Have you ever eaten or tasted the lemang?
If you haven't, you're really missing something...
Lemang is a traditional glutinous rice food and dish of the Malays of Pahang and Malaysia, and although available year round, like the ketupat, it is always found and served during the traditional Malay festivals of Aidil Fitri and Aidil Adha.
It tastes delicious when taken with all types of rendang whether chicken, beef, or mutton. It is also normally eaten with chicken or beef floss, (called serunding ayam and serunding daging, respectively, in Malay).
In Pahang and in the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu, this delicacy is also usually eaten with ikan masin (salted fish).
It tastes wonderful too when eaten with ikan bakar (grilled fish), and some other thick curry dishes of fish and meat.
In Kuala Lipis, it is also eaten with sambal belimbing hitam (chillied starfruit condiment), the district’s specialty sauce.
The usual or traditional way to cook this special Malay delicacy will usually take a few hours. It involves cooking the rice in bamboo containers over an open fire.
A bamboo stem or trunk about three feet long and three inches in diameter is used as the container to cook the rice.
It is of course first cleaned of dirt and grit in the hollow core and then young banana leaves that had been cleaned are inserted and lined inside the bamboo hollow.
The glutinous rice is also first washed and soaked in water for a few hours to "soften" it. Then the wet rice is strained by the use of a colander and inserted into the bamboo container and filled to about two inches from the top of the surface opening.
Thick, creamy santan (coconut milk), added with a little salt, is then poured into the bamboo container filling it to just about an inch more than the rice -- enough to ensure that when the ingredients boil, the rice would expand and reach the brim of the bamboo container.
Usually a family will cook about about ten to fifteen bamboo containers of lemang. A kilogram of glutinous rice will need about 8 cups of thick coconut juice or milk and, taken in little mouthfuls, will probably be sufficient to cater to the demands of about 30 persons!
Before serving, the bamboo is first cut and broken into half, and the leaf-wrapped cooked rice is removed. Then it is cut into smaller slices, usually about one inch in thickness.
Of course when eating it, we first remove the banana leaf before dipping the sticky slice of rice into the rendang. Oh yummy!
Well, the fun part of cooking this dish the traditional way is the need to ensure that the fire or charcoal burns at the right amount or temperature. The fire should be medium-strong to get the best results, i.e, lemang with not too hard a crust.
If the fire is too big or too strong, not only the bamboo container will be on fire but also the rice inside it will be burnt black!
The best is to have the fire burn slowly and moderately hot.
The bamboo containers must also be periodically (about every 15 minutes interval) re-positioned or turned around. This ensures that the rice is properly and evenly cooked all-round.
So we will have a situation where the "assistant cooks" will have to take turns to fan the flames or charcoals, and in the process their faces will sometimes be smothered or covered by smoke and soot!
And that is why lemang is usually cooked in open spaces with plenty of ventilation to prevent a severe oxygen-starved environment where one might be overwhelmed and choked in smoke! ... Aha, just joking.
But all these tedious activities are taken in fun and joy, especially when the final result, the test of the cooked glutinous rice, so to speak, is tantalizingly yummy and delicious! Out of this world, you would say?
Another, and a rather easier without-the-smoke-and-soot way to cook this dish is by immersing the already-filled bamboo containers into a vat or huge pot filled with water and boiling them until the rice is fully cooked.
However, the outcome will be a relatively soft and tender lemang, without the hard crust of the traditional method.
And so it will taste a bit differently from the traditional open-fire cooking method.
The somewhat different taste and the lack of that distinctive aroma or smell of traditionally cooked or grilled glutinous rice will perhaps be not attractive to most lovers of this traditional delicacy!
Well, that's it, a brief on lemang. Don’t forget to taste them whenever you’re in Pahang.
But please don’t take too much, as being glutinous, very filling and fatty (with coconut milk) and therefore carbohydrate and cholesterol rich, you’ll tend to feel rather sleepy and unenergetic later in the afternoon!
As always, from me...