Sayur Lemak is a light and flavoursome yellow curry full of vegetables, that’s traditionally eaten with compressed rice cakes called lontong or even just plain rice.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Table of contents
Is Sayur Lemak Vegetarian?
Unfortunately, it’s not. As I mention on my Vegan Sayur lemak recipe over on LinsFood, many, many Malay and Indonesian vegetable recipes, have, at their very heart, either dried shrimp, shrimp paste, or both of them. And sayur lemak, or sayur lodeh as it’s called in Indonesian, certainly does.
So no, sayur lemak and sayur lodeh are not vegetarian.
However, click here for the Vegan Sayur Lemak recipe on LinsFood. I veganised the recipe for my old cookbook as well as a United Nations climate change campaign in 2019.
Sayur Lemak Recipe
Let’s take a look at the name first, shall we?
- Sayur = vegetables (same word in Indonesian).
- Lemak – cream, creamy, but in culinary terms, in means anything that’s been cooked in coconut milk (lodeh in Indonesian).
- (and fyi) Santan = coconut milk
So Sayur Lemak (or Sayur Lodeh) = Vegetables cooked in Coconut Milk
The recipe itself is pretty straighforward. Just like many other Malay and Indonesian recipes, we start with grinding some ingredients to make the paste, which we call rempah in Malay. This is what we’ll be doing:
- Make the paste.
- Fry the tofu in a little oil to crips up (only if you want to, I don’t bother).
- Sauté the paste, add the vegetables and coconut milk and cook.
Ingredients in our Lemak
The only ingredient you may have trouble with, if you’re not in Asia, is the dried shrimp (udang kering, in Malay). But you know what I say, go online. You want to cook “exotic” stuff, you’ve got to source out those “pesky” ingredients. That is, if you don’t have a Chinese or other East Asian shop near you.
I have a Korean supermarket that’s just a 10-minute walk away. That’s where I get mine from these days, they are usually stored in the freezer, next to the dried anchovies (ikan bilis).
I’m assuming that lemongrass is easily available to many of you around the world these days. The image below will take you to my article and video on how to use lemongrass.
You can pretty much please yourself here, but these are the common ones:
- long beans or French/green beans
- aubergines (eggplants)
It is also very common to make lemak (as we also call it) with just a single vegetable, like Spinach Lemak or Cabbage Lemak and a very popular one, Pucuk Paku, which is edible fern.
How to Eat Sayur Lemak?
As mentioned right at the top of this post, it’s a natural accompaniment to compressed rice cakes like lontong and nasi impit. This is particularly true during festive occasions like Eid, which at the time of writing, is about 10 days away.
However, it is also a very common everyday dish at home, eaten with some rice. I make it at least once a fortnight because it’s so quick and easy and doesn’t require any thinking on my part. One of my many lazy weekday recipes. However, because my kids are all vegetarian, I skip the dried shrimp, which you can too, if you like. Not quite the same, but needs must.
All you need on the side is some sort of sambal and a fried egg, if you are especially hungry. Below, is a picture of what a typical meal may look like.
I’ll be posting the other recipes within a few days. So you have:
- sayur lemak
- sambal goreng (vegetable stir fry with only beans, tempeh and tofu)
- serunding (spiced, toasted coconut)
- sambal (any will do, like this dry sambal)
And then, shall we get cooking?
More Curry Recipes
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Sayur Lemak Recipe (Vegetables Cooked in Coconut Milk)
- chopping board
- chopper (or pestle and mortar)
- ladles and spoons
- optional frying pan if pre frying tofu
- 5 dried, non smoky red chillies or use 3 fresh ones, any kind, the hotter they are, the hotter your lemak (lemak is traditionally a mild curry)
- 3 Tbsp dried shrimp
- 1 large onion
- 1 small clove garlic
- 1 lemongrass
Vegetables and Tofu
- ¼ white cabbage green cabbage works too
- 1 large carrot
- 1 large aubergine (eggplant)
- 200 g green beans long beans are traditional, but not something I can get easily
- 200 g firm tofu
- 1 lemongrass
- 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
- 200 ml coconut milk half a standard can or ½ a coconut if you can get it fresh
- 200 ml water
- 1 tsp salt
- 4 Kaffir lime leaves optional
- 5 sprigs coriander leaves cilantro
Optional, for frying tofu
- 60 ml vegetable oil
Prep Work – The Lemak Paste (Rempah)
- Cut the dried chillies in half and soak in very hot water (just after boiling), cover, and leave to soak for 15 minutes while you get everything else ready. Traditionally, dried prawns are also soaked, but I long ago dispensed with that, they ground easily without soaking.
- Quarter the onion and place in your chopper. Add the garlic.
- Slice off the top of the lemongrass and discard, keeping the bottom 4 inches or so (10cm). Slice off the hard end (only the root bit). Rinse and dry. Then, slice the lemongrass in thin rings and add to the chopper. This will make it easier for the fibrous lemongrass to be chopped.Click here to read more (and watch the video) on how to use lemongrass.
- When the dried chillies have had their 15 minutes, drain, give them a quick rinse, and add to the chopper.
- Chop everything to a fairly fine paste. You shouldn't really need water, as the onions will provide eanough moisture, but add a timy amount if you need it. Halfway through, use a spoon to push down the ingredients on the side of the chopper.Leave the paste until needed.
Prep Work – Chopping and Cutting
- Slice the cabbage thinly.
- Cut the carrots into thin rounds or into sticks, whatever your preference.
- Quarter the aubergine lengthwise, then cut into slices about 2cm thick (just under 1").
- Cut the beans to about 5cm (2") lengths.
- Cut the tofu into cubes about 3cm (just over 1") on one side.
- Slice off the top of the lemongrass and discard, keeping the bottom 10cm (4") or so. Slice off the hard end (only the root bit). Rinse and dry. Then, place the lemongrass on a chopping board, and with the back of your knife, pound down hard on only the bottom bulbous end a couple of times to smash it. Set aside.
- Finely chop the coriander leaves (cilantro) for finishing the lemak with.
Let's get Cooking
- If you are frying your tofu first, heat the 60ml (¼ cup) oil in a small frying pan. Pat dry your tofu a little and just lightly fry the tofu slices on medium heat. About 1 minute on each side will do, as we are only crisping them up. You may need 2 minutes, if your fire is on the low side.Fry your tofu in two batches if you have to. Don't forget to flip them halfway.When done, place them on a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb the oil.
- Heat the rest of the oil (you can use 2 Tbsp if you fried your tofu) in a large saucepan (about 20cm/8" across) on medium heat.
- Fry the paste (rempah) for 2 minutes, at which point you'll be getting a lovely aroma from it.
- Add the aubergines and carrots, and stir to coat.
- Add the coconut milk, water and salt, stir, and allow to bring to a simmer on medium-low heat. Cooking coconut milk on high heat encourages it to split. Even canned ones can be temperamental sometimes. Cover halfway, and cook for 10 minutes.
- Add the rest of the vegetables and tofu and cook for 5 minutes. If using kaffir lime leaves, tear the edges of the leaves and drop them in now. Check seasoning and add more salt if you think it needs it. Take it off the heat and top with the coriander leaves. Leave to rest for 5 minutes before serving.Can be kept in the fridge overnight.