Golden Turmeric Rice (Nasi Kunyit) [Video]

Early autumn. Ah, the air is getting thinner, crisper, and colder. After living in California for two years, I've had a chance to deliberate over the changing seasons and even pick a favorite. It's a toss between spring and autumn, the transition seasons that allow my mind and body to prepare for the extremities of summer and winter.

You can read about my initial thoughts on spring, summer, and autumn, but I've yet to embrace the dark age of winter. Brrr. (I know what you're thinking. California winter is nothing, but don't forget I grew up in a tropical country!)

Right now, I'm feeling comfortably cuddly in an oversized sweater the color of mustard yellow, an intentional choice to contrast the grayness of my day. I suppose I do the same with food, responding not only to my body's need to pack in heat and my craving for spices, but also an ocular desire for a bright dish to show up for dinner.

For that, I have turned to a basic rice preparation using turmeric, known in Malaysia as nasi kunyit and in Indonesia also as nasi kuning. 


"Kunyit" is the Malay word for turmeric, "nasi" means rice, and "kuning" means yellow. In translation, this is a recipe for turmeric rice or yellow rice, which has a simplicity that belies its significance as a festive rice served during special occasions with an array of side dishes ranging from eggs and vegetables to meats and curries.

Its golden sheen symbolizes good fortune and abundance, thereby deserving a place at new year parties, weddings, business openings, and a baby's full moon celebration. 

Typically, glutinous or sticky rice is used but I would not exclude the use of normal rice as an alternative. Do bear in mind, however, that while rice is boiled, sticky rice is soaked and then steamed, requiring much less liquid to cook, so an adjustment of the cooking technique is necessary for this recipe (see notes below).

You can find more information about sticky rice in a Thai dessert recipe I've previously shared. 

Ground turmeric is called for in the recipe and is sufficiently appropriate, but if you do have some fresh turmeric lying around, try adding about 1-inch of peeled and thinly sliced pieces. While ground turmeric should not be substituted completely with fresh turmeric in this recipe, fresh turmeric does give the rice an added dimension of its peppery flavor, much like the magic of fresh ginger versus ground ginger. 

If anything, it really brightens up the prep stage, and I'm a firm believer in getting the most from the cooking process. Just be aware that turmeric stains and you may want to wear gloves when handling fresh turmeric unless, like me, you have no problem walking around with decorated fingertips for a few days. 

Widely used in Asia, especially in curry blends, turmeric has in recent years received a lot of attention for its potential health benefits, especially for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. I have personally been using it to soothe my IBS-stricken digestive tract by adding it to my morning oatmeal, smoothies, soups, and tea. 

Aside from turmeric, a few other ingredients contribute to the flavor of this rice dish: spicy punches from whole peppercorns, a silky mouthfeel from coconut milk, and a subtle tartness from the lime that lightens its overall richness.

Instead of lime, dried tamarind skin (asam keping) is traditionally used but due to its limited availability here, the zesty flavor of lime is a good stand-in.

Turmeric rice can be perfectly cooked without pandan leaves and banana leaves but the aromatic difference they make should not be dismissed. Pandan leaves enjoy the reputation of being an Asian version of vanilla and is commonly used in Southeast Asian cooking as a flavoring in both sweet and savory dishes. It's a major feature in my coconut jam (kaya) recipe.

Banana leaves are often used to serve food (have you heard of banana leaf rice?) and cooking food wrapped in leaves is not an unusual concept in Asia (sticky rice dumpling, or zong, comes to mind). I used banana leaves to line the steamer basket (cheesecloth can also be used for this purpose) so that its subtle sweet aroma will be transferred to the rice during the steaming process. 

Ground turmeric is easy enough to find, but if you're inclined to also include fresh turmeric, I've noticed that they are more readily available from the Asian supermarket. Or try going through Frieda's (not paid, I'm just really impressed by the Asian ingredients they carry, including the turmeric I used for this recipe). 

Most of the other ingredients can also be found at the Asian supermarket. It's good to know that sticky rice goes by other names, such as glutinous, waxy, and sweet rice. For coconut milk, I use and recommend Savoy Coconut Cream. Both pandan and banana leaves can usually be found refrigerated or frozen but please feel free to omit if locating them becomes challenging.

Finally, here's a video to show you how easy it is to make this Malaysian rice dish. 

Golden Turmeric Rice (Nasi Kunyit) Video:

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Golden Turmeric Rice (Nasi Kunyit)
This festive rice, loved for its golden color that symbolizes good fortune, is served during special occasions in Malaysia and Indonesia. Let its striking appearance and the health benefits of turmeric spice up your regular rice routine. Yields about 2 cups. Serve with rendang or your favorite curry. 

1 cup sticky rice
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1-inch fresh turmeric, peeled and sliced thinly (optional)
3 slices of lime
1/2 teaspoon whole peppercorns
2 pandan leaves, washed and knotted together (optional)
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
Banana leaves (cut smaller to line steamer or use cheesecloth as an alternative)

Wash and drain 1 cup of uncooked sticky rice until the water is clear, about 2 to 3 rinses. Then soak rice in enough water to cover together with ground turmeric, fresh turmeric, and lime slices for at least 4 hours up to overnight. 

When ready to cook, mix coconut milk with salt and set aside. 

Bring some water in a steam pot to a boil. Drain the rice, remove turmeric and lime slices, and transfer to a steam basket lined with banana leaves or cheesecloth. Spread the rice well and add pandan leaves, whole peppercorns, and drizzle with 1/2 the coconut milk. Cover and place on top of the pot, making sure that the bottom does not touch the water. Steam the rice over medium heat for about 30 minutes.

Gently flip the rice. Add the remaining coconut milk and steam for another 15 minutes. Sticky rice is cooked when it becomes soft and translucent. Turn off the heat and let the rice rest for about 5 minutes. Remove the pandan leaves and serve warm. 

· Always store sticky rice in a closed container. If it dries out and becomes hard, I find heating it up on a pan with a little water works, but there's a risk of the rice becoming mushy.
· For this recipe, I use and recommend Savoy Coconut Cream. The can lists only two ingredients: coconut extracts (70%) and water.
· Here's another way to enjoy sticky rice as a dessert
· To make this with regular rice, combine 1 cup of washed and drained uncooked rice together with all the ingredients (except banana leaves). Factor the coconut milk volume in the amount of liquid required to cook the rice. For example, if 2 cups of liquid is needed, then add only 1 cup of water as the coconut milk makes up another cup of the liquid. Cook as usual in a rice cooker or on the stovetop. You can read this post on how I cook rice