Nasi lemak: The one dish that unites us all

Tuck into the delicious rice with individual grains enriched with coconut milk, together with telur Bali, sambal sotong, the slow cooked sambal, cucumber, crispy ikan bilis and peanuts – Pictures by Choo Choy May and Steven K.E. Ooi
Tuck into the delicious rice with individual grains enriched with coconut milk, together with telur Bali, sambal sotong, the slow cooked sambal, cucumber, crispy ikan bilis and peanuts – Pictures by Choo Choy May and Steven K.E. Ooi

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 31 — Every morning, the same scene is played out all over the country: people milling around their favourite stall to pack their nasi lemak for breakfast or early lunch.

This fast and hearty breakfast with its wallet-friendly price has been fuelling us Malaysians every morning since... well, it feels like forever. No longer just limited to early birds, night owls can also satisfy their nasi lemak cravings from stalls that open till late at night. You even have 24-hour stalls that peddle nasi lemak bungkus (a small portion wrapped with banana leaf and newspaper) for a quick snack.

In Malaysia, any time is nasi lemak o’clock.

The basic serving of nasi lemak consists of a portion of rice cooked in coconut milk and served with a dollop of spicy sambal.

On the side, you will also have sliced cucumbers together with crunchy fried peanuts and ikan bilis. Your dose of protein is a piece of hard-boiled egg. The size depends on the generosity of the stall owner. Some stalls prefer greasier fried eggs.

Going beyond the basic serving, there is very often these days a choice of add-ons from a buffet of dishes like sambal sotong, ayam rendang and the list goes on.

While it is originally a Malay dish, there are many variations to the ubiquitous nasi lemak now. Sometimes the changes are made due to health constraints — like the lack of coconut milk in the Chinese variant of nasi lemak. Other times it is reflective of the bountiful produce from that particular area.

For instance, fried small fish is a popular add-on in nasi lemak found near seaside villages since fresh catch is readily available. Some add-ons like kangkung remain an unsolved mystery. According to Malacca-born Debbie Teoh, a well-known Peranakan chef, the locals in that state believe that nasi lemak is not complete without kangkung. “It’s just a Malaccan thing to be obssessed with kangkung.”

When it comes to tracing the origins of this dish, you find all kinds of stories or even legends about its beginning. Wikipedia cites its first appearance as far back as 1909 when it appeared in a book titled, The Circumstances of Malay Life by Sir Richard Olof Winstedt.

One of the oldest known (and still standing) nasi lemak stalls in Kuala Lumpur is Nasi Lemak Tanglin. According to its third generation owner, Fazaitul Akhma, 30, the stall started out in 1948. That was the year, the Federation of Malaya was formed.

It was Fazaitul’s Javanese grandmother Suriati Jawirunah who started the stall under the tree. She was assisted by her husband who relocated from Singapore. The stall’s nasi lemak quickly gained favour with many, including those who went to Tanglin Hospital, one of the earliest hospitals in the country which was built in 1890, next door.

Burhainnurdin Zainal Abidin and Fazaitul Akhma Zainal Abidin continue their grandmother's legacy at Nasi Lemak Tanglin 3. Keep calm and queue for your nasi lemak
Burhainnurdin Zainal Abidin and Fazaitul Akhma Zainal Abidin continue their grandmother's legacy at Nasi Lemak Tanglin 3. Keep calm and queue for your nasi lemak

One of their most prominent customers was Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak who used to ride his bicycle to the stall when he was a child. He lived in one of the government quarters nearby.

Even though Suriati died in 1996, her son Zainal Abidin Hassan is faithful to her legacy by using the same recipe to prepare the nasi lemak. Every day, the rice goes through an arduous 10-12 hour process where it is painstakingly washed, soaked, dried and steamed in two stages. Coconut milk is slowly mixed with the partially steamed rice, since any excessive stirring may cause the delicate rice grains to break. Moreover, coconut milk is sensitive to overmixing as it will curdle.

