It’s hard not to love nasi (rice) lemak (coconut), so popular that its greatest advocates insist on calling it Malaysia’s national dish. Growing up, I would savor nasi lemak wrapped in green banana leaves, bundled and lined with plastic, at least three times a week throughout my school years. Inside the bundle was warm coconut rice infused with the vanilla-like aroma of pandan leaves and citrusy ginger, accompanied by a hard boiled egg, crispy fried anchovies and peanuts, a few slices of cucumber, and a dollop of sambal (a spicy chili-based sauce). The flavors are still etched in my mind: every sublime spoonful was warm, creamy, crunchy, spicy-sweet, and with just the right amount of sambal.
In this recipe, all the side condiments can be served at room temperature and made well in advance. For instance, you can fry the peanuts and anchovies and store them in an airtight container or canning jar. I always prepare more of these side condiments than I need, as it makes it easier to enjoy this dish whenever I want. They bring complexity and crunch to the dish. The sambal, the key player, can also be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator or freezer; then just heat the portion you need in a microwave.
When all of the main preparations are done ahead of time, you are only left with cooking the coconut rice. This is important because the dish works best when the rice is served piping hot, along with warm hard boiled eggs and fresh slices of cucumber. The assortment of these dishes coming together on a plate for a palate of flavor makes an evocative nasi lemak, that is sure to become a favorite.
For more dishes featuring luscious coconut milk, get our Eggplant Curry with Lemongrass and Coconut Milk recipe, or our Coconut Rice Pudding recipe.
- Yield: 6 servings
- Difficulty: Easy
- Total: 1 hr 40 min
- Active: 1 hr
For Coconut Rice:
- 3 cups basmati rice
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 4 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
- 1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 pandan leaves, tied in a knot
- 3 cups coconut milk
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 2/3 cup peanut or canola oil
- 1 cup raw peanuts with skin on
- 1 1/2 cups dried anchovies, washed and drained
For Anchovy Sambal (Sambal Ikan Bilis):
- 6 tablespoons sambal oelek
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
- 4 shallots, peeled and cut in half
- 6 tablespoons peanut oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 3 tablespoons tamarind water or 2 tablespoons tamarind liquid concentrate
- 1/2 small cucumber, washed and sliced
- 4 hard boiled eggs, peeled and cut in half
- 6 (12″ × 9″) banana leaves, cleaned
For the Coconut Rice:
- Wash the rice by gently rubbing it with your fingers in a bowl filled with water. When the water becomes cloudy, drain the water and repeat the process until the water is clear.
- Place the rice in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, then add the salt, garlic, ginger, pandan leaf, coconut milk, and water. Let the rice boil, uncovered, until steam holes appear in the rice and the surface looks dry, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and cook without stirring, for 20 minutes, or until all the coconut milk is absorbed and the grains are tender and fluffy. Alternatively, put all the ingredients into a rice cooker and cook until done. When the rice is done, discard the garlic, ginger, and pandan leaves and stir the rice. Meanwhile, prepare the peanuts.
- Heat the peanut or canola oil in a wok or skillet over medium-low heat. When the oil shimmers, add the raw peanuts and cook until they turn brown, about 5 minutes. Drain the peanuts with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel. Set aside.
- Next, carefully add the dried anchovies to the same wok or skillet and stir-fry, moving the anchovies back and forth until golden brown and crispy, about 7 minutes. Drain the anchovies with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel, dividing in half (half will go into the sambal, and half will be for serving with the rice). Set aside. Discard the oil.
For the Sambal:
- In a blender, combine the sambal oelek, garlic, ginger, and shallots with 1/4 cup water and blend into a smooth paste, resembling the consistency of applesauce. Set aside.
- Heat the peanut oil in a wok or skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the sambal paste, salt, and sugar, and stir-fry the sambal until fragrant and the oils separate on the surface, about 10 minutes. Add in the sliced onion and cook for another 5 minutes, until the onions become soft.
- Add the tamarind water (or liquid tamarind concentrate) and 1/2 cup of water, and mix well to combine with the paste. Now add in only half of the crispy anchovies (keep half for serving with the rice), and allow to cook for 5 minutes in the sambal. Taste the sambal and add more sugar and salt if needed to balance the sweet-salty taste. Turn off the heat.
- Line each person’s plate with a cleaned banana leaf. Place about 1 cup of the cooked coconut rice in the middle of each leaf. Put about three tablespoons of the anchovy sambal mixture on top of the rice. On each plate, place a few cucumber slices, half of a hard-boiled egg, and one tablespoon each of the peanuts and fried anchovies around the rice. Serve warm.