At our hotel in Langkawi, Malaysia, the lobby advertised banana leaf-wrapped packets of nasi lemak for two ringgit each ($0.66 USD). Though nasi lemak (nasi meaning rice, lemak indicating the presence of coconut milk) is the traditional breakfast food for Malaysia, we were trying to get to the other side of the island by early afternoon and grabbed few of the packets to eat as lunch on the way. The mixture of coconut rice, sambal, a bit of dried fish and a chunk of egg, was delicious. Though similar to the tuna version of sam gak (triangle) kimbap, a Korean to-go snack in which rice, hot chili paste, and meat or kimchi are wrapped in seaweed, nasi lemak confirmed what I had suspected for a long time: Korean food would be a lot more tasty with the addition of coconut milk.
Wanting to learn how to make this dish, I asked the hotel’s owner if I could watch the morning cook as she made the next day’s nasi lemak. He told me that I could, but would have to wake up at 7 am to do so. The next morning I was up at dawn greeting the chef. Imagine my surprise, however, when I found the packets of nasi lemak already made, neatly wrapped in banana leaves and sitting in a plastic bag, still warm. Confused, I asked the chef what time she had made them. Leaning in close, she confessed that she had purchased them from the market. The hotel’s owner had underestimated how much of an early bird I am, even on holiday.
Despite the mishap, the chef graciously explained the ingredients used, and taught me how to wrap the packets with banana leaves like a pro. Though banana leaves are hard to come by in Korea, I have tried to stay close to the traditional version, only swapping out white rice in favor of brown and using the dried pollock I had on-hand in place of the customary dried anchovies. The amount of egg or sambal can be changed to suit one’s palette.
Ingredients (makes two breakfast portions)
1 cup brown rice, uncooked
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup water
1 boiled egg, quartered
2 tablespoons dried fish, finely shredded
2 tablespoons (or more) homemade sambal
1 tablespoon dried coconut, unsweetened (optional)
Wash the rice. On the stove top, heat the coconut milk and water over medium heat in a lidded pot. At the first sign of a boil, add the rice, turn the heat down to a simmer, and cover the pot. The rice should be cooked completely after about 20 minutes. Do not try to “fluff” or stir the rice until it is finished cooking, as to avoid gummy rice. Holes will develop in the pot of rice to let you know when it is finished and ready to be touched. Using a rice cooker is also an option; just add the water, coconut milk, and rice to the cooker and flip the switch.
Divide the cooked rice into two bowls. Add one tablespoon (or more) of the sambal, one tablespoon of the dried fish, and half of the boiled egg to each bowl. Sprinkle a bit of dried coconut on each bowl if you’d like.
Enjoy for breakfast, lunch, or dinner!