The joys of masak lemak

Masak lemak is a highlight during the Hari Raya celebrations. — Photos: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

In her cheerful little apartment, Ili Sulaiman is hard at work preparing a range of dishes. She adds a little garnish here, tops up the kuah (gravy) in another bowl and smiles in satisfaction at the fruits of her labour.

Ili is a famed local celebrity chef whose bubbly personality, infectious smile, pure charm and culinary wizardry have bagged her presenting roles on Asian Food Network shows like By The Sea with Ili and Family Feast with Ili. As a consequence, she has become a beloved food personality over the years and even has a thriving steamboat and grill delivery business to her name called Ilipot.

Even though she is currently recovering from a heart attack and has taken a six-month sabbatical from work, it is clear that Ili still gets a lot of joy out of cooking, especially when it is a dish that is close to her heart, like masak lemak.

“We have our nasi lemak, which we glorify but I think our masak lemak is also something that should be highlighted and I feel like every state has a version of it. I know when I was shooting By the Sea with Ili and we were in Terengganu, they have their version of masak lemak, which is very different and they eat it with budu, and it is more sticky,” says Ili.

What is masak lemak? This rich, creamy, sunny yellow dish literally translates to ‘cooked in fat’ and consists mainly of turmeric, coconut milk and chillies as well as base ingredients like onions and garlic. There are variations and permutations to masak lemak, including the famed Negri Sembilan masak lemak cili api but turmeric and coconut milk are mainstays of the dish.

While nasi lemak is glorified, masak lemak doesn't seem to get as much attention. - freepikWhile nasi lemak is glorified, masak lemak doesn't seem to get as much attention. - freepik

Because of its sheer versatility as a base gravy, masak lemak can take on many incarnations, depending on what is included in it. It could be vegetarian, a seafood dish or even meat-heavy while texturally, it can be very rich and creamy or an entirely lighter affair, depending on the volume of coconut milk used.

The dish can also be a celebration of multiple cultures. In Ili’s family for instance, she grew up with her mother’s rojak version of masak lemak. Ili’s mother is of Chinese-English parentage and grew up in Melaka surrounded by Peranakan neighbours. As a result, her version of masak lemak is a true-blue cultural mish-mash.

“So growing up, I always thought masak lemak had to involve a cooking process called tumis (cooking with oil until the ingredients are fully caramelised and cooked through), because that is the way my mother cooks it.

“And your first point of reference is always what your mother does. And so my mother puts garlic, ginger, galangal, serai and fresh turmeric and belacan and pounds everything and then tumis it. It’s because she grew up in Melaka and her neighbours were all Peranakan and so they always tumis their paste.

Ili grew up with all sorts of masak lemak dishes inspired by her heritage and roots and says it is a very versatile dish that can taken on different incarnations, depending on what's in it.Ili grew up with all sorts of masak lemak dishes inspired by her heritage and roots and says it is a very versatile dish that can taken on different incarnations, depending on what's in it.

“Also my mum’s recipe has fish balls because her ancestors are from Fuzhou and Fuzhou is known for its fish balls, so our masak lemak has fish balls with carrots and cabbage and strangely potatoes too because my mum was like ‘Your grandfather is English, so he likes potatoes’ so it’s a very rojak masak lemak that is representative of the maternal side of my family,” she says, laughing.

This particular masak lemak – which Ili describes as “Ili Sulaiman on a plate” is a riotous explosion of colours and textures. There is the crunch of the cabbage, the hefty bite of the carrots, the tender potatoes and the pliant, bouncy fishballs. The masak lemak itself is light, slightly sweet and not too thick – it has a home-spun quality to it that gives it a wholesome, family-friendly feel.

From her paternal grandmother, Ili learnt a more traditional Malay variation of masak lemak, one where the spice paste did not involve the process of menumis.

“As I grew up and spent more time with my paternal grandmother, I learnt the more traditional Malay side of masak lemak. My grandmother used to make masak lemak with siput sedut (mud creepers), crabs and fish and her masak lemak had fresh turmeric, cili padi, shallots, a bit of ikan bilis but no garlic at all. And she would pound the spice mixture and then boil it alongside fish or crabs or chicken or beef and put the coconut milk at the end.

“If we were making it with seafood, she would add a bit of asam keeping and turmeric leaves and if it was a beef or chicken masak lemak, she would put kaffir lime leaves. And her masak lemak was always a bit thicker,” she says.

