Best Nasi Lemak Recipe (Coconut Rice with Sambal Tumis)

Nasi Lemak, often called the national dish of Malaysia, is a breakfast ritual for many there, and in Singapore. It is rice cooked in coconut milk, served with a dose of sambal and various accompaniments. It is very similar to the Indonesian Nasi Uduk and the Bruneian Nasi Katok.

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

coconut rice, nasi lemak on pandan leaf surrounded by sambal, omelette, anchovies and peanuts, cucumbers

What’s in a Name?

  • Nasi = Rice
  • Lemak = Cream, in culinary terms, it refers to coconut milk or a dish that has been cooked with coconut milk or coconut cream
  • Nasi Lemak = Coconut Rice
  • Bonus: Kelapa = Coconut

Because my kids used to ask why isn’t it Nasi Kelapa, which of course, stumped me, and I replied, well, it just isn’t!

Language Fun

The Malay language is one of the easiest languages to learn. There is no gender, no past or future form. Instead, past, future and the continuous form of a verb is relayed with the use of a particular word.

For eg:

  • Makan = eat
  • sudah makan = ate, have eaten
  • tengah makan = am/are eating
  • belum makan = haven’t eaten

See what I mean?

anchovies, peanuts, omelette

What is Nasi Lemak, Really?

As mentioned above, it’s rice that’s been cooked in plenty of coconut milk with added pandan leaves, and served with a variety of small portions of sides. More of that later.

Nasi Lemak Bungkus

Traditionally, Nasi Lemak is a very popular breakfast dish, alongside other local noodle favourites like Mee Rebus and Mee Siam. The rice and all its trimmings are wrapped up in banana leaves and sold just about everywhere. This is called nasi lemak bungkus.

Being wrapped up in banana leaves while still hot, allows the rice to take on some wonderful flavours from the leaves, resulting in a multitude of scents greeting you as you unwrap the bungkus.

I’ve wrapped a gazillion nasi lemak bungkus in my time, in my grandma’s old kitchen in the late 70s and early 80s. Every morning, without fail, we’d wrap hundreds of little packets of nasi lemak for our catering business. You know that saying you can do it in your sleep? I probably did more than my fair share with my eyes closed! It was very early in the morning!

And when I cook nasi lemak at home these days, I still wrap it up in banana leaves because it’s so much better eaten that way.

banana leaf parcel, nasi lemak bungkus photo
Nasi Lemak Bungkus – video next week will show you how to do this

The Perfect Nasi Lemak

Is there such a thing as the perfect nasi lemak? Ask any Singaporean or Malaysian, and they’ll tell you, absolutely!

And it most definitely doesn’t include fried chicken, chicken curry or rendang, something one sees regularly when searching online.

I was about to start writing up this article last week when it occurred to me that perhaps I was just being fussy. So I did a post in my small SMR Facebook group, asking: “What is your idea of the perfect Nasi Lemak?”.

Almost to the man (and woman), it was rich and creamy rice, slightly spicy and sweet sambal tumis, cucumbers, omelette, ikan bilis (anchovies) and peanuts. There were about 3 members who mentioned the local fried fish, which I whole heartedly agree with.

What is important to many is the rice and the sambal – they can make or break your dish.

We all agreed that chicken curry, rendang and fried chicken have no place in the perfect nasi lemak. Save that for something else.

Nasi Lemak Deconstructed

The very first image above shows you what a typical nasi lemak plate looks like. Let’s take a look at the parts and the ingredients needed for each.

  • Nasi Lemak (rice)
  • Sambal
  • Fried anchovies (or a small piece of fried fish)
  • Omelette
  • Cucumber slices
  • Fried or toasted peanuts
fingers scooping up nasi lemak with sambal, ikan bilis and egg
Nasi Lemak Bungkus unwrapped – best eaten with one’s fingers!

Rice Ingredients


We cook the rice in plenty of coconut milk, with a touch of salt and pandan leaves.

What rice to use for nasi lemak? A good quality, long grain rice, whether basmati or jasmine. The fragrance of jasmine rice enhances the overall aroma of the pandan leaves, so to me, that’s always a good bet.

I’ll walk you through cooking the perfect nasi lemak rice on the stove and in a rice cooker.

Coconut Milk and Water

Whatever can of coconut milk you use, shake it up before dispensing. You can even use half fat coconut milk. Your rice won’t be as creamy but will still be delicious.

