chili paste and simmer for about 15 minutes more.

Towards the end, adjust the taste with more salt (if needed), sugar and tamarind. Add the large onion slices and simmer for about 5 minutes. This adds texture to the sambal.

Another variation is to add fried ikan bills in. If you are doing this, fry it first and set aside. Use the oil to make the sambal chilli and add the fried ikan bilis after the sambal is done. Remember that ikan bills or belachan will add saltiness to your sambal chilli.

Serve it at room temperature.

As for ikan bilis and peanuts, just fry in low flame. Fry it in small batches if you are unsure or cooking a certain type of ikan bilis for the first time.This should be a no-brainer.

Sambal Chili and fried ikan bilis and peanuts

The Coconut Rice

Now, let's come to the rice. Basmati wins hands down, at least for me. It is more expensive but nothing wrong with paying a bit more for your guests. That said, my Mum has been using local rice for as long as I can remember. Undoubtedly, steaming the rice (nasi kukus) is the way to go. My Mum would normally use the rice cooker to do the rice. But having cooked for many parties now, the kukus way is far better, ensuring fluffy rice and for large batches, the texture of the rice will be consistent throughout.

I will first tell you how to use the electric rice cooker. You use a rice:water ratio of 1:1.1.
  1. If you are squeeze a fresh grated coconut yourself, use 1coconut to 1 kg of rice. Squeeze with a cloth or using a strainer, and the first bowl is the "pure coconut milk" or "cream," as it is often called. Then add some water to the coconut flesh and squeeze again. This is a second pass and it is called the coconut "milk"- very confusing, I can understand.
  2. You use the watery "milk" to cook the rice, along with 2 tsps of table salt and pandan leaves. The volume of the watery milk used should be the same as the rice in volume.  
  3. Switch on your rice cooker. After the rice reaches the warming stage (the button will pop up), add the cream and stir the rice. Close the lid pot, switch on to cook and when it goes to 'warm', leave it there for another 10 minutes or so. 
  4. Fluff up the rice and serve it hot. 
Now, unless someone can enlighten me, I think there is a limit with what you can do with an electric rice cooker. If you add in all the milk/cream right at the start, the oil in the coconut cream will prevent the rice from cooking properly. To cook large quantities, it is not easy to ensure evenness on texture and flavour throughout the batch of rice. Note that sufficient salt is important. If you use coconut milk packs like Kara, note that the 200 ml pack contains the cream of one coconut. You can try using just 50 ml of it and add water to it to cook the rice during the first stage. Then add the rest later. 

But the traditional way of steaming the rice is still best. Since I discovered the kukus way of cooking, all my Nasi Lemak is now cooked that way. It is easier, I don't have to bother about water ratios, it is easy to control the cooking process and the texture turns out perfect every time. I have explained in a post here on how to use the steaming method.  

Fried Ikan Kuning or Nasi Lemak Fish: Start with the head...crunch!!
As for the fried ikan kuning, buy them all cleaned up from the wet market. A kilo can feed 6-8 people. Marinate for half an hour with some salt, tumeric powder and pepper. Keep in the fridge before you cook.

How do you get the crispiness? For home cooking, and unless you are using a big wok with very hot oil, the best is to double fry. Fry for about 5-8 minutes per batch. The oil must be hot enough and you should hear a nice sizzling sound (when I get round to using a thermometer, I will tell you the degree one day). Let it cool. Then just before you serve, fry again in high heat for about a minute. The first run removes the moisture, which is the usual enemy of crispiness. The second fry in high flame will do the job perfectly. Alternatively, find a way to dehydrate or dry up your fish. Before you marinate, drain out the water and dry pat the fish. Then, adding the marinade ingredients of tumeric powder, pepper and salt. This actually is almost equivalent to 'salting the fish', a popular technique used to dehydrate meat (osmosis). Leave it in the fridge for a few hours, uncovered if possible. With this, frying it once will do the job. But if all this is too much of a bother, just double fry.

Eggs: Hard boiled please. Don't omelet it. I know that this preference has to do with my Malaysian roots. But have you seen how beautiful the two-tone color of a sliced hard boiled egg is? When you bite into it, the texture moves from the gelatin white to the crumbly yoke. Mixed with coconut rice and sambal chili, it is a perfect combi. Egg can be done in a variety of ways but cook it in a way which suits the dish. Commercially, the convenience needed for cooking or the use of liquid egg may justify a square piece of a one-colored miserable dark yellow thing. It can be a chore to peel the egg, but for home cooking, leave the parts of the egg as they are in the way God has created them.

Ok, to make the 'perfect' hard boiled eggs, do this. Pour in the water into the pot. Add the eggs. Then switch on the flame (or induction cooker). When it reaches boiling point, cover the pot and swith off the flame and let it cook for another 15 minutes.

It is easier to peel the egg when it is warm. Only slice the egg (use a strong or sharp knife) when it has cooled to ensure that the yolk is sliced smoothly. If you want to keep the yolk at the centre of the egg for better presentation, stir the pot occasionally when the egg is cooking.

Oh well, that is saying a lot for the humble hard-boiled eggs. Just being fussy. I love them, esp in Nasi Lemak.

Cucumber: Use the local variety, not the Jap ones. I don't bother about rubbing salt in. Cut off both ends and peel. If you have a good peeler, it can be done very quickly. Then slice. YOu don;t need to remove the seeds. You can quickly create lines by running the fork down the length.(Eh..why am I telling you how to cut a cucumber?)

Ok, the "essential" Nasi Lemak is done: Coconut rice, fried ikan bilis, fried ikan kuning, peanuts, egg, cucumber and sambal chili.

