Nasi Lemak

19 July 2018

Nasi Lemak

I’ve had flying visits to Malaysia a couple of times, always to speak and never for leisure, sadly. I have a strict rule when I’m travelling for work - which is to resist the impulse to throw myself into the local cuisine until after I’ve spoken (or otherwise done whatever I’m there to do). I’m there to work, and the people paying me expect me to be able to perform at 100%. So I’m very risk averse.

The result of all this admirable self-denial is that my experience of Malaysian cuisine is rather slight, and I’d never come across Nasi Lemak - a popular Malaysian breakfast - while I was there. So when I read about it recently, I decided I would give it a go. Doubtless when I next get the opportunity to get out there, I’ll order it and find it’s completely different to my own effort, but that’s only to be expected. For one thing, you often have to make compromises on ingredients, dependant on what you can get hold of. It took a bit of faffing about to get what I wanted for this dish.

First, you need to get pandan leaves. These are available if you have a good Asian shop near you or, failing that, they’re reasonably easy to get online. I’d used them before, so no problem.

For this dish, I did have a couple of challenges. The first was sorting out what I needed with the anchovies. Nasi Lemak uses fried dried anchovies as a garnish, and dried anchovies soaked in water and drained, at least according to Matt Tebbutt who did the dish for Saturday Kitchen.

Tebbut specifies dried white anchovies. I could find non-dried white anchovies, or dried anchovies. I’m not much of an anchovy expert, so I didn’t know how big a difference this would make. In the event, I ended up with a pack of standard Asian dried anchovies. For a typical soft Westerner, this is a pretty hardcore ingredient.

Second - and this was surprising - I actually had problems getting peanuts. Yes, really. The recipe calls for skin-on peanuts. I assumed you’d be able to get these in a decent supermarket, but nope. Eventually, I did get some from a specialist stall at Norwich market - but how weird that it should be even remotely difficult to get those.

The heart of Nasi Lemak is the rice, made fragrant by pandan leaves and lemongrass, cooked in coconut milk to make it luxurious and flavourful. With that comes an intensely spicy sambal, a paste cooked from onions, anchovies and tamarind paste. Garnishes traditionally include a boiled egg, sliced cucumber, and fried dried anchovies and peanuts. It’s not something I would normally identify as a breakfast dish, but this is the joy of learning from other cultures.

It’s straightforward to cook, but it’s a bit of a faff. Most people recommend you cook your sambal the day before - a sensible measure if you are actually going to do this for breakfast. I found the dried fried anchovies a bit hard core for my tastes - that may be because I got the wrong ones. Dried white anchovies should have been, by all accounts, a different level. 

That said, the final dish was delicious. The creaminess of the coconut rice with the intensely spicy kick and savoury undertones of the sambal - and although I wasn’t overly fussed about the boiled egg and the cucumber, the fried peanuts gave a great additional crunch and flavour. I think I will definitely do this again, except use standard anchovies for the sambal and give them a miss altogether for the garnish unless I can get the white anchovies that I would be curious to try.

Nasi Lemak

Serves: 2

Half a 400ml tin coconut milk
200 ml water
1 thumb-sized piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 lemongrass stalk, tough outer skin removed and crushed
150g basmati rice
2 pandan leaves, tied into knots

For the sambal 

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 teaspoon shrimp paste
2 teaspoons chilli paste
125g dried anchovies, soaked in water and drained
1 tablespoon caster sugar
150ml tamarind paste mixed with 300ml water

For the garnish

1 free-range egg, hard boiled
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Handful dried white anchovies
Handful peanuts, skin-on
Eight slices cucumber


First, make the sambal. Heat the oil in a pan and gently fry the onion and garlic until soft but not coloured. Add the shrimp paste (it won’t smell lovely, but it all comes out great in the end), chilli paste and the anchovies and stir together. Add the sugar and a pinch of salt, then pour in the tamarind water. Simmer until it reduces to a thick paste, and set aside. This part can be done the day before.

Put the coconut milk, pandan leaves, water, ginger, lemongrass and rice in a saucepan, along with a pinch of salt. Cook at a very gentle simmer until the rice is cooked and all the liquid has been absorbed - should be between 10-15 minutes depending on your rice.

While the rice is cooking, reheat the sambal if needed, and peel the hard boiled eggs. Preheat the deep fat oil to around 180C. Deep fry the white anchovies until crispy - a couple of minutes or so - and then remove from the oil. Then do the same with the peanuts until they go a darker brown but before they begin to burn. Set aside.

When the rice is cooked, remove the lemongrass and the pandan leaves. Put the rice in a small bowl or ramekin and press down to compact it. Upturn the rice on the plate. Put some of the sambal on top, and scatter the garnish elements around.

Food waste

You’ll have a number of pandan leaves left over. You can place them in a flat layer on a baking sheet and freeze. Once they’re frozen, put them into a freezer bag - they should keep frozen for six months or so.

Most recipes that use shrimp paste only ever use small quantities (which, given the pungency, is probably a good thing). This shouldn’t be a problem, as it keeps a long time without refrigeration (although refrigeration won’t hurt it).

If you're cooking for two, you'll have half a can of coconut milk left. Put it into a sealed container (not the original can) and it'll keep in the fridge for 4 days. That was long enough for me to use it up. If it's not enough for you, you can freeze it and it will keep for around 3 months in top condition (after that, it will still be safe, but the quality will slowly degrade).