Masak lemak literally translates to 'cooked in fat' which is why coconut milk is a crucial component of the dish. — ROBERTO MUNOZ/PexelsMasak lemak literally translates to 'cooked in fat' which is why coconut milk is a crucial component of the dish. — ROBERTO MUNOZ/Pexels

Ili’s Malay heritage is evident in her paternal grandmother’s masak lemak ikan tenggiri, a sumptuously satisfying dish that is thick with spicy undercurrents and an aquatic underbelly running through it. It’s the sort of masak lemak that you’ll probably be most familiar with, which is why it provides so much comfort in every mouthful.

A few years ago, Ili got married to her husband who is of Malayalee origin (south Indians who descended from the coastal state of Kerala). From her in-laws, Ili learnt a more Indian variation of masak lemak called ‘sothi’. Sothi is a south Indian gravy that typically consists of onions, chillies and garlic cooked with water and turmeric. To this, tomatoes are often added alongside coconut milk and a dash of lime juice right at the end, which gives it a unique tang.

Every family often has their own version of the dish, but turmeric and coconut – like masak lemak – are must-haves.

“When I married my Malayalee husband, I learnt about sothi, which is also a kind of masak lemak. Traditional sothi has nothing in it – it is just coconut milk, curry leaves, onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric powder and no inti (filling) whatsoever.

“The first time I had it, I was like ‘What is this?’ I was looking for the barang (main ingredients) in it,” she says, chuckling at the recollection.

Ili’s mother-in-law later made a version of sothi with moringa leaves and pumpkin, which Ili describes as ‘Wow!’ and that is the sothi that she now makes herself.

Ili says masak lemak is a comforting dish that many people will turn to after the allure of rendang has worn off. Ili says masak lemak is a comforting dish that many people will turn to after the allure of rendang has worn off.

This is a masak lemak that is light, with a friendly tang and earthy, rustic notes from the moringa leaves with the pumpkin adding body and volume to the meal. It’s great for vegetarians or anyone looking for a version of masak lemak that is less filling.

Then there is the famed Negri Sembilan masak lemak cili padi that Ili learnt how to make from a friend of hers. Masak lemak cili padi – sometimes called masak lemak cili api is a Minang staple whose most prominent attribute is the copious amounts of bird’s eye chillies stuffed into the dish.

“I have an NGO for PCOS (poly cystic ovary syndrome, a condition that Ili has) and one of my co-founders is from Negri Sembilan and she invited us over for lunch and I had the best Negri-style masak lemak and her mum told me how to make it.

“And it’s very interesting – they only use cili padi and turmeric and they don’t tumis the spice paste, so if they are making a chicken masak lemak, they will put the chicken in the pot with turmeric and cili padi and lemongrass, turmeric leaves and kaffir lime leaves and boil it with water and add coconut milk.

“They don’t use onions or garlic and the other thing is I was told that you have to use an odd number of cili padi to make this dish. It’s a petua (tip). And when you are cooking it, you have to kacau (stir) it on low heat the entire time and you cannot let it bubble. Also you cannot use boxed coconut milk, you have to use fresh santan and never, ever make this when you’re angry otherwise it will turn out too spicy!

“Every Malay family in Negri will probably have their own version of masak lemak cili api but I am so happy my friend shared hers with me,” says Ili.

Ili’s masak lemak cili api is oh-so good! The kuah itself is thick but not in a cloying way, it has the slight sweetness of coconut milk and a line of fire running through its gut, buoyed by the strong presence of the cili padi. The dish also calls for the use of terung Belanda, which adds a luscious note to the dish. All in all, this is a masak lemak to remember.

Each incarnation of this dish is so different that Ili says it demonstrates how mutable masak lemak truly is.

“It’s very different when you sit down and try all these different variations. It’s amazing how you think ‘Oh, coconut-based kuahs are the same’ because depending on what you add to it, it can be just one-note or have so much depth to it,” she says.

This Hari Raya, Ili will be celebrating with her family – something she is very excited about as her two-year-old son will also be able to properly partake in the festivities. On her table will be a masak lemak dish, something she hopes more families will be serving on their own festive tables.

“I think this would be good for the third day of Raya when people are tired of eating rendang. So if you serve masak lemak with ulam and rice and sambal belacan, I think everyone will be rushing to your house!” she says, laughing.