The next time you eat it, imagine the Malay kampung at the sitting under the coconut tree and enjoying your nasi lemak, the tree swaying with the sea breeze and coconuts dropping left and right but missing you because you are indeed blessed, with this nostalgic song humming in the background...

Di Tanjung Katong, airnya biru
Disitu tempatnya, dara jelita
Duduk sekampung, lagikan rindu
Kononlah pula nun jauh di mata

And may I add, pujinya nama Tuhan!

Rempah fried chicken - Check here for recipe
Assam Prawns: Click here for recipe
A Nasi Lemak Spread to please your guests.

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  1. Thanks for posting this recipe. I always thought the chilli is very complicated. Didnt know it can be so simple. For the 60 pieces of dry chilli, is it half kg? To deseed it, do u squeeze out the seeds? Will try this recipe n let you know if i succeed : )

  2. Anon - I just counted 60 dried chilis. Not sure if it is half a kg. To de-seed, just slice the chili and flick out the seeds. Proportion is really up to it will not make a lot of diff if say, you use 100 chilis. Hard to be exact as the chili you use is different. Main thing is to use the ingredients (sweet, sour, salty) and to make it fragrant by simmering it long enough. Hope you succeed :)

  3. Hi! The Nesi Lemak looks very tasty! I bet it is! But I'm trying to find the recipe for the rempah chicken and assam prawns...Is it possible to do a little write up on the recipe? I would like to try it out myself!

    Thanks Food Canon! =D

  4. Nothing like a good traditional malaysian nasi lemak - simple rice, sambal and small boiled egg wrap in banana leaf sold by Malay makcik. Cheap and good, my childhood comfort food. Nothing like the modernize Singapore version - Luncheon meat and what's worst green rice!! By the way, the authentic ones will have some yellow grains added into the rice for some taste, making the rice smells nice. I still find it in msia, but never in Singapore

  5. Yes, the bananaleaf wrapped ones, often sold by the roadside...

    Maybe the yellow grains are from the lemak tumeric curry chicken sauce which the makcik adds to the top of the rice.

    There are a few good ones in S'pore.

  6. Dear Canon,
    Thank you so much for sharing with so much passion. I enjoyed reading them. Aiyo so complicated and this amateur thought Nasi Lemak is not difficult because most recipe books make it appear an easy task. Now I think I will not even try. Hehe Just pop by your place to eat lah :) Rgds Janet Yong

  7. The yellow grain is called halba. I ve asked the Malay auntie in who sells these traditional old fashion packet nasi lemak in Johor.

  8. Ah thanks. Fenugreek seeds maybe.

  9. Tried the sambal nasi lemak today. It was good. I changed the recipe a bit. Used red onion instead of shallot because I am in aust and shallots are rather pricey. Add bit of toasted thai shrimp paste too. Next week i wanna try ur char shiu pork recipe! Love ur blog btw.

  10. Glad it worked for you. Yes, it is common to add belachan (shrimp paste) to the Nasi Lemak chili.

    As for Char Shiu, the recipe here is more organised:

    All the best in your Char Shiu project!

  11. Hi ,

    Just to let you know that your recipe are good and very detail thank you so much . Will be looking forward to new recipe please teach me how to make steam yam cake .

  12. Hi, thanks very much for the recipe. I read somewhere in your linked recipe on the sambal chilli, and you recommended using fresh chilli as dried ones might be too spicy. And for this one, you used the dried chillies, which is a better choice?

    Thanks. - sharon

  13. I recommend using dried chillies for their intensity of taste. But use the wrinkled ones as they are less spicy than the 'smooth' szechuan variety.

  14. I stumbled across your site because I was looking for assam prawns the way my grandmother used to do them.

    We had the chilli with our Nasi Lemak dinner today - it turned out lick-the-plate excellent. Our helper who made it is now contemplating opening a Nasi Lemak stall in the phillipines as her next career, such is the power of your chilli.

    I might make some modifications though - such as writing the recipe in grams for the next batch. And perhaps adding some heh-ko/cincharo to it. Overall though, the 'feel' of the recipe is exactly like my grandmothers orally written ones ie her kaya one which i know by heart - 10 eggs, 1 kati sugar, 1 coconut - and max half a 'fish' bowl of water for the second santan.

  15. I am glad you like the chilli. It is simple and good.

    I find using weights unhelpful for this kind of recipe because even if I give you the weight, the type of chilis and salt you use is likely to be different. It is a perception that weights is more accurate but it is not true for every case. Anyway, imagine weighing yr salt and Assam paste before you cook the chillies? For Asian cooking, it just look silly. The culinary world is dominated by Western ideas but I think Asian cooks need to contribute and find their own space of contribution as well.

    Our mums and grandmums were right on many counts!

    Thanks for your kaya recipe. May make them one day...but need to know how large your eggs are...just jokin!

  16. Hi! May I know if the "t" in the recipe calls for teaspoon or tablespoon? Thanks!

  17. The chilli paste is the chilli seeds right?

  18. Hi what is the anchovy paste that you mentioned in your sambal recipe? Thanks

  19. Belle - I did not refer to anchovy paste but to our local form of dried anchovies (ikan bills).

  20. This the list of ingredients in the sambal recipe (no anchovy mentioned in any form):
    60 pieces of dried chilies, dehydrated and deseeded
    20 pieces of shallots
    2 large onions, sliced
    3t of Gula Melaka
    3t of sugar
    2t of table salt
    A bowl of oil (250 ml)

    Belle is right, anchovy paste is mention in the recipe if you'd like to correct it :)

    "Heat up the oil in the wok. I will normally use the leftover oil from frying the ikan bilis. Add the blended onions, ANCHOVY PASTE and sweat it for in low flame for 10 minutes. This releases the sugar in the onion and also removes the sulphuric fumes."

    Question - If it's ikan bills, what's the amount?