If you like spicy food, this recipe is for you. Nasi lemak is a delicious umami-filled dish, combining the flavours of coconut milk, chilli, and dried anchovies. It’s spicy, savoury and a little sweet and one of the most delicious foods I’ve ever tasted.
I tried nasi lemak for the first time at University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur where I studied and worked for three years. I was very new to Malaysia and excited to try all these new, fascinating foods, but I didn’t know where to start. My classmates warned me: nasi lemak is not for the fainthearted. The spice levels, they said, are eye-watering and the flavours strong and pungent. Under their direction, I got myself a plate of rice, ladled the deep red sambal ikan bilis (or anchovy sauce) onto it, added a boiled egg, some cucumber slices, a few fried anchovies. Then I took my first bite. My life changed forever.
Nasi lemak soon became my favourite Malaysian dish. I tried a huge variety of Malaysian foods, but this one remains my ultimate favourite. It hits all the spots: it’s very savoury (super umami), extremely spicy (think nuclear levels of spiciness), it contains a hint of sweetness too. The rice is usually quite bland and tastes like coconut milk; it balances the sauce perfectly.
I got this recipe from one of my friends in Malaysia, it’s really easy to make, but you need the right ingredients. Outside of Malaysia these ingredients can be challenging to source. However, if you live in the Vancouver area, or in Auckland, New Zealand, you’ll be able to find them at Asian supermarkets. The only thing I couldn’t find was pandan leaves, personally I like it better without. Nasi lemak ingredients usually aren’t pricey either, so that’s a great bonus!
- Two and a half cups dried anchovies
- One cup dried baby shrimp
- One cup chilli garlic sauce (you can make your own, but if you’re lazy like me, store bought is just fine)
- One teaspoon chilli flakes (or more if you like)
- One onion, grated finely or pureed in a food processor
- Three cloves of garlic, crushed
- Half a cup tamarind pulp
- Two tablespoons tomato paste
- Half a cup of canola oil
- Three tablespoons soy sauce
- Two or three tablespoons granulated white sugar, or according to taste. Some people like it sweeter.
- Salt to taste (be careful when adding salt: the anchovies are already salted, the soy sauce provides salt. Make sure to taste as you go along)
- One hard-boiled egg per person
- Sliced fresh cucumber, as much as you like
- About one cup ground nuts (if these aren’t available, natural peanuts can be used instead, but won’t taste exactly the same)
- 3/4 cup coconut milk
- One cup long grain rice
- One and a quarter cup water
- Salt to taste
- A couple of pandan leaves, tied together into a knot, if you can find pandan where you live, I couldn’t find it.
- Rinse the anchovies and drain. Remove their heads if they’re still attached.
- In a wok or large saucepan, heat half the canola oil on high, approximately a quarter cup, or more if necessary to cover the entire pan’s surface. When the oil is very hot, fry the anchovies until they become a light golden-brown, about two minutes. Make sure to stir them and not to leave them unattended, they can burn quite easily.
- Remove the anchovies to a plate lined with a paper towel and allow them to cool.
- In a bowl, mix the tamarind pulp with a quarter cup hot water. Allow it to sit for 10 minutes, then strain it through a cheesecloth or a fine sieve.
- Soak the baby shrimp in some hot water for 10 minutes, then chop it finely.
- Mix the strained tamarind, tomato paste, chilli garlic sauce, grated onion, crushed garlic and chilli flakes in a bowl.
- Heat up the rest of the canola oil on high
- Tip in the tamarind mixture into the hot oil and cook on high while stirring constantly for three minutes. Watch out for splatter, don’t stare directly at it. Don’t leave unattended as it may burn easily.
- Add the chopped baby shrimp, soy sauce, sugar and salt, continue stirring constantly for another 10 minutes, until it turns a deep, crimson red.
- Add in two-thirds of the fried anchovies. Reserve the rest of the anchovies to serve. Stir for one more minute then remove from the heat and allow to cool.
- In the meantime, mix the rice, water, salt, and coconut milk in a small saucepan, bring to a boil on high while uncovered, then reduce the heat to low, cover and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes or until it is has absorbed all the liquid and has cooked through.
- Dry toast your ground nuts in a small frying pan without adding any oil, for about 5 minutes.
- To serve: assemble your dish so that you have a generous portion of rice, topped with sambal, extra crispy anchovies, boiled egg, ground nuts and sliced cucumber. Enjoy!
Have you ever tried Malaysian food? What’s your favourite dish? Let me know in the comments! For other recipes using Malaysian ingredients, check out the Durian Smoothie recipe here. If you want to know more about the varieties of nasi lemak, you can find more information here.
© 2019, L.E.. All rights reserved.