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Nasi Lemak Recipe (Part 4) - Coconut Milk Rice

Malaysian Nasi Lemak recipe by SeasonWithSpice.com

Despite the broad diversity of cultures and cuisines in Malaysia, there is one dish that binds us all - Nasi Lemak.

In Malay, 'Nasi' means rice and 'Lemak' means cream or fat, or in this context, coconut milk. But nasi lemak is so much more.

The white rice is cooked or steamed with rich coconut milk, then side dishes are added like fried anchovies (ikan bilis), roasted peanuts, hard boiled egg, fresh cucumber, and sambal. For more elaborate versions, chicken rendang, kapitan chicken curry or sambal prawns are also included. The rice and side dishes are then wrapped up tight into a triangle shape using a banana leaf.

In Malaysia, we enjoy nasi lemak any time of the day - breakfast, lunch, mid-day tea time, dinner and supper. It is the one dish that you can find from the most humbling of roadside stalls, all the way up to the first page of the menu at high class restaurants.

But nasi lemak is more than a dish to me, it is a part of my family history.

nasi lemak malaysia coconut rice for sale at beach street in georgetown penang

For over 30 years, my grandparents made their living by selling nasi lemak at a market near their kampung (village) in mainland Penang. They would wake up at 4am every day to begin cooking, before leaving to the market at 6am. Once the packets were sold out, they would come home to start the preparation for the next day.

“Your grandparents had to press the coconut milk themselves. They would wrap the grated coconut meat inside cheesecloth, add some water, and squeeze the milk out,” my mom revealed. “Everything had to be made from scratch. Hard work..really hard work."

The lengthy preparation went from pressing coconut milk to cooking rice, grinding sambal, cleaning banana leaves, slicing vegetables, and frying up a mix of side dishes. Once the cooking was complete, my mom and her sisters would take responsibility for wrapping the nasi lemak with banana leaves until the table was lined with a couple hundred or so of the green, pyramid shaped packets. Not until the task was complete, would they would be allowed to leave for school or work.

My mom continued, "When I started working at a factory, I received orders from my coworkers, so I would put the nasi lemak into a basket that I tied to my bicycle, and sell each packet for 20 cents."

My grandpa passed away many years ago, and my grandma is now in her mid 80s, but it wasn’t until recently that my mom shared so much about her childhood with me - including my grandparents' nasi lemak recipe.

It is a buffet whenever my mom makes nasi lemak at home. The accompanying dishes stretch from the classic must haves, to bonus dishes like pickled vegetables, fried chicken, kapitan chicken curry or chicken rendang, tamarind prawns, fried spiced fish, and whatever else she can think up. There is never room for dessert when she serves nasi lemak.

how to cook nasi lemak, how much coconut milk to add to rice

Cooking nasi lemak always begins with the rice.

First and foremost, you need the right amount of coconut milk. Too much or too little will make a world of difference. Then, the Southeast Asian beloved spice - pandan (screw-pine leaves). Distinct, almondy, milky sweet with a tinge of fresh floral notes, the leaves are commonly paired with coconut milk for many delightful Southeast Asian sweet & savory creations.

coconut milk and screwpine pandan for nasi lemak

how to tie pandan leaves in a knot for nasi lemak

Most nasi lemak recipes stop here, but my grandparents’ formula features a few more surprises - fresh ginger, cardomom podscloves 丁香, and star anise. These spices, along with coconut milk and pandan leaves, are thrown into the rice before cooking.

what spices and ingredients to add to nasi lemak

The fragrant, delicious result will make you wonder why the side dishes are needed at all, as you eat the plain rice out of the cooker.

But as my grandma and mom taught me, hard work always pays off, and no more so, than in making nasi lemak.

Malaysian Nasi Lemak recipe by SeasonWithSpice.com

Grandpa & Grandma's Nasi Lemak Recipe
Part 4 - Coconut Milk Rice  by Season with Spice
 Serves 4 hungry stomachs

2 cups of rice - Thai fragrant rice or basmati rice
3 cups water
1 cup coconut milk
6 pandan leaves (screwpines), tied into a knot.
3 thin slices of fresh ginger or cut into matchsticks
2-3 of Season with Spice's cardamom pods (buah pelaga)
2 of Season with Spice's star anise (bunga lawang)
1-2 of Season with Spice's cloves (bunga chengkih)
1/4 tsp salt or to taste

The process:
1. Rinse the rice, then add in the 3 cups of water and soak for 30 minutes (without soaking, the rice may not cook properly the first time because of the added coconut milk).

2. In your rice cooker, add in the soaked rice and the water, and the remaining ingredients.  Cook the rice, and when it is halfway done, open the cooker and stir well.

3. Continue cooking, and once finished, gently fluff the rice. Let it sit for 10 minutes.

4. Serve the rice with sides such as a hard boiled egg, roasted peanuts, fried anchovies, cucumber slices, and sambal (Part 1). This is the classic nasi lemak, which can be wrapped in a banana leaf and eaten later. To enjoy nasi lemak as a spread, add dishes such as tamarind prawns (Part 2) and sambal ikan bilis (Part 3).

