My first breakfast in George Town, Penang in Malaysia was at an outdoor food stall that sold “Roti Bakar,” which is toast grilled over coals, served with butter coconut, egg and pandan jam. I had it at Toh Soon Cafe on Campbell Street, if you visit George Town, I highly recommend this place.
While I was feverishly cramming each buttery square of perfectly toasted roti into my mouth, followed by a mouthful of sugary sweet, but refreshingly cool iced “Teh Tarik” (pulled milk tea), I noticed people passing around a bamboo basket filled with triangle-shaped “packages.”
After inspecting each one, they selected two and three each, quickly returned to their table and proceeded to meticulously unwrap each package.
I was curious as to the contents of these packages. So, I made my way to the “tower of triangles,” which were perched on a table 10ft in front of me. I chose one, being especially careful not to disturb the remaining delicately stacked triangles in the bamboo basket.
I slowly unwrapped the brown paper, becoming giddy with excitement, like a child on Christmas day, hoping to unveil a much desired “gift.”
But, to my dismay there was yet another layer, which exposed a banana leaf. I proceeded to unwrap the banana leaf a little wary of what the next layer would uncover.
Finally, after the second layer and with much anticipation the contents were finally revealed to me, “Nasi Lemak” (“Nasi” is rice in Malay).
Nasi Lemak is a typical breakfast item found at countless hawker stalls throughout Malaysia. In its most basic form it includes rice cooked with coconut milk, pandan leaf (a green leaf, see photo above) and ginger. It is almost always accompanied by dried fried anchovies, Sambal (a chili based “hot sauce”), fried peanuts and a hard-boiled egg.
I would put it in the same category as “fast food” or a snack, as it doesn’t really fill you up, but rather subsides your appetite for about an hour. The vast majority of the Nasi Lemak sold on the streets is mediocre at best. However, you can exponentially increase the quality by making your own Nasi Lemak, which can be made into an entrée with the addition of seafood or meat.
Prior to making Nasi Lemak and Prawn Sambal, I went to “Chowrasta Market” in George Town and during my visit I was introduced to nutmeg. But not nutmeg as I have known it, but rather the fresh fruit (see photo above). The red “lacy” layer is called mace, which is also used in various cuisines throughout the world.
Malaysians and Indonesians have a variety of culinary uses for the fruit, one being nutmeg juice, which has accents of “floral” (well according to my palate). Another is pickling, yes pickling, not my favorite way to consume the fruit, but interesting nonetheless. The fruit is also candied and included in curries and stews. Far more uses for this fruit than I EVER imagined.
I also learned a bit of history behind nutmeg (I’m sure I learned this at some point in school, but have quickly forgotten). It has a sordid past, but the “quick and dirty” of it is the British had control of it, the Dutch made a trade with the British for the nutmeg and once the Dutch gained control they basically killed off the natives of the Banda Islands in Indonesia in an attempt to take total control of the trade of nutmeg on the Banda Islands.
So, the next time you throw a dash of nutmeg into your sauces, potatoes or desserts think of all the additional culinary uses for this once coveted spice.
Now, lets talk Nasi Lemak and Prawn Sambal. I provided recipes for both, as the Prawn Sambal goes great with Nasi Lemak. However, you can substitute any seafood you prefer for the recipe. Also, there is one ingredient that may be difficult to locate, “Belacan” or shrimp paste.
You will definitely find it at an asian supermarket and I have provided a photo for you to reference. However, you don’t have to purchase this exact brand, as any shrimp paste will do. Also, for the dried anchovies, if you make the Prawn Sambal you can omit the dried anchovies.
Hope you enjoy this recipe, now I give you Nasi Lemak and Prawn Sambal.
- Nasi Lemak
- ¾ cup basmati rice (or any long grain rice)
- ¾ cup water
- 2 slices of ginger
- ⅓ cup unsweetened coconut milk
- ¼ cup hot water
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- Chili Paste
- 20 dried guajillo chilies, seeds removed, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes (or any non spicy or smokey chilies)
- Prawn Sambal
- 3 stalks of lemongrass, use only the whitish part of the stalk (1/3 from the bottom)
- 4 tablespoons chili paste (from above)
- ½ inch galangal
- 4 candlenuts or macadamia nuts
- 2 tbs of tamarind water (see note on how to make water)
- 1 square inch belacan (1/4 inch thickness) – toasted
- 2 small onions, roughly chopped
- 8 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
- 1½ teaspoons brown sugar
- 1 inch ginger
- Salt to taste
- ½ cup canola oil (or vegetable)
- 8-10 prawns
- Nasi Lemak
- Wash the rice under cold water, until water is clear (about three times), discard water.
- Place washed rice, water and ginger into a saucepan.
- Cook over low heat, until ¾ of the water has absorbed, add coconut milk, salt and sugar.
- Stir, cover and cook on low heat for 8 minutes.
- After 8 minutes, turn off heat and set aside for 10 minutes.
- Chili Paste
- Discard water and finely grind chilies in a food processor, blender or mortar and pestle. Set aside.
- Tamarind Water
- Place the tamarind pulp into a small bowl.
- Pour the warm water into the bowl.
- Let it soften, about 15 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, mash the tamarind.
- With a spatula, push the pulp through the strainer. Discarding the solids. Set tamarind water aside.
- Prawn Sambal
- Finely grind lemongrass, garlic, shrimp paste (belacan), ginger, onions, candlenuts and chili paste in a food processor, blender or mortar and pestle.
- In a saucepan heat oil over medium heat.
- Sauté ground spices until the oil separates from the spices, about 3 minutes. Add tamarind water, sugar and salt to taste.
- Simmer until the paste thickens, about 10-15 minutes.
- Add prawns and cook until pink, about 3-5 minutes
- Accompaniment Options:
- Add Prawns to the Sambal
- Fried peanuts
- Hard boiled egg
- Fried anchovies (Inkan bilis), fresh or dried