Nasi Lemak

Nasi Lemak from The Lotus and the Artichoke MALAYSIA vegan cookbook

In the five weeks that I spent exploring Malaysia, Singapore, and Borneo there were a few dishes that I just had to try whenever I had the chance.

Nasi Lemak is a national favorite – and one of my favorites, too! The name technically means “fatty rice” but “creamy rice” sounds a least a little bit better. Traditionally, as with this recipe, Nasi Lemak is rice cooked in creamy, coconut milk – often along with fresh herbs and spices such as pandan (which you can replace with bay leaves if that’s what you’ve got.) The bright yellow hue comes from turmeric. Though it’s a breakfast dish, it can be eaten at any time of the day, and many variations cross firmly into Savory Culinary Territory. I eat this all times of the day: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Snack, whatever!

I tried Nasi Lemak in lots of places: Kuala Lampur, Penang, Malacca, and Singapore.

Inspired by those dishes and their accompaniments – and my own imagination, I’ve created a complete meal set: Coconut Pandan Rice served with stir-fried Lemongrass Ginger Tofu, crunchy, charred Spicy Nuts, and a delicious sweet-chili sauce known as Sambal Belacan.

These are actually four different recipes from The Lotus and the Artichoke – MALAYSIA which I’ve put together in this one post. You can of course substitute or simplify the dishes for a less involved meal set designed how you like it. Nasi Lemak is equally awesome even when it’s just served with the fresh cucumber, lime slices, and nuts. I love going all out and doing the Lemongrass Tofu cubes, too. Also, I find the hot, spicy Samabal Belecan completes the dish fantastically.

How to eat it? Mix it up and eat it with your hands!

Serve this meal set up on a banana leaf, wash your hands, mix everything together, and dive in… wild and forkless. (By the way, frozen banana leaves are often available at your local Asian import grocery shop. Just thaw them, rinse them, and eat off of them.) If you prefer a more modern approach: Make it all, arrange it perfectly on plates, eat it with a fork and spoon. It’s up to you!

Nasi Lemak

Malaysian Coconut Pandan Rice with Lemongrass Ginger Tofu, Spicy Nuts & Sambal Belacan

recipes from The Lotus and the Artichoke – MALAYSIA

serves 3 to 4 / time 60 min

Coconut Pandan Rice:

  • 2 cups (375 g) broken jasmine rice or basmati rice
  • 1 2/3 cup (400 ml) water
  • 1 2/3 cup (400 ml) coconut milk
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric ground
  • 2 pandan leaves or bay leaves
  • fried onions for garnish
  • 1/2 small cucumber sliced
  • lime slices for garnish
  1. Rinse and drain rice thoroughly.
  2. Bring water and coconut milk to low boil in a medium pot with good lid. Stir in rice, salt, turmeric, and pandan (or bay leaves). Return to simmer. Cover and steam until most liquid is absorbed, 12–15 min. Remove from heat. Stir a few times. Cover and let sit 10 min. Remove and discard leaves before serving.
  3. Garnish with fried onions, cucumber, and lime slices.

Lemongrass Ginger Tofu:

  • 14 oz (400 g) firm tofu cut in cubes or strips
  • 1 1/2 cups (200 g) pineapple chopped
  • 1 Tbs oil
  • 2 shallots finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic finely chopped
  • 2 stalks lemongrass finely chopped
  • 3/4 in (2 cm) fresh ginger finely chopped
  • 1 tsp coriander ground
  • 1 Tbs lime juice or lemon juice
  • 1 Tbs soy sauce (Shoyu)
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • fresh coriander or parsley leaves chopped, for garnish
  1. Cut tofu in slabs and wrap in clean kitchen towel. Weight with a heavy cutting board and press out extra moisture, 15–20 min. Unwrap and cut in cubes or strips.
  2. Heat oil in a large frying pan or wok on medium high heat. Add chopped shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, and ground coriander. Fry, stirring constantly, until shallots being to soften and brown, 2–3 min.
  3. Add tofu cubes. Mix well. Fry, stirring regularly, until tofu cubes are golden brown and crispy on the edges, 5–8 min.
  4. Add chopped pineapple, lime (or lemon) juice, soy sauce, and salt. Fry, stirring regularly, another 5–10 min. Remove from heat.

Spicy Nuts:

  • 1/2 cup (50 g) peanuts
  • 1/2 cup (50 g) cashews
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder or paprika ground
  • 2 tsp coconut sugar
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  1. Heat a medium frying pan on medium heat. Dry roast peanuts and cashews, stirring regularly, until light golden brown and dark spots begin to appear, 4–7 min. Do not burn.
  2. Add chili powder (or paprika), sugar and salt. Mix well. Continue to cook another 2–3 min, stirring constantly, until sugar has melted and nuts are well coated. Remove from heat. Allow to cool.

