I remember being intrigued by the pyramid-shaped green parcels displayed on the breakfast buffet in the KL Hilton when we first arrived. And it took a while before I realised that a) this was a typical Malay breakfast and the country’s national dish and b) it was based round a serving of coconut rice and called nasi lemak. Frankly, it didn’t seem particularly exciting and so I went ahead and had my usual poached egg.
But then, I saw Ping Coombes win the final of UK MasterChef with her own version of nasi lemak and realised this was a dish I needed to try. Funnily enough it is a staple among hawker stalls at any time of day, and, served with a spicy sauce called sambal, a hard-boiled egg, some fried baby anchovies (ikan bilis), fried peanuts and some cucumber, it is remarkably tasty and well-balanced. It is also cheap as chips.
Josh was keen to learn how to make it and with just a week before he goes back to London to uni we found ourselves back at LaZat just three days after our roti canai class. Tuesday is nasi lemak day but we were not just going to learn how to make the rice and a prawn sambal but also savoury meat-filled cups and sago pudding. In Malay Nasi means ‘rice’ and lemak means ‘oily’ apparently, but in this context it is taken to mean rather ‘creamy’.
We were greeted like old friends on our return to the Malay House in Penchala Hills where the school is located and this time we were to work with Sue as our teacher for a change. We’d seen how other students appeared to adore this fun-loving lady and we’d all heard her break into a rousing verse of Hushabybaby when Elliott had fallen asleep in the roti canai class (it was jetlag not boredom). We were not disappointed.
One of the things I love about these classes is that we learn the recipes we signed up for but Sue and Saadiah always throw in a few extras along the way. Today Lisa joined Sue as her assistant. Lisa has just been living in London and training there as a chef but is back home now. We learned that every single ingredient used at LaZat can be purchased in Chinatown in London in a shop called See Woo. We’ve been given the recipes for the delicious lemongrass and ginger tea they provide throughout the day and the homemade chilli sauce we dipped into with our prawn fritters. On Tuesday Sue was on overdrive.
Five fascinating facts
- First, she taught us how to crack an egg into a bowl one-handed. A trick we will all enjoy showing off with later.
- Then we learned we could fry shallots in bulk in advance and store them in the fridge to use to add flavour and garnish to other dishes.
- Did you know that if you stir rice while it is cooking it will break up the grain? Apparently, if you can’t resist a stir, it is best to use a chopstick.
- I was delighted to learn that I could make my own chilli paste in advance and that it would keep in the fridge for three months and really glad to hear that I’d need to wear rubber gloves to when chopping the chillis. Lisa suggested we freeze it in portion sizes in ice cube trays.
- But the most useful piece of unsolicited advice we received was how to stop that infernal burning when we chop chillis without using gloves – you need to immerse your hands in hot water – not cold – as hot as you can stand it. Apparently, cold water is no good at all and can make it worse. Someone suggested that putting salt in the hot water helped further. I wonder if this is why so many Indian restaurants serve their water hot or warm? Fascinating.Anyway, I digress. We were there to learn about nasi lemak and that day Josh and I were joined by a Japanese cooking teacher and her daughter and two Australians confusingly called Cheryl and Charlene and easy to mix up. That’s one of the great things about a cooking class, you never know who you are going to meet.
We stood at our workstations as the rain teemed down on the jungle outside the verandah and learned that the coconut rice is cooked with two pandan leaves (screwpine), split and knotted, ginger and a mix of coconut milk and water. First you cook the rice in the water with the ginger and pandan until it is dry and only then do you add the milk. Then, when that is absorbed you cover with a tightfitting lid (they put foil round the lid and then put an upturned mortar on top of that to make it really tight) and leave on a low heat for eight minutes. After that, you turn off the heat and leave it for another ten.
But it was the sambal that won the day for me. And I was delighted to learn that almost every ingredient was now familiar to me but one – including the belacan shrimp paste you can buy in a block and tamarind that I now buy in a long sausage. So, it seems I am learning something at these classes. The new ingredient was the candlenut. It looks like a macadamia to me and is used as a natural thickener. Apparently, you can substitute it with a macadamia though the candlenut is more bitter.
Again, you can make the sambal base sauce ahead of time and keep it in the fridge. We were making ours with prawns.
First we pounded shallots, garlic and belacan in a mortar. Then we made a chilli paste by blending 6 pre-soaked dried chillis with some water and the pounded candlenut. Next we fried the shallot paste in oil until the oil seeped out then we added the chilli paste and bruised lemongrass.
- In Malaysian cooking you actually want your sauces to split!After seasoning with salt and sugar we added some chopped onions and then the tamarind juice (you soak it in water and use the resulting liquid not the tamarind itself). Finally, we added the prawns and cooked them through.
When we assembled our plates I was a little disappointed not to be learning how to make those banana leaf pyramids with the rice, but instead Sue showed us how to press it into a small bowl and upturn it, which comes a pretty close second. We only added a small portion of the sambal to the plate because it is firey and a little goes a looong way. The egg and cucumber were perfect foils for the spice and we learned a seventh fascinating fact:
- Malaysian children are taught to eat spicy food with nasi lemak because the egg and cucumber tone down the heat.Adding some peanuts and fried anchovies for interest and crunch, the dish was ready. And boy oh boy is this something I will cook again and again. In fact, if you only do one course at LaZat do this one. It is versatile, fascinating, fun and delicious while being deceptively simple.