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Lemang is a very traditional, favourite childhood food of mine that we never cooked at home! It is synonymous with Hari Raya (Eid), although you can find it throughout the year as well, but not as commonly. This recipe has been requested countless of times over the years, and I’m finally delivering!
So, here we are, Lemang Recipe without Bamboo, dedicated to all similarly displaced Malaysians, Singaporeans and Indonesians!
What is Lemang?
Lemang is glutinous rice cooked in banana leaf lined bamboo poles. While in Malaysian and Indonesian villages, families may cook it themselves, it has long been something most folks buy at food stalls, and especially night markets. This is how lemang is cooked traditionally:
- The bamboo poles are lined with banana leaves
- Then filled with rice and a pandan leaf
- Rice is topped with coconut milk, seasoned with salt and sugar
- the bamboo is placed over an open fire and left to cook for 3-4 hours (image below)
⇒ The bamboo lends an inimitable woody, smoky aroma and flavour to the lemang.
Origin of Lemang
While the method of cooking rice in bamboo, over an open fire, is found all over South East Asia, Lemang is Malaysian. Specifically, lemang comes from the Iban people of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. Sarawak, along with Sabah, form East Malaysia, as opposed to West Malaysia, which comprises all the states on the Peninsular.
The Ibans form the biggest ethnic group in Sarawak, and are also known as Sea Dayaks, given their propensity in the early days, of travelling by sea and river (and headhunting!). It is thought that this how they made their way to Borneo from Indonesia. The Dayaks are the indigenous tribal people of Borneo.
So lemang is believed to have come from the Ibans, because they have a long history and tradition of cooking food in bamboo. Anything cooked in bamboo is called pansoh, whether it’s rice, meat, vegetables or seafood.
Lemang in Indonesia
Lemang is also extremely popular in many parts of Indonesia and has become entwined with many traditional ceremonies, happy and sad. Depending on the area, it is also known as lamang or malamang, and is served up with various fillings, both sweet and savoury:
- lamang pisang (bananas) – total yum!
- lamang tapai (fermented) – mmm, not my thing
- lamang singkong (cassava) – nice, but not a favourite of mine
- lamang baluoh (with coconut and palm sugar) – I love this one!
Lemang Recipe without Bamboo
I spent a long time trying to get my hands on bamboo that was thick enough to make lemang with. In vain. One year, in desperation, I decided to make lemang the way my granny made her quick lontong (pronounced loan-tohng, silent r). Lontong is compressed rice wrapped up in banana leaves and served with a vegetable curry called sayur lemak or the Indonesian sayur lodeh. I have a vegan Sayur Lemak recipe on this site:
My granny would cook the rice, then wrap it up in banana leaves and leave it in the fridge until the next day. So that’s how I made my lemang the first few times: cooked the glutinous rice, then wrapped it up. A couple of epiphanies led me to this final lemang recipe without bamboo, which simply cannot be bettered. Well, unless I get my hands on the d–n bamboo! So if you are in the UK, and you know where I can get good sized bamboos, you know what to do!
And this is how I make Lemang without Bamboo:
- Soak the glutinous rice for 3 hours
- Line the base of a saucepan (or rice cooker) with banana leaf
- Add the rice, coconut milk, salt, sugar, top with another banana leaf, and cook for 30 minutes (or so)
- Wrap the cooked (slightly cooled) rice in banana leaves
- Either roast in the oven or better still, place on the bbq for that smoky flavour from the burnt banana leaves and wood chips
⇒ By roasting or barbecuing the lemang, we are “burning” the banana leaves to mimic the smoky flavour of the traditional bamboo recipe.
⇒ That’s why cooking it on the barbecue (grill, in American speak), is better, as you get the smoky aroma from the coals. Well, unless you have a gas barbie!
⇒ Needless to say, we are still missing the woody aroma of the bamboo. I make up for this by throwing some wood chips in the fire. Skip this part if you find it too much work!
How to Cook Lemang at Home
Glutinous Rice for Lemang
There are different types of glutinous rice, and shot grain as well as long. In the video, you can see that I’m using the long grain variety from Thailand, something I grew up using in Singapore. This is also the rice we would use for many Malay sweet rice desserts.
This long grain variety is only available at the local Chinese grocer. As I’ve said before, get it online if you can. To make “specialist food”, you need to go online many a time!
If you can’t get the long grain variety I’m using, any sticky short grain rice will do, like rice used for rice pudding and sushi rice. If that’s not available, jasmine rice is your next best bet.
Glutinous Rice doesn’t contain Gluten!
There, I’ve said it. I’ve always been amused when I read that written only on non Asian sites like The Kitchn. But I’ve joined the brigade, it would seem.