If all you can get is coconut cream, dilute it by twice the amount of water. So 1 cup coconut milk + 2 cups water = 3 cups liquid for our nasi lemak.

I also add a little water for the total amount of liquid when cooking in a saucepan on the stove. This is to reduce the risk of the rice catching during cooking.

However, if I’m cooking in the rice cooker (half the time), I lose most, if not all, the water as there is no risk of that.

Many, if not all rice cookers require that you use the same amount of liquid to rice. So you’ll see that in the recipe below, I’m using 5 rice cups of RICE plus 5 rice cups LIQUID. This is the cup that comes with the rice cooker.

Because a can of coconut milk has 400ml (14 oz), I top this up with 100ml water, instead of opening another can.

I get a lot of questions about this: here is the rice cooker I own, Yum Asia Bamboo Rice Cooker (affiliate link).

Pandan Leaves 

Click here to read more about pandan leaves on LinsFood.

Daun pandan in Malay (daun = leaf), these are a type of screwpine leaves, and an essential ingredient in Asian cooking. With its sweet, fragrant, grassy aroma, it is widely used in both savoury and sweet dishes. 

Some folks will drop a bruised lemongrass in their rice, but it’s not really necessary as to me, it interferes with the daun pandan, which should be the overriding aroma of the perfect nasi lemak rice.

If you can’t get pandan leaves, then by all means use a lemongrass or two. But definitely no ginger in your nasi lemak. Please.

If you’re in the UK, there are 2-3 sellers who sell fresh pandan leaves and fresh banana leaves via Amazon Prime, which is very handy when you need them yesterday! Click below to get to Amazon via my affiliate links. This is the seller I use mostly. I’ve never been disappointed.

pandan leaves and juice

Nasi Lemak Sambal

The sambal we serve our coconut rice with is traditionally only mildly spicy and a little sweet. It is what we call sambal tumis or if adding anchovies to the sambal, then it’s called sambal ikan bilis.

The word tumis means frying or sautéing and what we mean by sambal tumis is a sambal that’s been cooked or fried for a long-ish period of time. Pronounced tu – mays (short u, as in put).

When cooking our sambal, what we’re looking for is that crucial point where the oil separates from the chilli paste, or what we call in Malay, pecah minyak, meaning oil splitting (same as in many other cuisines).

pecah minyak, oil separation in chilli paste
see the clear separation of oil and paste? That’s pecah minyak

Pecah Minyak

This is the point where our chilli paste completely loses its raw taste and changes from an emulsion to a distinct oil and paste mix. However, how obvious this separation is and how long it takes for the pecah minyak stage depends on the amount of oil used, the water and the heat.

15 – 20 minutes is a good range, with 15 being one that uses more oil, and 20 or even 25, less oil and more water (when blending).

If you’re not sure about when to stop, go for 20 minutes, even if you have to add a splash of water because it’s getting too dry.

I think I’ll have to do a whole post on this, don’t you? Aiyoh, more work!🤣It’s all good.

Ingredients for Nasi Lemak Sambal

The most basic sambal nasi lemak is also a vegan sambal, the way my younger sister makes it. So exactly the recipe I have below but without the anchovies in the blended paste. This was also the sambal with the nasi lemak that was served in my school canteen for just 15 cents!  

Some people will also add shrimp paste (belacan) or dried shrimp (udang kering) to their sambal, which is always nice but not really necessary for that signature sweet and slightly spicy nasi lemak sambal.

If you’re wondering why I’m saying both sambal nasi lemak and nasi lemak sambal, it’s all about the placement of adjectives in the Malay language! I addressed this in our Laksa article.

While I think in English, some phrases just come naturally in Malay, the way it’s spoken by the locals, regardless of ethnic background. Malay is my third language after all, my second, in school. Only ever got a B, at O and A levels!

Nasi Lemak Sambal

This is what we’ll need to make our sambal:

Dried Red Chillies

Always use dried red chillies to make your nasi lemak sambal. This is because dried chillies will give your dish a deeper flavour, no matter what type of chilli paste you’re making.

And you want the non smoky variety, so keep those chipotles for the Mexican chilli recipes on LinsFood!

