An incredibly fragrant coconut rice cooked in pandan extraction, a tomato-based chili sambal boosted with Italian anchovies, and a lemongrass-infused coconut milk ricotta crumbled with thinly sliced shallots and bird’s eye chili marinated in fish sauce
WHAT: Nasi Lemak, Malay’s signature fragrant coconut rice cooked in coconut milk and served with a spicy and sweet chili sambal.
WHY: You haven’t really had rice until you’ve tasted nasi lemak. And if you have tasted nasi lemak and consider this statement grossly exaggerated – as I once was – then it’s highly probable that it’s because you haven’t had this nasi lemak. Best yet, most components can be made days ahead of time.
HOW: Let’s face it. There are a lot of underwhelming nasi lemak out there. And I say this with the full acknowledgement that it’s an explicitly personal opinion resulting from my deeply rooted disagreement with more than one of its traditional, possibly beloved, practices. The coconut rice, without any dispute, is the heroine of the entire dish. We should all agree that if this part isn’t done right, then none of the others shall matter. But in my three to four encounters of nasi lemak in Malaysia and Singapore, more often than not, the rice appears fragrance-less and purpose-defeating, a crime that even if I could overlook, is sentenced to death with an aggressively sweet chili sambal slapped over the top where the scattered insult of dried anchovies and roasted peanuts lurks nearby. I don’t care for whole dried anchovies and/or roasted peanuts. Two ingredients that, in its entirely intact, crude and un-manipulated form, is only acceptable as cat snacks and dive bar nuts.
So here I’m setting out, if for no one else but myself, to make things right. In order to inject my desired level of fragrance into what is truly coconut rice in my mind, the cooking liquid is blended with pandan leaf and lemongrass before brewing for a short while over heat. The result is a jade-like green extraction that in conjunction with coconut milk and coconut oil, nursed the most incredibly fragrant pot of jasmine rice that I’d be happy eating with just a sprinkle of sea salt. Then in exchange of the overdue removal of whole dried anchovies, I went for a tomato-based chili sambal flavored with Italian anchovies in olive oil and dried shrimps, which provide a deeply nutty, seafood-y backdrop as the tangy sweetness of tomatoes and apricot jam forms an addictive conflict with fiery and condensed red chilis. It is a general wisdom – and happens to be true – that amongst two rich and intently juggernauts, a refreshing and preferably sharp medium is duly warranted. In rejection of the common trifling of sliced cucumbers, I say a lemongrass-infused coconut milk ricotta crumbled with thinly sliced shallots and bird’s eye chili marinated in fish sauce, is just the creamy yet laser-sharp liaison to bring this epic coalition to focus.
These few components without much else (or at least how they are traditionally made), together inside cleverly folded wrappers, are little pouches of portable delights grabbed on the go by busy Malaysians and Singaporeans alike. But for the most insatiable amongst us all, there are also some much available overkills. For lemongrass fried chickens, and fragrant fish cake they call otah, please proceed to Part Two.