If you’ve never had nasi lemak, get ready to fall in love—and learn how to make this fragrant, multi-textured Malaysian meal from Kopitiam chef Kyo Pang, who was a 2019 James Beard Awards semifinalist for Chef of the Year NYC.
Note: This episode is from an earlier season of Chow-To, but we’re resurfacing it now to help celebrate Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. If you’re in the area, you can still order takeout and delivery from Kopitiam to help support them during the COVID-19 crisis.
Kopitiam is a Malaysian-style coffee shop (where you might well spot celebs in normal, non-COVID times) on the Lower East Side, specializing in Nyonya cuisine, a blend of Chinese and Malaysian ingredients and flavors. Chef Pang’s family has run similar shops in Penang for two generations, and now she’s carrying on the tradition in New York, bringing home-style Malaysian food to happy, hungry crowds. She characterizes Baba-Nyonya dishes as colorful and incredibly flavorful. Nasi lemak, the national dish of Malaysia, is definitely both those things.
On a visit to Kopitiam, chef Pang taught our senior video producer, Guillermo Riveros, how to make it—so now you can too!
What Is Nasi Lemak?
It’s a fantastic experience, for one thing. The name translates to “coconut rice” (or maybe more like “creamy” or “fatty” rice, but lemak refers exclusively to the rich texture and flavor that comes from coconut milk)—and that’s the main component of the meal, the canvas on which all the other vibrant flavors and textures are assembled.
The white rice is cooked with fresh pandan leaves for an extra infusion of flavor, mixed with coconut milk to make it rich, and then served with a variety of toppings; often, the accompaniments are arranged separately around the rice, with the sambal dolloped on top, but at Kopitiam, the fried peanuts, anchovies, and sambal are all mixed together for a sweet-spicy-savory top layer. Along with the other traditional garnishes—hard-boiled eggs and fresh cucumber (eight slices are considered a lucky number)—this is a never-ending delight of different tastes, temperatures, and textures.
Nasi lemak was traditionally eaten for breakfast to fuel farmers before they went to work, and it’ll certainly get you going in the morning, but it’s also delicious any other time of day.
Learn a bit more about some of the special ingredients in the dish, and then get the recipe from Kopitiam.
Make sure you have all these on hand before you begin:
Coconut milk adds both fragrant flavor and rich texture to the rice once it’s cooked. You almost always hear that you should stick with full-fat coconut milk for the full effect, but chef Pang actually prefers a lighter coconut milk here, which is closer to the fresh coconut milk that would usually be incorporated into the dish in Malaysia. She specifically recommends Chef’s Choice, but if you can’t find it, don’t worry; the dish will be delicious with whatever coconut milk you have.
Chef's Choice Coconut Milk, 6 for $14.99 on Amazon
Related Reading: More Delicious Things to Make with Coconut Milk
Pandan leaves, also known as screw pine leaves, are used a lot in Southeast Asian dishes to add a vanilla-esque aroma and subtle flavor that’s really not like anything else (i.e., there’s no substitute, sorry). Seek out fresh or frozen pandan leaves at a local Asian grocery store if you can; they’ll be cheaper than ordering online, and you’ll be able to assess the quality in person.
Fresh Pandan Leaves, $5.95 on Etsy
Try using them to infuse water for a super-refreshing sip on hot summer days too. Here, the long green leaves are tied into a knot and added to the rice cooker so they infuse every grain with their unique perfume.
Sambal refers generally to a chili-based sauce or condiment used in many Southeast Asian cuisines; it can skew more sweet, spicy, savory, or sour, but often balances two or more of those flavors, and is a great addition to so many dishes. Chef Pang, of course, makes her own, but you can take a shortcut with store-bought if you like. Try a mix of sambal oelek and hot-sweet chili sauce—and see our guide to sambal for more info, plus recipes if you do want to DIY.
Sambal Manis Pedas Sweet and Spicy Chili Sauce, $11.99 on Amazon
Huey Fong Sambal Oelek, $5.18 on Amazon
Ikan Bilis (Dried Anchovies)
These tiny, briny, deeply savory dried fish are fried until crisp and golden-brown for nasi lemak. Look for very small anchovies and avoid dark silver ones with blue lines if you can; those are male anchovies, and chef Pang says they’re usually tougher to chew.
ROM America Premium Small Size Dried Anchovy, $19.99 on Amazon
When cooking this dish, you’ll want to toast your peanuts in a dry pan for a bit before adding oil and taking them a little darker, then fry the anchovies in the same nutty oil so they pick up all the flavor. Even if you’re suspicious of fishes for breakfast (or anchovies in general), we promise this is a completely addictive way to eat them.
Not just for show—though serving food on them does look beautiful and authentic—banana leaves impart their own subtle aroma to anything you put on them. If you have trouble tracking them down, though, it’s definitely not a deal-breaker to serve this dish on a plain old plate. It won’t be lacking in flavor, that’s for sure.
You’ll find these tools helpful in making the recipe below:
Aroma Housewares Digital Rice Cooker, $29.92 at Walmart
The easiest way to get perfect rice every time.
Hiware Stainless Steel Spider Stainer, $16.99 on Amazon
Perfect for fishing fried ingredients out of your hot oil.
For the full experience, you may also want to track down some rooster bowls.
Kyo Pang’s Nasi Lemak Recipe (Kopitiam NYC)
Makes 7-8 servings
Time: 45 minutes (including cooking the coconut rice)
- 7 cups white rice
- 3 pandan leaves (tied into a knot)
- 400 ml coconut milk
- 200 ml vegetable oil
- 150 grams peanuts
- 500 grams dry anchovies (use white anchovies)
- 1/2 tablespoon salt
- 5-6 tablespoons sambal sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 hard boiled egg (per dish), cut in half
- 8 slices cucumber (per dish)
- Few pieces of banana leaves as garnish
- Light soy sauce (Thai or Malaysian soy sauce recommended)
1. Rinse rice in 2-3 changes of cold water, until it runs clear, then add water according to your rice cooker’s directions, plus 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and place the knot of pandan leaves in the middle of the rice. Cook according to your rice cooker’s directions. The process should take approximately 20 minutes.
2. Heat up a 16-inch frying pan and toast the peanuts. When they start to turn a little dark, add the vegetable oil to fry them. When they turn golden brown, use a strainer to remove them from the frying pan and put them in another bowl to cool down.
3. Meanwhile, use the same oil to fry the anchovies, stirring frequently, until they’re fried through, crisp, and golden brown. Remove with a strainer and drain on paper towels.
4. Mix the peanuts and anchovies together in a bowl with the sambal sauce. Taste and add sugar if need be.
5. Once the rice is cooked, add all of the coconut milk and mix well, then let it steam for another 10 minutes.
6. To serve, place banana leaf on a large, shallow bowl or plate. In a smaller bowl, place the mixed anchovies, peanuts, and sambal to fill the bowl about halfway, then add the rice on top and press it down so it’s packed tight. Flip this over the bigger bowl to unmold the rice onto the banana leaf.
7. Arrange the cucumber slices around the rim of the rice and place the hard-boiled egg halves beside it; top the eggs with a little light soy sauce. Add a side of extra sambal sauce to finish, and enjoy!