In the recipe card below, I’ve given a range for the weight (30 – 50g) of the chillies we use. This is because not all dried chillies are created equal. I’m using 2 varieties in the sambal here. One is a nondescript Chinese variety, that’s fairly spicy, and the other, my homegrown, home dried Kashmiri chillies which are mild.

The Chinese chilli is light, not even registering on my scale when weighed singly. Each dried Kashmiri chilli on the other hand, weighs about 2 grams, give or take. So if your chillies are pretty light, say lighter or similar to a small clove of garlic in weight, then use 30g (1 oz). If each chilli is heavier than a small clove of garlic, then use 50g.

Just bear in mind though, if you’re using a hot variety, your sambal will be hot. Step away from those Scorpions and Reapers!


Brown onions or red onions, it’s all a matter of preference. I personally don’t like cooking red onions, something about their sweet nature when cooked puts me off. Use whatever onions you habitually cook with.

Then we also have a small amount of garlic in our sambal.


Click here to read more about tamarind.

It’s a souring agent used around the world. Whether you use tamarind pulp or shop bought paste, it doesn’t matter. I explain amount in the recipe card below.

No tamarind? Generally, the best substitute for tamarind is clear vinegar. Not lime juice or lemon juice because they will impart a citrus flavour that you might not always want. But for our nasi lemak sambal, yes, you can use lime juice because lime and chillies = match made in heaven!

tamarind pods and tamarind mash
Tamarind pods and pulp

Gula Melaka

The traditional sugar used to sweeten this sambal is gula melaka. It’s a type of palm sugar that is more often than not, made from the coconut palm. It’s much darker in colour and has a more pronounced caramel/toffee flavour and aroma.

So not only does it sweeten our nasi lemak sambal but it also deepens the flavour and darkens it.

Gula melaka substitute – you can use the Indian jaggery or a combination of dark brown sugar and white (half each). Don’t use Thai palm sugar, as it’s neither sweet nor dark enough.

gula melaka

Dark Soy Sauce

This is optional, as it’s like a secret weapon for me, like sundried tomato paste in many tomato based dishes. I even add it to dals and Indian curries for that added depth and flavour.

I do the same thing for our sambal nasi lemak. Just half a tablespoon. You could also use sweet soy sauce (kicap manis) if that’s what you have instead.

The Other Nasi Lemak Condiments

Dried Anchovies

Known as ikan bilis in Malay, (ikan = fish) these are another essential ingredient in much of East and South East Asia. They can be found in East Asian stores (Chinese, Japanese and Korean). And most definitely online.

If you can, get the cleaned ones. Although more expensive, they will save you a bit of time. Otherwise, you’ll spend about 10 minutes pulling off the head and pinching off the grubby bits. In recent years, I’ve had no choice in the matter as the cleaned ones are not easy to come by.

ikan bilis, dried anchovies


A small strip or square of omelette is a must in traditional nasi lemak. Boiled eggs are not really as common unless they are actually a part of the sambal, which would be sambal telur (egg = telur).

I’ve given 4 eggs in the recipe below, to make 2 omelettes. So each diner will have a quarter of an omelette.

Cucumber Slices

The little bit of green in nasi lemak is provided by slices of cucumber. Be as generous as you want, I’ve given 2 per diner. I know, so stingy!


An absolute must in any self respecting nasi lemak bungkus, the peanuts are traditionally fried in a little oil, alongside the ikan bilis.

I prefer to use ready salted and roasted peanuts for this because they are incredibly delicious, and I always have some at home for my mid afternoon snack.

Can’t do peanuts? Leave them out, no need to substitute with anything.

Phew that about covers the ins and outs of making the perfect nasi lemak, the way I grew up cooking it, eating it and selling it!

Now, let’s get our aprons on!

If you enjoy the recipe, drop me a comment and let me know. And if you are feeling like a star, don’t forget that 5-star rating! 😉 Terima Kasih!

If you make this recipe, post it on Instagram and tag me @azlinbloor and hashtag it #linsfood.