-I noticed some confusion with the ratio of rice to water/coconut milk on many nasi lemak posts online, since some cooks use a 'rice cup' for rice, and a normal measuring cup for the liquid.  It is best to use the same ratio of liquid that you usually use to cook rice (which should be around 2 parts liquid, 1 part rice).  To prevent any mix-up on this recipe, 'Cups' refers specifically to a normal, dry ingredient measuring cup, which I used for both the rice and liquids.
-Pandan leaves and fresh ginger are the essential spices for the nasi lemak.  Leave it at that, or have fun adding in some of your favorite spices.


Tamara said...

this is really interesting, sounds great!

Nami @ Just One Cookbook said...

Beautiful post - One of my favorite's blogs that I visit has this name Nasi Lemak because it's her favorite food. I have been curious what it is and now I know. I'd love to try this rice. Coconut milk flavor sounds delicious... It's very nice of you to carry on grandpa & grandma's recipe. :-)

SeasonWithSpice said...

Thanks Tamara.

Nami - it's worth trying to make nasi lemak at home. You will get addicted to the flavour just Mark did.

Teresa said...

This is so colorful. The bright pictures almost makes me savor the dish and feel the scents, great feast. I love your family history behind it, I'm sure it makes the dish taste 100 times better.

Anonymous said...

bravo , et merci

seasonwithspice said...

Thanks Tes. Mark says the same thing about nasi lemak:)

Meg Megan said...

Amazing recipe and images. i miss Malaysia so much :(.
happy to find your blog!

seasonwithspice said...

Thanks Meg..Glad that you say hi.

Siti Hawa Abdullah said...

ThankGod. I found the recipe!!! May Allah reward you.

seasonwithspice said...

Great to know you liked this recipe, Siti. And many thanks for your kind note.

Jeanette Chen said...

I love seeing what different cultures eat for breakfast - I've never had Nasi Lemak, but would love to try it.

seasonwithspice said...

Thanks Jeanette. If you get a chance to meet a Malaysian, ask he or she about nasi lemak. You might get invited to their house for a taste of it.

Olduvai said...

I came across your blog when looking for Nasi lemak recipes and I really appreciate how you specifically state the measurements in cups (ie not rice cups - which probably was the reason for my too-wet attempts previously). Thanks for the recipe. My nasi lemak was the highlight of my brunch party!

Season with Spice said...

Hi Olduvai - Wonderful to hear that your nasi lemak was the highlight of the party!

Christine said...

Hi! I live in the humid tropics of Brazil and found your blog when browsing for info on pandanus. I have a pandanus plant in my garden and had no idea it was good for cooking. I'm wondering if it's tHe right plant. It does grow and a spiral shape and have very dangerous saw-like leaves. When mature, I imagine that it will produce a fruit that has a pineapple-like skin. But I can't imagine tying the leaf (which is fairly large) into a knot. Wish I could send you a photo.

Season with Spice said...

Hi Christine, not sure if you saw our "Spices Unearthed" feature on Pandan (Screwpine): http://blog.seasonwithspice.com/2012/05/what-is-pandan-and-screwpine.html

There are more pictures on that post, so you may be able to compare your plant with those images. But based on your description, it sounds like your pandanus plant is a different species than the domesticated one found in Southeast Asia, which is Pandanus amaryllifolius. This plant is generally sterile, so it wouldn't produce fruit like other pandanus plants. And the leaves have a slightly sharp edge, but not sharp enough where one would describe them as dangerous.

It's most likely your garden plant is another species of pandanus (there are over 600 different species). But since you're living in Brazil, the climate would be perfect to grow Pandanus amaryllifolius in your garden. If you can find the seeds for sale in Brazil, give it a try, and let us know how the plant turns out. You'll love having fresh pandan (Screwpine) for savory and sweet recipes.

All the best,

Mark & Reese

SeasonWithSpice said...

I just had some of this rice (someone brought to a potluck). It was delicious! Fragrant, with just the right amount of coconut and ginger flavor. I will definitely be trying this at home and highly recommend!

SeasonWithSpice said...

Just returned from Malaysia and can confirm nasi lemak is just everywhere. :-)
My question though will be: what spices do we use to fry peanuts in? I noticed most eateries serve plain peanuts, however at one we had peanuts that were spiced and it made a lot of difference.

SeasonWithSpice said...

Hi There,

Thank you for sharing your familiar recipe - I grew up with Nasi Lemak and missing it very much.

I wonder if you could advise what's on your plates as I see various different sauces:
- What did you garnish on top of your rice? Are those fried anchovies?
- What are the differences between the sauce I see in your smaller sauce plate with the lime vs. the sauce between the fried anchovies and the cucumber?
- Did you use the relish version (version B) of your sambal recipe for serving?

I'm really looking forward to trying out your recipe!

Thank you

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