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Rice and shine

Update: January, 05/2015 - 17:02

Complex combination: At the base is a steaming, fragrant mound of rice cooked in a heady concoction of pandan leaves and coconut milk. When accompanied by the crunch of roasted peanuts and fried anchovies (ikan bilis), the creaminess of a hard-boiled egg and the coolness from cucumber-all essential accompaniments to the rice-nasi lemak becomes a melange of flavours and textures.

by Louisa Lim

Sometime in May in 2014, something wonderful happened: nasi lemak, the ubiquitous national dish that has conquered the stomachs of so many Malaysians, has finally gone international.

Prepared by Ipoh-born Ping Coombes for the finals of Masterchef UK, the dish wowed the panel of celebrity judges when it appeared, so much so that one of them, Jon Torode, exclaimed: "Give me the biggest bowl you possibly can and I'll sit here and eat the whole lot!"

But Torode was merely echoing what millions of Malaysians, no matter what their age or colour, had felt all along. That's why, in this country, it's eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner and-if one is feeling particularly naughty-whenever.

Traditionally served in a banana leaf packet, nasi lemak has an unassuming enough appearance. But peel away the green wrapper and you'll discover why this carb-rich dish-which aptly enough translates into 'fatty rice' in English-has lured generations of women (and men) to go AWOL on their diets.

At the base is a steaming, fragrant mound of rice that was cooked in a heady concoction of pandan leaves and coconut milk. While this rice is divine on its own, generous lashings of red-hot sambal gives it a salty, spicy taste that many love. When accompanied by the crunch of roasted peanuts and fried anchovies (ikan bilis), the creaminess of a hard-boiled egg and the coolness from cucumber-all essential accompaniments to the rice-nasi lemak becomes a melange of flavours and textures.

But that's just your basic nasi lemak, once food for the poor and peddled by itinerant vendors in coastal regions where coconut and fish are plentiful. Nowadays, nasi lemak can be as elaborate or simple as one wishes it to be. Some street stalls offer coconut rice with a choice of over 20 different kinds of accompaniments which may include beef rendang (dry curry), chicken curry, fried chicken, fried egg, omelette, salted duck egg, salted fish, fried fish, squid sambal (spice paste), shrimp sambal, cockles curry, fried water spinach, and etc.

And while no one really knows the true origins of the dish, some attempts to trace its history has lead to Indonesia's nasi uduk and Sri Lanka's ancient dish of milk rice, the kiribath, mentioned as a food served to monks during the reign of Dathopatissa II in 703-712 AD in the book Society of Medieval Sri Lanka.

On the Malay Peninsula, it is said that nasi lemak existed as far back as 1909-and probably way before that-mentioned in the book The Circumstances of Malay Life by Sir Richard Olof Winstedt.

Because it is easy to like and to prepare, this quintessentially Malay dish has been adopted-and then adapted-by other races. The Chinese may add a pork sambal or slice of luncheon meat, and the Indian, mango chutney and mutton curry.

French sociologist Laurence Tibere in an article published in the nation's premier food magazine Flavours explained the Malaysian attachment to this dish:

"Nasi lemak's accessibility, both physical and economic, seems to drive its popularity; it's cheap and affordable, and easily found in the streets. In the kitchen, it is technically accessible as well, being easy to prepare and adapt to individual tastes and the requirements of the main religious beliefs.

"The validity of nasi lemak as the de facto national dish is hard to dispute as it has achieved a special status that has been constructed in, and nourished by, the reality of Malaysian life itself." — Star (Malaysia)

Recipe

That's a wrap: Nasi lemak in banana leaves.

Nasi lemak with turmeric chicken

Makes 8 snack-sized banana leaf packets or 5 meal servings

For a basic nasi lemak, omit the chicken.

Fragrant coconut rice

  • 300g (or 2 metric cups) long grain rice such as Basmathi or Jasmine
  • 200ml (or 1 metric cup) thick coconut milk(from 1 coconut)
  • 200ml (or 1 metric cup) water (slightly more if you prefer a softer bite)
  • 3 slices ginger or galangal
  • 3 pandan (screwpine) leaves
  • 1 stalk lemongrass (10cm from base), smashed
  • 3/4 tsp salt or to taste
  • 5-6 clitoria flowers (bunga telang), fresh or dried (optional)
  • spice paste (sambal tumis)
  • 50g dried chillies, boiled, seeded and drained
  • 30g shallots, sliced
  • 20g garlic
  • 20g dried shrimp paste (belacan), roasted and crushed
  • 25g tamarind paste, soaked in 150-200ml water to extract juice
  • 60ml cooking oil
  • 3 tbsp sugar, or to taste
  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste

Turmeric chicken

  • 2 (about 800g) chicken whole leg, cut into pieces
  • 1 tsp salt or more
  • 1 tbsp turmeric powder or more
  • 1 tbsp corn flour
  • accompaniment
  • 5 boiled eggs, halved
  • 1 cucumber, sliced
  • 100g dried anchovies, deep fried till golden brown and crisp
  • 100g peanuts, roasted 10 minutes and salted
  • banana leaf

To cook the rice

  • Wash rice in two to three changes of water. Soak in 1 cup coconut milk for 10 minutes - the fat will coat the rice and keep the grains separate during cooking.
  • Place everything to cook - except the flowers - in an electric rice cooker pot, or normal pot, and season to taste with salt. (Tip: It should taste like seawater.)
  • When the water has almost evaporated, add the flowers and continue to cook. When done, fluff the rice with a pair of chopsticks or fork. Allow to rest, covered, for another 15 minutes to finish cooking. Discard the flowers and aromatics.

For the sambal tumis

  • Blend all the ingredients to a fine paste. Heat the oil on medium heat. When hot, fry the spice paste, stirring from time to time to prevent burning, until aromatic and oil breaks the surface, indicating that moisture has evaporate-for about 10 minutes. Add more water if you prefer a more liquid sambal. Adjust seasoning to taste.

For the turmeric chicken

  • Rub the salt, turmeric powder and cornflour into the chicken and marinate for at least 1 hour or overnight in the fridge. Heat enough oil for deep frying and fry the chicken until golden brown and crisp.

Recipe by Julie Wong

Tips that make a difference

"This recipe makes rice that is firm to the bite; for a softer consistency, add another 50ml water.

"Be generous with the salt for marinating the chicken - the osmotic action of salt helps to infuse the meat with the turmeric flavour.

"Wrap the dried shrimp paste in foil while roasting to minimise the spread of odour.

"Scald the banana leaf with hot water or pass it through a flame to soften it for easier handling - and also sanitise it.

"To make banana leaf parcels, assemble while rice is hot and grains are sticky; this will also infuse the rice with the subtle scent of banana leaf.

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