Recipe: Coconut Sticky Rice in banana leaves (lemang)

Today we’re going to make a tower… a tower of glorious height. And this tall, sturdy tower is going to be made out of rice. Our inspiration? The Petronas towers of Malaysia.

Aren’t they stunning?

Left photo by Gambar Pilihan. Three night photos by Lai Seng Sin. Right photo by Someformofhuman

I adore the fact that the skyscrapers are connected by a tiny walkway that seems to be a million, zillion miles up in the sky. But that’s a story for another day.

The fact is, I am simply thrilled to make rice towers from Malaysia. You see, I’m falling more and more in love with glutinous rice which is the secret to building our edible tower. I first made glutinous rice for Laos and, yikes, was I ever scared of messing it up. After that Adventure, however, I learned that glutinous rice is much more forgiving than traditional long-grain rice. It’s very hard to screw up. Which means, of course, that I’ll be making it more and more.

And add coconut milk into the mix?

Let’s just call this recipe love at first bite.

NOTE: For this recipe, you can easily find both the glutinous rice and the banana leaves at your local Asian market (the banana leaves are also available at Latino markets). Lemang is traditionally cooked in banana leaves inside pieces of bamboo, although home cooks simply wrap it in banana leaves, like this

2 cups dry glutinous rice, soaked for 6 hours or overnight (also called sweet rice)
1 can coconut milk
Pinch salt

Banana leaves, for wrapping


First things first – soak the rice in water overnight, or for at least 6 hours.

Meanwhile, soak yourself in the beauty of Petronas at night …

Photo by Flydime.

The next morning, bring a can of coconut milk to a simmer. Cook for 15-20 minutes, or until…

… the coconut oil separates from the milk (you might have to turn off the heat to see the tiny droplets of oil – active simmering keeps mixing it back into the milk).

Add the rice and cook, uncovered, for ten minutes over low/medium heat. Stir occasionally.

Meanwhile, cut 4″ wide strips of banana leaf. You can soften them (to make it easier to fold) by quickly passing them over an open flame. 

To make the towers, roll the banana leaf up into a cone. Make sure there is no hole at the bottom for the rice to come out.

Next, stuff the banana leaf full of rice (stopping about 1 1/2 inches from the top). Pack it down tightly with the back of a spoon.

Even a two year-old can do it!

Although some rice went missing…

Now, fold the sides in, like when wrapping a present…

Once both sides are tucked in…

… you can then fold over the top and bottom, just like the edge of a present.

Layer each cone into the steamer basket, pressing the folded edge against the sides of the steamer to keep packets shut.  Steam for 20 minutes, or until the rice is tender.

Joyful towers await! But patience, my friends…

..  you must cool them for several minutes until the rice is just barely warm.

Otherwise the towers will fall apart when you try to do stand them up on end.


This fantastically fun finger food is great room temperature or just a bit warm.

TIP: My friend MC from Malaysia suggests you add a lump of palm sugar to the middle of your packet for a sweet twist.


Love, love, love to you and yours.

Opt In Image
Hungry for more?
Be notified when National Geographic releases my memoir.

Simply fill in your details below.


  1. Love!

  2. Oh my gosh….I love Ava!!!!!!!!!!

  3. This looks amazing! I’m also cooking food from around the world. I just started though.


  1. […] he didn’t see them. Later, I try to give one to Ava. Excited, she asks if they are the towers of sticky rice we did for Malaysia. When she discovers they are not, she runs the other […]

  2. […] it is the same something that made me hope against hope that she would love homemade sushi, sticky rice towers, and foe (Laos’ cousin to pho): a wish for her to enjoy interesting food and therefore, be an […]

Speak Your Mind