Malaysian Cuisine — Nasi Lemak: Coconut Milk Rice

Malaysian cuisine is based largely on that of the indigenous Malay people, but also contains a heavy portion of the cultures of the country’s significant populations of people of Chinese, Indonesian, and Indian descent. Trade with or immigration of Thais, Portuguese, British, and Arabs have added bits and pieces of their native traditions to the Malaysian kitchen as well.

Malaysia quick facts:

  • Capital: Kuala Lumpur
  • Population: 30,018,242 (2014 estimate)
  • Notable Malaysians: James Wan, Michelle Yeoh, hypnotized Derek Zoolander’s assassination target

Malaysian cooks craft their meals from a variety of ingredients. Noodles, both rice and wheat-based, came from the Chinese and are incorporated into soups and stir-fries,especially the Malaysian specialty laksa. Poultry is probably the most popular meat, and is handled to Halal standards to accommodate Malaysia’s predominant Muslim population. Beef, pork, and mutton are also popular among Malaysians without religious dietary restrictions against them. Shellfish of all kinds and cephalopods like octopus, cuttlefish, and squid are widespread, as are fish taken from the Malaysian islands’ long coastline.

The most important aspect of a typical Malaysian meal is rice. Malaysia’s national dish, nasi lemak (recipe follows), bases an entire meal around rice. Coconut milk and leaves of the palm-like screwpine tree give plain white rice a rich, aromatic quality. Various accompaniments serve as sideshows to the rice’s main attraction: boiled eggs, cucumbers, sambal (a spicy chili paste common to the Southeast Asian cuisines), peanuts, fried anchovies, or any of a variety of curried meats. Nasi lemak is served for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or late night eating, with side dishes chosen appropriately for the time of day.

We planned on serving our nasi lemakfor dinner, so we chose sliced cucumbers, boiled eggs, and a simple dry beef curry spiced with rempah (recipe follows after the nasi lemak recipe), Malaysian curry paste.

Nasi Lemak

adapted from Rasa Malaysia


For the rice:

  • 2 cups Jasmine rice (any long-grain white rice will do)
  • 2 screwpine leaves, tied in a knot (available in Southeast Asian markets like Lacey, Washington’s Hong Phat)
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 14.5 ounce can coconut milk
  • 1 cup water

For the accompaniments:

  • sliced, peeled cucumber
  • boiled eggs, sliced
  • Beef rempang, Malaysian dry beef curry, recipe follows

There is nothing tricky about nasi lemak. Its secret lies in the fragrant, aromatic screwpine leaves and the rich coconut milk used as a cooking liquid. We found our screwpine leaves fresh at our local Southeast Asian market Hong Phat in Lacey, Washington. Easy to spot in what can be a confusing array of Asian greens and herbs, screwpine leaves are about two feet long, an inch wide at their base, and have a grain that runs their entire length like a blade of grass. The smell is a dead giveaway also – look for something that smells like a sweaty t-shirt.

The rice ingredients were combined in a saucepan and brought to a simmer:


Once simmering, the saucepan was covered, the heat reduced to low, and the rice was allowed to cook undisturbed for about twenty minutes until tender and all the liquid absorbed. After the rice was done, the screwpine was removed, the rice fluffed with a wooden spoon, and the saucepan covered and removed from the burner to stay warm until all the accompaniments were ready.

Once we had our cucumbers peeled and sliced, our hard-cooked eggs sliced, and our rempang made, we were ready to eat:


Our impression of nasi lemak is pretty basic: wow! This was one of the best rice preparations we have ever tried. The screwpine leaves gave us cause for concern with their sweaty sock aroma when fresh, but the flavor subdued considerably in cooking the rice. Richness and a touch of sweetness from the coconut milk gave the rice a nice complexity. The cucumber and eggs added variety, and the rempang was a spicy, beefy revelation. Malysian food is really, really good, it so happens.

Beef Rempang

adapted from The Chronicles of Ms. I-Hua & The Boy
For the rempah:

  • 8 dried red chilies
  • 2 serrano chiles
  • ¼ cup macadamia nuts
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 4 large shallots
  • ½ tsp shrimp paste (available at Southeast Asian markets)
  • ½ tsp salt

For the beef curry:

  • ¼ cup rempah, recipe follows
  • 2 Tbs canola oil
  • ¾ pound beef, cut into ¾ inch by ¾ inch by 1 ½ inch pieces. We used tri-tip because we had it available in our freezer. Any suitable steak cut or sirloin would work as well.

First we gathered the ingredients for our rempah:


Next, the serrano chiles, shallots, garlic, and dried red chiles (rehydrated for thirty minutes in hot water and drained) were minced for easier grinding:


To make the paste, first the hazelnuts were ground in our mortar and pestle:



…followed by the other ingredients:

To make the curry, the rempah was cooked in the canola oil over medium heat for about one minute until it became fragrant and the raw shallot smell had dissipated a bit:

Next the beef was added:

…and sauteed in the oil and rempah until well browned but still tender, about ten minutes:


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