Mmm… Malaysian: Nasi lemak and beef rendang

Something that was revealed early in our relationship was Ash’s intolerance of all things coconut. Long bartending shifts surrounded by the sickly scent of Malibu combined with his phobia of the texture of desiccated coconut apparently developed into an irrevocable hatred of the tropical treat and everything it stands for. This was devastating news for Miranda, for whom coconut is a favourite flavour: a throwback to an adolescence full of coconut oil and lamingtons and, indeed, student days catered by Malibu. But, ever the compromiser, she agreed to forego her coconut-scented shampoo and moisturiser, and stopped dreaming of piña coladas. Life went on without incident and mostly without complaint.

Then came this weekend, when we hit Malaysia on our cooking challenge and found that not only is nasi lemak (coconut rice) the national dish, but that (according to Nyonya Cooking) it works very nicely next to a beef rendang – a coconutty curry. Miranda was thrilled; Ash was apprehensive but vowed to be big and brave, and thus our Malaysian meal was born.

Nasi lemak simply refers to rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf (apparently it translates to ‘fatty rice’, but we bought light coconut milk so we’re sure we made a healthy version), and it is usually served with a variety of accompaniments. The most typical appear to be sambal ikan bilis (anchovy chilli paste), peanuts, egg and cucumber, but other than the sambal there doesn’t seem to be any real hard and fast rule. Our recipes are inspired by those on Rasa Malaysia, as well as some pointers from the YouTube video linked above.

Despite the order below, you want to start the rendang first, because it takes a few hours, then the sambal, and don’t do the rice until you’re ready to serve.

Nasi lemak

2 cups basmati rice
3 pandan/screwpine leaves (tied in a knot)
Pinch of salt
1 cup coconut milk
3 cups water

To serve:
Toasted peanuts
2 hardboiled eggs
Sliced cucumber
Sambal ikan bilis (recipe below)

1. Put everything into a saucepan, cover and bring to the boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and continue cooking until liquid is absorbed and rice is cooked (about 15-20 minutes)
2. Serve surrounded by the accompaniments.
Serves about 4.

Nasi lemak

Sambal ikan bilis
Ikan bilis means dried anchovies. Apparently they are easily found in Asian grocers, but despite having the multicultural epicentre of the world on our doorstep, we couldn’t find them anywhere. Every other sort of dried fish, yes; anchovies, no. We ended up finding baby anchovies, with ‘baby’ being the operative word there, so used those, but we’re pretty sure the full-sized ones would have worked better. A word of warning: hundreds of little beady anchovy eyes staring back at you from your sambal can be somewhat disconcerting.

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup ikan bilis (dried anchovies)
1 clove garlic
4 shallots
10 dried chillies (we had particularly big chillies, so only used 5 – adjust to your taste)
1 tsp shrimp paste
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
Ping-pong ball sized amount of tamarind pulp
1 cup water
Groundnut oil

1. Soak the tamarind pulp in the water for 15 minutes, then remove the seeds and save the juice.
2. Rinse the dried anchovies and drain. Fry until they turn light brown and put aside.
3. Make a paste out of the garlic, shallots, chillies and shrimp paste. The original recipe suggested that the traditional way is to use a pestle and mortar. We decided life is short and also exists in the 21st century with appliances like food processors.
4. Heat some oil in a pan and fry the paste until fragrant.
5. Add the onion slices and dried anchovies and stir well.
6. Add the tamarind juice, salt and sugar and simmer on a low heat until thickened to a chutney consistency.
Serves about 4.

Frying ikan bilis
Sorry if this picture freaks anyone out…

Sambal ikan bilis cooking

In many cases this could be a meal on its own, but Ash had already panicked that it wouldn’t fill him up, so when we saw on Nyonya Cooking that beef rendang is a perfect accompaniment to add to the sambal, peanuts, egg and cucumber, his hungry tummy breathed a sigh of relief. Although technically Indonesian in origin, it is believed that rendang was introduced to Malaysia when the Minangkabau settlers from Sumatra migrated to Malaysia, and it has been happily adopted ever since. Following the advice that this is a dish that improves with age, we made enough to put a little bit next to our nasi lemak and then save the rest for dinner the following night. Rumour has it that it will actually keep for up to 4 weeks because of the natural preservatives in the spice paste, but a) we don’t quite trust that, and b) it’s too nice to hang on to for that long.

Beef rendang

5 shallots
1 inch galangal (we used ginger and it was fine)
3 lemongrass (white part only)
5 cloves garlic
1 inch ginger
10-12 dried chillies (as in the previous recipe, adjust to your taste)
800g beef shin, cut into cubes
5 tbsp cooking oil
1 cinnamon stick (about 2 inches long)
3 cloves
3 star anise
3 cardamom pods
1 lemongrass (cut into 4 inch lengths and pounded)
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup water
2 tsp tamarind pulp (soaked in warm water with seeds discarded)
6 kaffir lime leaves, very finely sliced
6 tbsp toasted coconut (Miranda’s reaction on sampling the freshly toasted coconut out of the pan: YUM. Ash’s reaction: bleugh, it tastes like coconut.)
1 tbsp sugar
Salt to taste (quite a bit to counterbalance the sweetness)

1. Chop the shallots, galangal, white lemongrass, garlic, ginger and chillies and blitz in a food processor until fine.
2. Heat the oil in a stew pot, add the spice paste, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and cardamom and stir fry until aromatic.
3. Add the beef and pounded lemongrass and stir for 1 minute.
4. Add the coconut milk, tamarind juice and water and simmer on medium heat, stirring frequently, for about an hour.
5. Add the kaffir lime leaves, toasted coconut and sugar, stirring to blend well with the meat. Lower the heat, cover loosely and cook for another hour or so, until the meat is really tender and the gravy has dried up.
6. Add salt to taste.
Serves 3, or 2 generously.

Beef rendang cooking

Malaysian dinner

Nasi lemak: not so coconutty that Ash couldn’t cope with it, although he did say he’d be just as happy with normal steamed rice. It did give a lovely flavour though.
Sambal ikan bilis: very fishy. Not one for the faint-hearted. The strong fishy taste and heat from the chilli did perfectly balance the creaminess of the coconut rice, but if you’ve any reservations about the taste of fish, we probably wouldn’t recommend this one! Not sure how different it’d be with full-sized anchovies instead of the baby ones.
Beef rendang: YUM. We’re very much looking forward to eating this again tonight! It was really fragrant, the beef was incredibly tender, and even the coconut wasn’t too overpowering, despite there being so much of it. It was quite oily, but not unpleasantly so.
The whole thing together: the sambal, rendang and rice definitely worked well together. We were a little confused at how to incorporate the egg, cucumber and peanuts in with everything else, but both just sort of worked our way around the components in a circle, eating a little bit at a time.
The banana leaf: that was just a bit of fun!

So overall, although it was quite time-consuming (particularly trekking around trying to find dried anchovies), this wasn’t a difficult meal to make, and the rendang in particular was a success. Given that Ash has visited just about every other country in the area but somehow missed out Malaysia, we might have to pay it a visit one day to visit these dishes on their home turf…


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