Traditionally, the rice is steamed in a wooden bucket. Nowadays, it’s impossible to steam that way since they cook a whopping 85 kilogrammes of rice every day. Their compromise is a custom-made stainless steel steamer. Even their sambal takes a few hours to cook over a low fire, and you will notice it is darker in colour than other places. They prefer to use dried chillies, rather than processed chilli boh even though it’s a lot of work as they believe you can taste the difference.

Your plate of nasi lemak can be your choice from an array of dishes
Your plate of nasi lemak can be your choice from an array of dishes

The family retains the same selection of dishes from long ago; two types of eggs, three types of chicken like a gulai, sambal and ayam merah, beef rendang, cow’s spleen, cow’s lung and sambal sotong. Some items bear Suriati’s Indonesian heritage, like the begedil or potato cutlet more commonly found in Nasi Padang.

They also do telur Bali, Suriati’s version of hard boiled eggs fried and cooked in a spicy sambal. The only item omitted from the original menu is sambal kerang or cockles, since they don’t have the manpower to painstakingly shuck the cockles.

Opting for pre-shucked cockles is a no-no, as many customers complained about the quality. Quality and their name is very important for Fazaitul’s family who decided to stop a franchised restaurant in Bangsar, after they received complaints about the food served there.

Faizatul, the eldest in the family, gave up a desk job to run the family business after her father persuaded her that it is her heritage. She tries hard to maintain the taste of the food like yesteryear but it’s a mammoth task since some ingredients are no longer produced, like a particular brand of belacan or even soy sauce.
Their customers who flock here every morning is a multi-racial crowd — Malays, Chinese and Indian or what Faizatul calls, “1

Keep calm and queue for your nasi lemak
Keep calm and queue for your nasi lemak

Malaysia crowd.” Loyal customers even bring their children, introducing them to the taste of the nasi lemak; something they were first introduced to by their parents.

While nasi lemak is generally considered unhealthy because of the rich coconut milk the rice is cooked in, Meeta Sheth from The Ganga Cafe has managed to make it not only healthy but meat-free. Her good-for-you vegetarian nasi lemak comes with a light fluffy rice cooked with a little coconut milk, lemongrass and ginger. “The rice does not sit in your stomach like a rock.” She practises a little Ayurvedic magic by adding her secret ingredient to the rice; it is supposed to help with digestion and diabetes. The rice is also cooked in small batches to ensure it’s fresh.

Her preservative-free sambal uses a pure vegetarian soy base with no gluten or flour and is cooked with dried chillies, garlic and onions. She also substitutes mushroom stems for the ikan bilis, which gives the sambal a bit of bite and an umami kick. A plate of her all-day available (except Sundays) nasi lemak is at a reasonable RM3.50, with a choice of mock meat on the side.

Up in Penang and Alor Setar, the Indian Muslims serve nasi lemak that bear a closer resemblance to nasi kandar. The rice is flooded with a sweet spicy sambal that is almost like a rich curry. In Alor Setar, the locals frequent places like Nasi Lemak Royale and Nasi Lemak Haji Ali where they serve rice flooded with a mix of curries. The rice at Nasi Lemak Royale is tinged yellow and has a mix of spices.

Meeta Sheth prefers a healthier approach for her Indian vegetarian nasi lemma (left). The Ganga Cafe's nasi lemak is a combination of light fluffy rice paired with sambal cooked with mushroom stems, mock meat, peanuts, cucumber and a crunchy pappadum (right)
Meeta Sheth prefers a healthier approach for her Indian vegetarian nasi lemma (left). The Ganga Cafe's nasi lemak is a combination of light fluffy rice paired with sambal cooked with mushroom stems, mock meat, peanuts, cucumber and a crunchy pappadum (right)

In Malacca, the Chittys or Indian Peranakans are a unique hybrid community of mixed cultures — Indian, Chinese and Malay. Their descendants are Indian traders who travelled to Malaya and married local women. They held fast to their Hindu religion but dress like the Peranakans in kebayas and sarongs.

