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Nasi lemak (Malay) literally means “fat rice”, but the term lemak always means “cooked in coconut milk”. The name is used to describe popular breakfast dish which includes rice cooked in coconut milk. There appear to be two different traditions:

  1. The version I know, shown in the photo above and documented in some cookbooks, includes some form of curry (usually not a genuine curry), ikan bilis (small, dried salted fish, about 2 cm long, which I'm told are like small anchovies), fried peanuts, cucumber and sambal ulek (effectively pure chili paste). You'll frequently see the name spelt in the old Indonesian way: sambal oelek.

  2. There appears to be an alternative tradition using fried meat and fish along with boiled or fried eggs. The peanuts, cucumber and sambal remain. Here's a photo of one such that I had in Singapore. Sorry for the poor quality:


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    Apart from the spectacularly unhappy fried egg, notice also the two larger fish instead of ikan bilis.

As in the case of many recipes, people used to one tradition consider the other “wrong”. I'm agnostic, but I prefer some juice with the rice, and I know the first form better, so that's what I'll describe.

This page was originally written in June 2003, at a time when relatively little on the subject was to be found on the web. Since then, a number of pages have appeared. There's now a wikepedia page on the topic, and in March 2008, nearly 5 years later, I found a self-styled nasi lemak primer which, like its domain, is now no longer available. It's clearly biased, but acknowledges these two traditions:

Fried chicken is the best complement to nasi lemak. Some may prefer curry chicken, fried fish, sotong or beef rendang. That's a matter of personal preference - I like it with fried chicken.

Sotong is cuttlefish; I would expect it to be dried and maybe fried or processed to a curry for this use.

Nasi lemak is not a difficult dish to make, as it shouldn't be for breakfast, but as usual the devil's in the details. For some reason the choice of curry is different from what you would normally eat. Here's what I'm working on at the moment.

Nasi lemak

quantity       ingredient       step
800 g       long-grain rice
400 ml (1 can)       canned coconut milk      
20 g       salt      
1030 g       water      
60 cm?       pandan leaf      

How much pandan leaf? I haven't found anything definitive. I use about 60 cm of the leaf I have, but I don't know how typical the leaf itself is.

Mix the ingredients and cook until the liquid has been absorbed, stirring all the while to avoid the coconut milk burning on the bottom of the saucepan. Cover, turn heat off, and leave for 20 minutes. This quantity produces 12 servings of about 150 g, which I freeze in plastic containers for rewarming in the microwave oven before use: the rice is stickier than normal cooked rice.

The accompaniments

The quantities of ikan bilis and peanuts are non-critical. I take sufficient to cover a circle of about 5 cm diameter each on the plate (another way of saying I haven't weighed them). The peanuts should be raw and unsalted. In Singapore they frequently still have the inner skin on them. I deep fry them, first the peanuts, then the ikan bilis, in a small pot of oil at 180° and then pour them out through a sieve. The peanuts are very sensitive to the frying time: overdo it and they burn. Underdo it and they don't taste right. The right time is when the bubbles start to subside and they start to change colour. That's the reason for pouring through a sieve: otherwise you can't get them out fast enough.

The curries

I'm still playing around with the right kind of curry for nasi lemak. The top picture shows ayam lemak, chicken in coconut sauce. I have also tried a couple of lamb and mutton curries with varying degrees of success.

Serving

Some time in advance, defrost the curry in a microwave oven at 300 W for about 3 minutes, leave to settle. Heat the rice (directly from the freezer) for about 1 minute at 1.1 kW. Grill the ikan bilis and peanuts in a toaster oven and grill for 2 minutes.

Directly before serving, heat the rice for another 20 s at 1.1 kW and the curry for 20 s at 300 W. Place the plate upside-down on the open rice container, then turn around to leave a pile in the middle of the plate. Press down with a spoon and pour the curry over the rice. Put peanuts and ikan bilis on one side, and cucumber on the other side.


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