Nothing Says “Malaysia” Like Nasi Lemak Does


Nasi lemak is irrefutably Malaysia’s national dish. And that’s not because Wikipedia says so.

A few years ago, I was travelling to London to attend the World Travel Mart and while looking for a suitable hotel within my budget, I came across an advertisement by a Malaysian-owned hotel promoting its property with this tagline: “Nasi Lemak included for breakfast for the Malaysian contingent”.

No prize for guessing my choice of hotel. I was not the only one who took the bait, as evidenced at breakfast on my first morning there. No matter which part of Malaysia we were from, we all made a beeline for that familiar whiff of santan (coconut milk), made even more tantalising by London’s temperature in November. You can also imagine that it made a good icebreaker and bonding agent among compatriots away from home.

By no means is nasi lemak served only to cure homesickness among Malaysians abroad. Back home today in almost every respectable hotel, you will find nasi lemak served at breakfast in one form or another.

A five-star heritage hotel in KL takes the effort to serve it in traditional kampung style – wrapped in banana leaf like a mini pyramid. Some will serve it in do-it-yourself style with the rice separate from the sambal and typical condiments of roasted peanuts, ikan bilis (dried anchovies), hard-boiled egg and cucumber. Some even serve it with beef or chicken rendang (let’s not go into the crispy rendang row, shall we?1). Don’t be alarmed either if you see blue or green-coloured rice – these are made organically by adding extracts of butterfly pea flower or pandan (screwpine) leaf to the cooking process.

Although there are many variations of nasi lemak, the name remains generic, whereas laksa, for example, is almost always qualified by its place of origin such as Penang laksa, Sarawak laksa, Johor laksa and the east coast versions. Vegans, too, have their versions, basically by substituting the anchovies and egg with petai (stinky beans), long beans, eggplant or any vegetables that provide either taste or texture.

Unlike Penang laksa or char koay teow, nasi lemak is not expected to meet the requisite standards of my taste buds when I am outside of Penang. In fact, putting my mother’s Nyonya version aside, I will even go so far as to declare that I generally can buy better nasi lemak in KL than in Penang. I even attributed my first five extra kilograms in weight to my newfound addiction to nasi lemak sambal sotong (dried cuttlefish in sambal) after I went to work in the big city some decades ago. I blame one particular roadside stall near my residence which was operated by a husband-and-wife team. So strong was my addiction that I often enough showed up so early as to catch them just barely setting up stall, which comprised a few flat-lidded stainless steel pots in the back of a station wagon.

Hotel Jen in Hong Kong serves nasi lemak with the rice separate from the condiments.

Nyonya nasi lemak.

The accompaniment to Malay nasi lemak that is generally even more popular than sambal sotong is, perhaps, ayam goreng (fried chicken). There is a string of nasi lemak stalls popular solely for this. I used to frequent a night stall in Bangsar that would top their nasi lemak with the remnant bits of deep-fried batter mixed with coarsely ground spices used in the marinade. This crunchy accompaniment, like roasted peanuts, adds another texture to the fluffy rice. Whatever the accompaniments, the rice, given the right amount of coconut milk and spices, should have the fragrance, texture and taste of the perfect nasi lemak.

Speaking of the rice, has anyone else come across a recipe that includes lemongrass? I am trying to settle an argument that recently came up at a reunion dinner between two of my oldest friends on what should or should not be added.

Ayam goreng is as far as I will go in my nasi lemak indulgence. Not even rendang. I had the privilege of sharing this opinion with Gordon Ramsay when he asked for rendang in the nasi lemak segment he was filming in Penang. To me, after the rice, it’s all about the sambal. It can be as simple as hand-pounded sambal belacan, which is how the Nyonyas eat it, or a slightly sweet Malay-style sambal bawang (onion in sambal). That filmed-in-Penang segment of Gordon’s Great Escape was, however, not aired. Instead, they aired a nasi lemak cooking competition in KL, in which he won second prize for accompanying it with extravagant dishes of kapitan chicken curry, beef rendang and prawn curry!

Although I have read quite a bit about them, I have not felt inclined to try fancy versions served with crab, lobster or ribs. The thought of nasi lemak ice cream, cheesecake or salad does not appeal to me either. What’s with nasi lemak salad anyway, without the rice? And can I just mention that a Malaysian rubber company has spiced up their product line beyond the unimaginable? Their CEO reportedly claimed that it was to spread public health awareness.

And how about this as my final support to my premise: why else would anyone who was representing Malaysia proudly wear a nasi lemak-inspired dress in the National Costume segment of an international beauty pageant in Las Vegas? The white evening gown was resplendent with an egg, a red splash of sambal and full-length banana leaves as wings. Try beating that in the name of nationalism!

Now back to Wikipedia. Yes, nasi lemak is indeed the national dish of Malaysia, but you probably got its origin wrong – not that I’m trying to incite another fight over food history with our friendly neighbor down south. Here is an excerpt from papers by Sir Richard Olaf Winstedt, who was a cadet in the Federated Malay States Civil Service in 1902 before being appointed the district officer of Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan in 1913. In between those years, he had written The Circumstances of Malay Life, which was published in 1909.

“Unfortunately for European taste, at marriages and festivals the Malay cook will try to improve on perfection. He will boil 2 the rice along with such spices as caraway seeds, cloves, mace, nutmeg and ginger and garlic, in dripping or coconut oil; or3 he will boil it in coconut milk instead of water; or he 4 will gild the lily with turmeric, using glutinous rice.” 5

While all these rice dishes are still around to be enjoyed, it is undoubtedly the nasi lemak that has flourished from its humble origins of being peasant food to gracing buffet spreads and MasterChef shows around the world.

Ooi Geok Ling likes trying most things once, provided they are not detrimental to her body or her pocket. Too much.
2Nasi minyak or nasi samin.
3Nasi lemak.
4Nasi kunyit.

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