Unlike the Indian Hindus, the Chittys perform a ceremony known as Parchu Boogie during Ponggal to honour their ancestors with food offerings like nasi lemak, a tradition borrowed from the Chinese culture. The steamed coconut milk rice is presented on a banana leaf with an array of traditional Chitty delicacies. Some of these dishes include acar cili or pickled chillies, sambal telur belimbing where the sourish belimbing buluh is cooked with fish eggs, and itik tim.

The Penang Peranakans love to add creamy coconut milk to their rice. According to Debbie Teoh, whose mother is a Penang Nyonya, some would even soak the rice grains in the coconut milk. “It’s so rich that sometimes you can’t eat it.” Usually their nasi lemak is served with assam fried fish, assam prawns and sambal with belacan.

Black Man Nasi Lemak's big pull factor are their delicious side dishes like potatoes cooked with pork ball, and tender pork chop (left). In Penang, the Nyonya nasi lemak (back) is fragrant with coconut milk and paired with assam prawns and fish, while the Indian Muslim version (front) is served with a watery sambal similar to curry (right)
Black Man Nasi Lemak's big pull factor are their delicious side dishes like potatoes cooked with pork ball, and tender pork chop (left). In Penang, the Nyonya nasi lemak (back) is fragrant with coconut milk and paired with assam prawns and fish, while the Indian Muslim version (front) is served with a watery sambal similar to curry (right)

But it’s a 360-degree turn for the Chinese who avoid coconut milk in the rice as they believe it gives them “wind.” Usually ginger is added to counteract the effect of the coconut milk. Combined with ginger, pandan leaves and lemongrass, it gives a nice aroma to the cooked rice. For Patmund Sor, 35, who runs Black Man Nasi Lemak, he prefers to use the more expensive Bentong ginger for his rice since it gives a stronger fragrance.

The enterprising man originally started selling cooked noodles in front of his home in Jinjang. Later, he chose to sell nasi lemak since anyone can cook up the dishes. Previously he was a sales executive for a wine trader, and on occasion he used to work as a bodyguard for visiting Hong Kong singers like Aaron Kwok.

The unusual name for his stall is a nickname people gave him in Hokkien due to his dark skin tone. He realised that most famous stalls have their own nicknames, hence he decided to adopt it for his stall. Every two months, Patmund also donates his sale collection to charity. Usually, this is to help raise funds for people who need funds for urgent surgery.

Patmund Sor sells nasi lemak just in front of Restaurant Double One
Patmund Sor sells nasi lemak just in front of Restaurant Double One

With the Chinese variant of nasi lemak, the emphasis is placed on the side dishes, rather than the basic combination of rice and sambal or even the rice with coconut milk. In the early days, Patmund remembers that most stalls served nasi lemak with stir-fried long beans and Hakka char yoke or belly pork with wood-ear fungus. Another popular dish is sang chee yoke or wild boar rendang.

Since his stall is relatively unknown, he tries to attract customers with his unusual side dishes, like potatoes cooked with chee yoke yeen or pork balls and his signature tender marinated pork chop. For weekends, he offers a fragrant appetising mix of choy poh or preserved radish fried with har mai or dried shrimps. He also offers different dishes at night; double fried chicken and fried pork with spices. The self-taught cook gets the recipes for his dishes from cookbooks and adjusts the recipes to suit his customer’s tastebuds.

When it comes to nasi lemak, Meeta sums it up perfectly. “Everyone has a different way with nasi lemak.” Even with our cultural differences, everyone sits down in the morning — or throughout the day — to tuck into a plate of nasi lemak. With that one dish, we’re truly united despite our differences.

Nasi Lemak Tanglin, Gerai no. 6, Kompleks Makan Tanglin, Jalan Cenderasari, Kuala Lumpur. Open:7am to 12.30pm. Closed for 1 week during Hari Raya.

The Ganga Cafe, 19, Lorong Kurau, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Open: 8.30am to 9.30pm. Closed on Mondays.

Black Man Nasi Lemak, Restaurant Double One, Jalan 3/62A, Bandar Menjalara, Kepong. Open: 8am to 10.30am. Restaurant 1313, Jalan Metro Perdana 3, Kepong. Open: 5pm to 10pm. Closed on Mondays.

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