Serves 2 to 3

1 coconut, grated and 1 cup warm water

For the paste

11 cili padi

15cm fresh turmeric

For cooking

1 whole chicken, cut into 16 pieces

300ml water

1 tbsp salt

3 to 4 sticks lemongrass

4 kaffir lime leaves

2 pieces asam gelugor

150g terung Belanda (tamarillo) or terung pipit (pea eggplant)

2 large turmeric leaves

To prepare the coconut

In a blender, add the grated coconut with warm water and blend. Then sieve it to extract coconut milk.

To make the paste

In a pestle and mortar, pound the chilli and turmeric until it becomes a paste.

To cook the broth

In a pot, add the chicken and dry-fry for 5 minutes until slightly cooked before adding the turmeric and chilli paste.

Next, add in 300ml water and season with salt, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, asam gelugor and terung pipit and bring to a slow simmer for about 8 minutes to ensure the chicken is cooked through.

Next, add the coconut milk and turmeric leaves and bring to a gentle simmer.

Stir continuously on low heat for 2 minutes. Serve hot with rice.


Serves 2 to 3

2 tsp oil for light frying

1/2 tsp mustard seeds

a few curry leaves

1 large red onion, sliced

3 garlic cloves, sliced

1 inch ginger, sliced

2 red chillies, slit in the middle

300ml water

1/4 tsp turmeric powder

250g pumpkin, cubed, skin intact

some salt to taste

230ml coconut milk

2 cups moringa leaves

juice of half a lime

To make

In a wok, add oil and fry mustard seeds until they begin to pop.

Next add in curry leaves and aromatics (sliced onion, garlic, ginger and chilli) and fry for 2 to 3 minutes.

Add water, turmeric powder and pumpkin, season with some salt and let the pumpkin cook. Once the pumpkin is cooked, add the coconut milk and bring to a simmer.

Turn off the heat and fold in moringa leaves until absorbed.

Pour sothi into a serving bowl, and add juice of lime in a ladle before dispersing into the rest of the sothi. Serve hot with string hoppers or rice.


Serves 2 to 3

½ a coconut grated and ½ cup warm water

11 cili padi

7 shallots

1 handful ikan bilis, heads removed, washed and drained

5cm fresh turmeric

1 stick lemongrass

1 large turmeric leaf

4 tenggiri slices

To prepare the coconut

In a blender, blend coconut with warm water. Then sieve it to extract coconut milk.

To make the paste

In a pestle and mortar, pound the chillies, shallots, turmeric and ikan bilis until it becomes a paste.

To cook the broth

In a pot, add coconut milk, then add in pounded paste, lemongrass and turmeric leaf and bring to a gentle simmer while stirring continuously.

When it starts to simmer, season with salt and add fish. Count slowly to 10 before turning off the fire. Leave pot covered and leave mixture atop the stove for 20 minutes. Serve hot with rice.


Serves 2 to 3

For the spice paste

5cm fresh turmeric

2.5cm galangal

4 cili padi

4 red chillies

1 stick lemongrass

1 large turmeric leaf

2.5cm belacan

3 buah keras (candlenuts)

6 bawang kecil (shallots)

3 cloves garlic

For cookingsome oil for frying

1 carrot, julienned

1 large potato, cut into 6

300ml water

2 packets fish balls

¼ cabbage, sliced

230ml coconut milk

salt and sugar to taste

To prepare the paste

In a blender, add the fresh turmeric, galangal, cili padi, red chillies, lemongrass, belacan, candlenuts, onions and garlic and blend until smooth with some water.

For cooking

In a wok, add oil and cook the paste until it becomes thick and deepens in colour before adding carrots, potatoes and some water.

Once the potatoes are cooked through, add fish balls and cabbage and coconut milk and season with a little salt and sugar. Simmer for 5 minutes on low heat until everything is cooked through.

Follow us on our official WhatsApp channel for breaking news alerts and key updates!

masak lemak , Ili Sulaiman , Hari Raya


Next In Food News

Savoury puff pastries to start the day
A taste of Nanyang coffee at Sepang's Chop Guan Kee
Ultra-processed foods increase the risk of death
Ramen in Japan is more than just noodles, it's a tourist attraction and experience
Manufacturer’s dark chocolate variant made with Sabah, Sarawak cocoa beans
Tea stall a hot favourite among folk in Brickfields
6 unique, must-try Sarawak delicacies, from kek lapis to mee kolok
Mummy’s food hunt
Handy food hacks
Masala pork rib

Others Also Read