Sambal Belacan:

  • 2–3 Tbs vegetable oil
  • 5 large (90 g) red chilies chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic chopped
  • 1 Tbs soy sauce (Shoyu)
  • 1 Tbs rice vinegar
  • 1 Tbs lime juice or lemon juice
  • 1 Tbs coconut sugar
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  1. Blend all ingredients in a small food processor or blender until smooth, adding more oil (or some water) as needed.
  2. Heat a small frying pan on medium heat. Add blended spice paste to pan and fry, stirring regularly, until sauce darkens, thickens, and oil separates, 8–12 min.
(available as printed cookbook & ebook in English & German)
Malaysia vegan cookbook cover blockprint

Penang Laksa

Penang Laksa Noodle Soup

Incredibly, I’d been in Malaysia for almost two weeks before I got to try Laksa, the legendary noodle soup. Even before the trip, I’d read about the intensely loved, powerful and fiery, somewhat-sour soup in food blogs and food guides to Malaysia. I’d checked out plenty of recipes and seen lots of super tasty photos.

Once I got to Malaysia, whenever I asked locals what dishes I had to try, I heard again and again: Laksa! Okay, great, but where? And the answer was: Penang!

Penang was hands-down my favorite place to eat on the Malaysia trip. (Singapore was a fairly close second. Penang was just more artsy, soulful, and real). I collected maps with locations of the best street food in Georgetown (Penang) and scoured the web and my travel guides for addresses of must-try vegetarian restaurants. On my second day in town, I had lunch at the vegan restaurant Sushi Kitchen, and met the chef/owner, who made a list for me of Must-See places and dishes.

That night I went to Luk Yea Yan, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant known for fantastic flavors and inexpensive eats. I ordered up the Laksa soup. Three minutes later my oversized bowl of hot, steaming, bright red soup arrived – with countless ingredients and toppings piled up to the rim. There were at least three kinds of noodles, tofu cubes, soya and seitan chunks, numerous vegetables, about four kinds of fresh herbs – and balanced on top: a soup spoon with a thick, red curry paste on it. I’d read about this…

Traditionally Laksa is usually served with a generous spoonful of rempeh – spicy red curry paste for you to stir in to the hot red broth yourself. I knew what to do. I did it.

A half dozen flavors immediately exploded in my mouth: tamarind, chili, lime, pineapple, cilantro, mint. This was followed by a second wave of flavors: an army of vegetables, tofu, and seitan slices. I slurped down the noodles and paddled pieces of everything with my chopsticks into my hungry jaws. I had to take a break a few times to catch my breath and cool the spice alarm with generous draws on my lemon iced tea. When I was done, my forehead was light with perspiration and my lips and tongue were tingling and alive.

There was never a doubt whatsoever that I would include a vegan recipe for Penang Laksa in my new Malaysia cookbook. Several weeks later (after having tried vegan Laksa soup at least three other times in Malaysia) I was back in my kitchen in Germany and set to work. It took a few attempts to master the recipe, each try better than the last. And then I had it: my own epic Laksa recipe!

Since then, I’ve made it probably ten more times, including for several dinner parties large and small, and plenty of times for lunch. It’s best on cold, cloudy days to fire up your mood and open you up! But I’ve also made it lots of other times, even in the summer, well… just because it’s so awesome and is always a dish guests talk about long after the meal.

Penang Laksa

classic Malaysian noodle soup

recipe from The Lotus and the Artichoke – MALAYSIA

serves 2 to 3 / time 45 min

  • 5 oz (150 g) seitan sliced
  • 3.5 oz (100 g) smoked tofu sliced
  • 1/3 cup (45 g) pineapple chopped
  • 1 Tbs vegetable oil 
  • 1 Tbs soy sauce or Vegan Fish Sauce
  • 7 oz (200 g) udon noodles (cooked)
  • 2 1/2 cups (600 ml) water 
  • 2/3 cup (150 ml) coconut milk 
  • 1 kefir lime leaf or 1 tsp lime zest 
  • fresh mint leaves chopped
  • fresh coriander leaves chopped
  • fresh thai basil leaves chopped
  • bean sprouts for garnish

laksa spice paste:

  • 4 candlenuts or 2 Tbs cashews soaked 20 min in hot water, drained
  • 1 stalk lemongrass chopped
  • 1/2–1 large red chili chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic chopped
  • 1 shallot chopped
  • 3/4 in (2 cm) fresh galangal or ginger chopped
  • 1/2 tsp paprika ground (more as desired, for red color)
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seed ground
  • 1/2 tsp coriander ground
  • 2 tsp coconut sugar or agave syrup 
  • 3/4 tsp sea salt 
  • 1 tsp tamarind paste (seedless)
  • 2 Tbs lime juice or lemon juice 
  • 2 Tbs vegetable oil 
  1. If using dried Udon: Cook, rinse, and drain 3.5 oz (100 g) noodles according to package instructions.
  2. Blend spice paste ingredients in a small food processor until smooth.
  3. Heat 1 Tbs oil a large pot or wok on medium high heat. Add sliced seitan and smoked tofu. Fry, turning regularly until edges are browned and crispy, 3–5 min.
  4. Stir in chopped pineapple. Continue to stir-fry, 2–3 min. Add soy sauce (or Vegan Fish Sauce). Fry 2–3 min. Transfer to a plate or bowl.
  5. Return pot or wok to medium high heat. Fry blended spice paste until it darkens and oil starts to separate, stirring constantly, 3–5 min.
  6. Gradually stir in water, coconut milk and kefir lime leaf (or lime zest). Bring to simmer. Add cooked udon noodles. Return to simmer. Cook until noodles have slightly softened, 3–5 min.
  7. Stir in fried seitan, tofu, and pineapple. Turn off heat. Cover until ready to serve.
  8. Portion soup and noodles into bowls. Garnish with chopped herbs and bean sprouts. Serve.

