Nasi Lemak, a cautionary tale

Nasi Lemak is probably the dish I think of first when I think about Malaysia. With coconut rice, peanuts, fried tofu, sambal, onion and cucumber, it may be one of the best breakfast dishes ever created. Okay, so its supposed to have tiny fish, egg and meat, but whatever, I like it with tofu.

Nasi Lemak... kinda

I have made nasi lemak at home twice now. It hasn’t worked very well. The coconut rice is easy and delicious, even without the pandan leaves, the peanuts are always good, and you really can’t stuff up chopping a cucumber and an onion. I fried up some tofu, or heat up some puffs, and its looking good. But then begins the problems: for me, it all falls to pieces with the sambal.

Now, sambal recipes make it look easy, like something that simply can’t be stuffed up by a well-meaning yet tragically uninformed cook such as myself. Well, that’s just not true. I can be stuffed up, and I’ll show you how.

So we’re all on the same page, check out this recipe, which I used as my guide (kinda).

How to stuff up a sambal

The recipe calls for you to combine:

  • 10 chopped shallots, or 8 small chopped red onions
  • 2 ounces or 8 fresh chilies, remove seeds and slice
  • 5 cloves sliced garlic
  • 1 stalk lemongrass thinly sliced (use only the bottom 3 inches of the stalk)
  • ½ ounce tamarind (soak in a cup of water and pour the tamarind juice through a strainer before use)
  • ½ ounce or 10 dried chilies (soak in hot water for 5 minutes), or 3 tsp chilly powder
  • 2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste

So, you don’t have shallots or red onions, having used them yesterday, so you use spring onions instead. You forgot to pick up dried chillies of any asian variety, so you use some ancho chillies you have left over from making Mexican Mole instead. You blend with the rest of the ingredients, but it tastes… well, not quite right.

You heat it all in a wok, having forgotten to do that with just the first three ingredients. Try to sniff it and burn your eyes on the intense onion/chilli fumes. Get your partner to take it off the heat while you lean over the sink, rinsing and swearing for a bit.

Get back to it and taste it. The ancho chillies have made it smokey and dark-flavoured, and the tamarind was too sweet and not sour enough. You can fix it though! You add some lime juice. It tastes a little odd with the ancho chillies, but you persevere. Add a little more lime juice.

It could be saltier, so you add some salt. You run out of salt though, but it requires more. You look around the pantry for something salty. Olives! So you add some olives. Now it is the right amount of salty, but a little brown… and western.

It still isn’t sour enough, so you add a little bit of pomegranate syrup. That was a BAD idea. Now the whole thing tastes like pomegranate, which does not work well with the garlic. You try to mask it with more chilli. It doesn’t really work.

Now its a litlle too strong for Mr with all that garlic and chilli, so you sneak in some tomato paste.

So you’ve got a paste-like substance that tastes a lot like pomegranate with garlic and chilli, and is an off-brown colour, like the brown spots on a tomato that’s getting dodgy. It ends up edible… just.

Thw offending "Sambal"

Serve it next to the other stuff for Nasi Lemak. Consider pretending you didn’t stuff it up. Decide instead to fess up and apologise profusely for the barely edible dinner. Eat your first mouthful. Giggle at Mr’s face as he tried to tell you that its ok, really. Marvel at just how bad it really is. Get out the chilli sauce, push the “smbal” to the side. Finish the dinner with the ready made chilli, and agree not to try to make it again.

Write “Sambal Paste” on the shopping list.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Johanna GGG says:

    I so often cook like that, midway through a dish I am preparing and finding out what doesn’t work – or in my case, has just not lasted the distance hanging around my kitchen too long! Good luck with finding a sambal that works for you – I have never tried it but have looked at AOF’s version – http://confessionsofafoodnazi.blogspot.com/2009/12/vegetarian-nasi-lemak.html – and been tempted to try

  2. QueenHoneyB says:

    Wow, what a sambal adventure! I live in Malaysia (I am from the US, my husband is from here). Last year I tried that sambal recipe that you linked to, and it’s still the one I use today. One key is DON’T taste it until it’s finished cooking!! Chilis taste waaaay different before they are fully cooked, and the garlic will of course be much stronger. I have learned that I don’t like it as sweet as that recipe is, so I only use one Tablespoon of sugar instead of three. The turmeric and lemongrass are optional, I’ve made it without before? You can also add a Tbs or so of fresh ginger if you’d like, landed with the chilli’s, etc. You really need to cook this sambal until the oil separates, then only taste it and add more salt if needed (I’ve never needed to). Give it another try sometime, it’s worth it!

  3. QueenHoneyB says:

    Pardon the typos in the previous comment, thanks autocorrect :P. I also wanted to add that if you don’t have tamarind you can also sub tomatoes. Add a chopped fresh tomato at the time when you’d add the tamarind juice. Cook well until the tomato is completely broken down.

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