Lin xx

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coconut rice, nasi lemak on pandan leaf surrounded by sambal, omelette, anchovies and peanuts, cucumbers

The Best Nasi Lemak Recipe

Azlin Bloor
Need the perfect Nasi Lemak recipe? Here you go, just the way we made it every single morning for years, for my grandma's catering business.
5 from 15 votes
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Soaking Time 15 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine Malaysian, Singaporean
Servings 8
Calories 611 kcal


  • 750 g Basmati or Jasmine rice
  • 800 ml coconut milk (if cooking in a rice cooker, you should only need 900ml liquid, read article for explanation)
  • 300 ml water
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 pandan leaves tied together in a knot
Sambal Nasi Lemak
  • 30-50 g dried red chillies read article above about the weight of dried chillies
  • 500 ml very hot water for the chillies and tamarind
  • 2 heaped Tbsp tamarind pulp or 2 Tbsp shop bought paste
  • 2 medium onions about 300g/10.5 oz pre peeled weight
  • 3 medium cloves garlic 15-20g total pre peeled weight
  • 60 g gula melaka see article above for substitutes
  • 2 heaped Tbsp ikan bilis (dried anchovies)
  • 125 ml room temperature water for blending
  • 4 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • ½ Tbsp dark soy sauce
Other Condiments
  • 120 g peanuts (about 1 heaped Tbsp per person) skinless or not is fine
  • 120 g dried anchovies (ikan bilis)
  • 4 eggs whatever size
  • 16 slices cucumber
  • 125 ml vegetable oil


Nasi Lemak in a Saucepan (video coming Next Week!)

  • Rinse the rice 2-3 times until the water runs clear-ish. No need to be a stickler with this. At least twice will be good enough.
    Tip into your chosen saucepan.
    Add the coconut milk, water and salt. Tie pandan leaves into a knot and add to the mix. Place the saucepan on medium-high heat.
  • Bring to a simmer, turn the heat down to low, stir the rice, then cover with a tight fitting lid and cook for 15 minutes, stirring once again at the halfway mark to reduce the risk of a crispy bottom.
    When cooking rice with coconut milk, it is always a good idea to stir a couple of times, to discourage the rice from catching at the base.
  • At the 15-minute mark, the rice should be almost cooked. Take it off the heat and leave to rest on a cool surface for 10 minutes to finish cooking. Don't take the lid off.
    Cooking on the heat until the rice is done, say for 20 – 25 minutes will result in a brown bottom, which will be a waste of all that delicious rice.
    Fluff up the rice and lose the pandan leaves before serving.

Nasi Lemak in a Rice Cooker

  • Rinse the rice 2-3 times until the water runs clear-ish. No need to be a stickler with this. At least twice will be good enough.
    Tip into your rice cooker.
  • Add the coconut milk, water, salt and pandan leaves, and turn your rice cooker on.
    The amount of liquid you need will depend on your rice cooker. Most rice cookers like my Yum Asia Bamboo Rice Cooker, require the same volume of liquid to rice. So if you're using 5 cups of rice, use 5 cups of liquid. The cup that came with your rice cooker, not a measuring cup.
    Read the article above.
  • Fluff up the rice and lose the pandan leaves before serving.

Sambal Nasi Lemak – Prep Work

  • Chillies. I start with this step, then I put the rice on.
    Put the kettle on. Cut the dried chillies into 2-3 pieces with a pair of scissors directly into a bowl. Then pour the just boiled water generously over the cut chillies. Leave some for the tamarind below.
    Cover and leave to soak for 15 minutes.
  • Tamarind. If using pulp, place in a small bowl and cover with 125ml (½ cup) hot water from the kettle. Leave to soak until needed, no need to cover.
    If using shop bought paste, move on to the next step.
    assam soaking in hot water
  • Onions. While waiting, peel and halve the onions. Thinly slice 1 half and set aside.
    Roughly chop the rest into smaller pieces for easier blending and add to the blender.
    Garlic. Peel the garlic and drop them into the blender.
  • Grate or roughly chop up the gula melaka if it's in large pieces, for easier cooking.
  • Back to the chillies. When the chillies have had 15 minutes, drain them, giving them a quick rinse in a colander under water, and a good shake to lose as many seeds as possible. About 10 seconds is fine, we're not looking to get rid of all the seeds, just at least half. Set aside.
  • Blend our Sambal. Blend the onions and garlic with a little fresh water (from the 125ml/half cup) for about 10 seconds.
    Then tip the drained chillies into the blender, and about 2 heaped Tbsp of the unfried anchovies, add the rest of the water and blend to a smooth paste. If using a blender, you might have to use a spoon to "dig" up the bottom bits if things get stuck.
    We don't want too much water here, just the half cup. So persevere.
    I find that a blender requires more water than a food processor (image).