My first Laksa in Penang, Malaysia

Penang Laksa - Instagram

Penang Laksa Malaysian Noodle Soup by The Lotus and the Artichoke - Instagram (Jan 2017)

Panang Laksa vegan recipe from The Lotus and the Artichoke – MALAYSIA

(available as printed cookbook & ebook – in English & German)

Malaysia vegan cookbook cover blockprint

Pol Sambol

Pol Sambol - spicy coconut chutney

Pol Sambol is one of those amazing Asian condiments that is easy to make and super satisfying. It adds a spice and heat kick to any dish and is great (and essential) with Sri Lankan curries.

The best Pol Sambol is made with fresh, grated coconut.

In Sri Lanka, fresh coconut halves are shredded with a hand-turned grater. Alternately, the coconut can be cut into chunks and grated with a box grater or hand grater, which takes considerably more time. If you don’t have fresh coconut on hand, any good dried, desiccated, grated coconut works well. Just soak it in hot water and press out the excess moisture after about 10 or 20 minutes before mixing with the spices and other ingredients. The red color is determined by how much paprika, chili powder or red chili flakes are used. Don’t be bashful or you’ll get a bland, pale Sambol! Increase the ground paprika to get more red color in your coconut chutney, if you’re going skipping the heat and don’t want to use chili.

The onion and garlic are not absolutely necessary for Pol Sambol, but the flavor and freshness is more intense. An ayurvedic version of the coconut chutney is made simply by omitting the onion and garlic. Which is how I prepare Pol Sambol about half the time.

I’m not sure when the first time was that I had Pol Sambol…

Maybe on my first trip to South India, or at at Sri Lankan restaurant in Berlin. But I do know that I had it dozens of times in the ten weeks of backpacking and travel in Sri Lanka. Unlike many dishes, it didn’t vary much from place to place, family to family. Traditionally, Pol Sanbol is often made with dried fish, such as Maldive fish flakes – quite common Sri Lanka. Obviously for a vegan version, I skip that. Continue reading

Chilli Tofu Paneer

Chilli Tofu-Paneer : Indo-Chinese - The Lotus and the Artichoke vegan cookbook

Chilli Paneer (also known by other creative spellings such as Chili Paneer and Chilly Paneer) is one of the most famous Indo-Chinese dishes in India, along with Veg Manchurian. From street carts, restaurants, and home kitchens across the continent you can find this spicy hybrid dish.

This vegan Chilli Tofu Paneer variation is easily made by substituting tofu for paneer cheese. Batter-frying with cubes before adding to the sauce and veg is a trick which adds more texture and taste to your ‘paneer’. Tofu isn’t quite as easy to find in India as fresh paneer, but while living in Amravati, India, I was able to find tofu. I experimented often in the kitchen making this stellar Indo-Chinese appetizer. Even the neighbors were impressed!

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Sindhi Bhindi Masala

Sindhi Bindi Masala : North Indian - The Lotus and the Artichoke vegan cookbook

During the year that I lived in Amravati, India. I must’ve had 30 or 40 slightly different varieties of Sindhi Bhindi Masala. Usually just referred to as Bhindi (Hindi word for okra), this spicy okra dish is North Indian in origin. The kind I learned to make in Indian kitchens is a typical, traditional Punjabi and Sindhi vegetable dish.

Bhindi Masala is a regular feature at family lunches and dinners, and was in my lunch tiffin more often than not. Every restaurant cook, every mother, every sister, every grandmother, and every hobby-cook son cooks their okra a little different than the next. Sometimes in curry sauce, usually without. Some were still a bit crunchy, some melted in my mouth. Often they were intentionally burnt and bathing in oil, others were so spicy my lips went numb and my nose started to run away. As a guest at homes and in restaurants, I usually ate this with chapati bread — along with everyone else. At home I usually make it with rice. That’s partly because I love rice, and partly because I’m just not really Mr. Chapati Master.

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3 Bean Cajun Chili

American South: 3 Bean Cajun Chili - The Lotus and the Artchoke

 I’ve been making vegetarian chili like this 3 Bean Cajun Chili since my young days of vegetarianism in the early 1990s. Even before that, my mom used to make chili for the family quite often. Especially after I went vegetarian as a teenager, we’d experiment with different variations. Me and my brothers loved it, and still do. I’m sure after I went off to college my Dad and brothers started putting meat back in the chili, but the cool thing is: Almost all of us follow a mostly plant-based diet now. In fact, I just sent this recipe to my dad last month when he asked me for more veggie dinner ideas. Times change!

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