Fluffy white rice rich with the aroma of coconut cream accompanied with small fried anchovies, delicately roasted peanuts, half of a hard boiled egg, slices of cucumber and a good small serving of sweet and spicy sauce all wrapped up in the fragrance of banana leaves. For the initiated, just the thought of nasi lemak is enough to induce a circus of flavors in their mouths and set their stomachs growling.
The words “nasi lemak” literally translates to mean fatty or creamy (lemak) rice (nasi) in the Malay language. It refers to the creamy coconut milk used in cooking this rice to produce its distinctive exotic fragrance and flavor so the unhealthy connotations of its translated name can somewhat be justified in this context.
While the origins of nasi lemak is unclear, it is a dish that is enjoyed by Malaysians and those in neighbouring Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. Pride and glory to be claimed over the creation of this unique dish have created much debate on where it truly comes from but despite it all, the dish is evidently much loved by many.
In Malaysia, nasi lemak in its native form of coconut rice served with sambal ikan bilis (anchovies and onions in a chili paste) on a banana leaf, is deeply ingrained in the Malay culture. It is a staple breakfast, and is increasingly becoming an any-time meal including supper, for many locals. The versatility of this coconut rice had led to many variations and adaptations to suit the changing tastes and eating habits of Malaysians. But amidst this, the two things that have remained true to the traditions of the original dish are the coconut rice and the tantalizing sweet sambal.
The simple Malay version has been modified over time where the traditional hard boiled egg and anchovies in the sambal have been replaced with fried egg and crispy anchovies. In many eateries, the choice of coconut rice is available along with white rice, and is served with other local Malay dishes such as fried fish, chicken or beef rendang and spicy vegetables.
It is not unusual for the Chinese to have their nasi lemak with deep fried chicken drumstick, sausage, fried egg, chilli squid, stir-fried French beans and an assortment of other side dishes. This supersized version with its variety of offerings is a popular choice for young Malaysians when dining with their kakis (local colloquial term for buddies).
Nasi lemak has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a simple coconut rice to a dish highly capitalized by some chefs and restaurants claiming to serve the best nasi lemak in town. The good news for diners is that the increasing variety and choice means there is no need to settle for just one.
To try this exotic dish of South East Asia, not much effort or hunting is required to find a place that serves it. For the authentic and basic Malaysian nasi lemak, simply pop into any neighbourhood mamak (Indian Muslim) or Chinese coffee shop in the morning. Look out for small pyramid-shaped packages wrapped in brown paper and banana leaves on the tables.