Cooking Sambal Nasi Lemak

  • Heat the 4 Tbsp of oil in a wok or saucepan on medium heat. A frying pan will work too but that chilli paste is going to splutter like crazy, so best to use a pan with a curved side.
    Tip the blended sambal chilli paste into the hot oil and fry for 2 minutes, stirring to mix. Be careful of it spluttering.
  • Reduce the heat to low and cook for 15-20 minutes, read the article above about pecah minyak (as in image).
    Stir your sambal frequently. In the first 10 minutes, 2-3 times will do. As our sambal dries up, you'll need to stir it more frequently to avoid it burning.
    Now, the sambal is going to be spitting up in all directions for the first 5-10 minutes. This is because of the ratio of oil to water. Had we been using much more oil, it wouldn't be as bad.
    You have a choice here: put up with it or cover it for the first 5-10 minutes only. Ideally, we don't cover sambal tumis when cooking, but needs must and all that, I get it.
    pecah minyak, oil separation in chilli paste
  • When our sambal has had enough time (15-20 minutes) and you can see that the oil has separated, even if this is just a few bubbles here and there, add the tamarind juice, gula melaka, salt and sliced onions. Stir well to mix and cook for 5 minutes more, still on low.
    If you're using tamarind pulp, mash it all up in the water with your fingers. Then pick out the seeds and as much of whatever fibrous bits there are. Then just tip the whole thing into the sambal. Click here to read more about how to use tamarind.
    Don't want your sambal too sweet? Just add half the gula melaka initially, and adjust at the end.
  • Finally, stir in the dark soy sauce and cook for 1 more minute. Taste and add more salt if necessary. You should have a slightly spicy and slightly sweet sambal.
    That's it. Your sambal is all done. Take it off the heat and leave until needed. It will keep in the fridge for 5 days.
    As mentioned in the article, some folks will add some of the fried anchovies to the sambal right at the end (with the onions) for sambal ikan bilis. But I prefer my ikan bilis crunchy.

Nasi Lemak Condiments

  • Peanuts. If your peanuts aren't already roasted, heat about 125ml/half cup oil in a small frying pan on medium-low heat and fry them for 2 minutes, then tip out into a bowl lined with kitchen paper (paper towel), saving the oil for the anchovies.
  • Anchovies. Fry the anchovies for 2-3 minutes until a deep golden brown in the same oil on medium-low heat. Tip out into a bowl lined with kitchen paper. Anchovies go from done to burnt very quickly, so watch out.
  • Omelette. Beat the eggs with a pinch of salt and fry 2 omelettes in a small frying pan.
    Cut the omelette up into quarters, strips or squares. Whatever you like.

To Serve

  • Dish up a portion of rice onto each plate and surround with a little of all the condiments, as in the images. So sambal, ikan bilis, egg, peanuts and cucumber.
    coconut rice, nasi lemak on pandan leaf surrounded by sambal, omelette, anchovies and peanuts, cucumbers
  • Leave all the extra condiments on the table for everyone to top up.


*You can size this recipe up or down, just use the scale above.
** Increase or decrease the amount for each condiment as you like. For eg, the recipe says 1 heaped Tbsp peanuts person, make that 2 if you like, so 30g/1 oz per person.


Calories: 611kcalCarbohydrates: 83gProtein: 10gFat: 27gSaturated Fat: 24gPolyunsaturated Fat: 1gMonounsaturated Fat: 1gSodium: 411mgPotassium: 390mgFiber: 1gSugar: 1gVitamin C: 1mgCalcium: 52mgIron: 5mg
Keyword coconut, ikan bilis, rice, sambal
Tried this recipe?Mention @azlinbloor or tag #linsfood!
Made it? Upload your Photos!Mention @azlinbloor or tag #linsfood!

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4 thoughts on “Best Nasi Lemak Recipe (Coconut Rice with Sambal Tumis)”

  1. 5 stars
    I made it today for the family. Very easy instructions and the sambal was just amazing, so good to eat with other stuff. How long will the sambal keep?

  2. 5 stars
    Thank you so so much Lin for this recipe! I’ve just spent a few minutes reading the whole post and hats off to you for the amount of information you always provide here and on linsfood! I just love the language lessons you give on both blogs!
    I’m planning on making this on Sunday for my dad and brother. Got everything bought! Thank you again!

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