Glutinous rice is rice. Its name comes from the fact that when it’s cooked, its grains become glue like and sticky and can be easily rolled and formed into balls. It is very popular all over East and South East Asia.
We tend to soak the rice overnight when using it in most recipes. I’ve found that a minimum of 3 hours will suffice, but if you have the time, soak it overnight.
If you forget to soak it, up the water content by 250ml (1 cup) and cook it until the liquid’s all evaporated.
PS: you can use your rice cooker to cook the glutinous rice.
Banana leaves for lemang
I have potted banana plants in the summer. But because I’m too lazy to look after them in the winter, I start again every summer! So when the guys are thriving, I have fresh banana leaves to use in the kitchen. BUT that’s like 2-3 months of the year only.
So the rest of the time, I rely on frozen banana leaves from my local Chinese grocer, about 20 minutes away. Or the Indian ones, 30 minutes away. Or Amazon, or any online Asian shop. So if you don’t have access to fresh, that’s the way to go.
No joy? No banana leaf source at all? Follow the recipe, then roll or wrap the cooked rice up in foil. So you can at least enjoy the coconut flavoured, compressed glutinous rice sans banana leaf. Or I should say it in Malay, shouldn’t I? It is a Malay recipe, after all! So that would be tanpa daun pisang (without banana leaf)!
How to soften Banana Leaves
See the video below. Banana leaves need to be softened to roll or fold “properly”. If not, they will tear as you are working with them. If you have access to fresh banana leaves, lose the thick, middle vein, cutting on either side of it, for the leaves, before proceeding.
If you use frozen, like me, the banana leaves are not as sturdy as fresh ones, and are prone to tearing, so handle with care.
You can soften banana leaves in the following 2 ways:
- Place your banana leaves in a large shallow container and pour boiling water, ensuring that the banana leaves are fully submerged. You only need it soaking for a minute or two. Dry before use.
- As you see in the video, hold your leaf over a medium-low flame and move it all around. The banana leaf will become a brighter green and shiny to indicate that it’s softened and pliable.
Coconut Milk for Lemang
How much coconut milk you use is purely a matter of taste. The more you use, the richer your lemang. When I’m making stuffed lemang (a recipe for another day), the cooking liquid is purely coconut milk, because I’m aiming for a full on flavour, as the final lemang will be eaten as a snack, more than anything else.
However, a “plain” lemang is eaten pretty much like you would eat rice, lontong or ketupat (another type of compressed cake); with curry, namely beef rendang (or any rendang). Rendang is a highly spiced and rich curry, with a coconut base, so having a coconut heavy lemang is just overdoing it a little, to my taste. And my digestion!
But it’s a matter of preference, so if you prefer your lemang rich with whatever curry you are serving, then by all means use only coconut milk.
I don’t have access to fresh coconut milk, not taking into account frozen or dried desiccated coconut. So I always use organic coconut milk out of a can. You know how the fat floats and solidifies at the top of the can? We need to shake the milk well before opening it, for this recipe.
If you are using exactly the amount of coconut milk as stated in this recipe, keep the rest in the fridge, in a covered container, and use within 2 days. Or, freeze it until needed.
If using freshly grated coconut, you just want half a coconut mixed with 250ml (1 cup) water. AND the other cup of water for the full recipe.
Pandan Leaves for Lemang
The pandan leaf has a wonderfully, sweet aroma with dashes of freshly cut grass, and is a very common ingredient in South East Asian cooking, for flavouring both sweet and savoury dishes. I have a pot of this but before I could get my hands on a plant, I resorted to the frozen kind too. In fact, I still freeze excess leaves to preserve them.
If you can’t get pandan leaves, leave them out or see if you can get hold of pandan essence or the Indian kewra from the usual suspects. I am not a fan of pandan essence as it is, to my knowledge, artificial. But things may have moved on in the last 30 years, who knows!
Nasi Lemak, below, is an example of a dish flavoured with pandan leaves. It is eaten with an assortment of sides.
How to Serve Lemang
That’s it. I am certainly making this for Eid this year, along with the must-have Beef Rendang. If you celebrate, let me know what’s on your menu.
More Hari Raya Recipes (Eid Recipes)
Just head on over to the Eid Recipes Page for favourites like:
Lemang Recipe without Bamboo on YouTube
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How to cook Lemang without bamboo! Lemang is glutinous rice traditionally cooked in banana leaf lined bamboo poles. Let's do it tanpa buloh (without bamboo), shall we? Prep and Total times do not take into account the soaking time.
How to Make Lemang without Bamboo (Resepi Lemang Tanpa Buloh)
How to cook Lemang without bamboo! Lemang is glutinous rice traditionally cooked in banana leaf lined bamboo poles. Let's do it tanpa buloh (without bamboo), shall we?
Prep and Total times do not take into account the soaking time.