Nasi lemak


Nasi lemak is a dish that comprises rice made fragrant with coconut cream and pandan leaves.1 A light meal that is believed to be Malay in origin, it is traditionally accompanied by fried anchovies, sliced cucumbers, fried fish known as ikan selar, and a sweet chili sauce. Modern-day variations on the dish now offer an extensive array of other side dishes.

Description
Nasi lemak is Malay for “rice in cream”, a reference to the rice being cooked in coconut milk, or “richly flavoured rice”.2 The rice is lightly salted and made fragrant with a knot of pandan leaves added while the rice is still cooking. It is the ordinary man’s breakfast, traditionally served with fried fish known in Malay as ikan selar kuning, ikan bilis (anchovies), kangkong (water spinach) and a dollop of sambal (a type of chilli paste).3 The fish is fried so crisp that it can be eaten whole. Nowadays, the anchovies are fried with salted peanuts, the dish topped with thin slices of cucumber and a fried or boiled egg.4 The rice and all its condiments and side dishes are kept warm in a banana leaf folded into a conical pocket.5


The sambal is the dish’s signature condiment. Malays prefer their rice with sambal ikan bilis (chilli paste made of local anchovies) or sambal tumis (fried chilli paste).6 The sambal is a combination of dried chillies, shallots, garlic and belacan (shrimp paste), sometimes with sliced lemongrass added. Sugar and tamarind give the chilli sauce a sweet and tangy taste.7

The rice is traditionally steamed, because if it is cooked over a hot fire, the coconut milk can easily burn. Modern cooks use a rice cooker and replace water with the coconut milk instead.8 Some secrets to making good nasi lemak include cooking the rice partially the night before, then adding the coconut milk and pandan leaves the following morning to complete the cooking process.9

The dish remains one of the cheapest meals offered in local food courts and hawker centres. While many stalls sell the dish as a set meal with the basic accompaniments, others offer a wide variety of side dishes that can be added to the order.10

Origins
It is believed that when the local Malay community resided by the seafront, the ready availability of ingredients such as the coconut, as well as the flavourful outcome of adding it to rice, resulted in the innovation of nasi lemak.11 Side dishes added to the rice came from the village’s natural resources: kangkong was plucked from the garden and anchovies were harvested from the sea.12 Others suggest that packets of rice wrapped in banana leaves were brought to padi fields (rice fields) for working farmers to consume.13 In Malaysia, nasi lemak is also sold at transient road side stalls or even from vans.14 Today, it is a popular dish eaten not only at breakfast, but also throughout the day.


Nasi lemak was mentioned as early as 1909 by Richard Olaf Winstedt.15 It also appeared in a newspaper article dated 1935 which noted that the dish was available at the Kuala Lumpur Malay Market at Kampong Bahru.16 In the 1970s, the nasi lemak packets were much smaller than those sold today, but were priced at a mere 30 cents.17 They were often sold door-to-door by travelling vendors who had the apportioned rice wrapped in banana leaves.18

Local variations
While the rice is traditionally cooked with coconut milk, variants include the addition of garlic, shallots, a small cut of ginger and at least two stalks of lemongrass added into the cooking rice.19 The spices enhance the sweetness and fragrant flavours of the rice.

Since the 1980s, the dish has gradually evolved to include a greater variety of accompaniments besides the standard anchovies, chilli sauce and cucumber slices. The range of side dishes is as varied as the stallholder’s imagination. For example, rendang (a local curry), fried chicken wing and otah (barbequed fish paste) seem to be the accompaniments of choice.20 Others have achar (pickled vegetables) and long beans.21

While nasi lemak is essentially a Malay dish, the Chinese also serve it, sometimes accompanied by non-halal side dishes such as luncheon meat.22 The Chinese version usually uses Thai jasmine rice. The traditional Malay version, made with local Malay rice, is usually steamed – thus going by the name nasi lemak kukus (kukus meaning “steamed”). The chilli used is often sweeter.23

Regional variations
In Kuala Trengganu, local chef Billy Chua combined Chinese fried rice (nasi goreng) with nasi lemak to create nasi lemak goreng, a dish he had invented as a teenager. He offered it on his menu at his eatery, Billi Kopitiam, in 2008, where it has become a hit.24


States on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia such as Kelantan and Trengganu also have a similar dish known as nasi dagang (“trader’s/traveler’s rice”; although some suggest the name refers to “foreigners”).25 The coconut rice is a mixture of normal grain and pulut (glutinous rice), which is steamed with halba (an aromatic seed spice also known as fenugreek seeds), onions and ginger.26 It is eaten with ikan tongkol (tuna) curry or sometimes chicken curry.27 Indonesia has its nasi gurih and nasi kuning, which are cooked for special occasions and festivities.28 While both are cooked with coconut milk, the addition of spices, lemongrass and turmeric to the latter imparts a fragrance and distinct yellow colour to the nasi kuning.29




Author
Bonny Tan




References
1. Recipes. (1982, August 22). The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; World food. Malaysia & Singapore. (2002). Footscray, Vic.; Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publication, pp. 34–35. (Call no.: RSING 641.9595 WFMS)
2.
Phoon, A. (2010, February 6). Cream of the crop. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Tully, J. (2010, June 26).Grain of truth. The Business Times, pp. 4–5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Naleeza, E., & Yaw, Y. Y. (2006). Not just a good food guide: Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 60. (Call no.: RSING 647.955957 NAL); Perkataan2 di-rumah dan erti-nya. (1957, October 1). Berita Harian, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. World food. Malaysia & Singapore. (2002). Footscray, Vic.; Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publication, pp. 34–35. (Call no.: RSING 641.9595 WFMS)
4.
Tully, J. (2010, June 26).Grain of truth. The Business Times, pp. 4–5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. World food. Malaysia & Singapore. (2002). Footscray, Vic; Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publication, pp. 34–35. (Call no.: RSING 641.9595 WFMS)
6. Basan, G. (2006). The food and cooking of Malaysia & Singapore. London: Aquamarine, pp. 23, 63. (Call no.: RSING 641.59595 BAS); Tan, C. (2006, October 1). Do the sambal. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Tan, C. (2006, October 1). Do the sambal. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
8. Recipes. (1982, August 22). The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Tully, J. (2010, June 26).Grain of truth. The Business Times, pp. 4–5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. World food. Malaysia & Singapore. (2002). Footscray, Vic.; Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publication, pp. 34–35. (Call no.: RSING 641.9595 WFMS); Phoon, A. (2010, February 6). Cream of the crop. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
11. Ho, Z., & Wu, A. (2001, April 8). Coconut rice paradise. The Straits Times, p. 56. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Aida, A. (2014, November 14). Nasi lemak – once a farmer’s meal, now Malaysia’s favourite. The Star Online. Retrieved 2016, March 28 from The Star website: http://www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/food/news/2014/11/19/nasi-lemak-once-a-farmers-meal-now-malaysias-favourite/
12. Ho, Z., & Wu, A. (2001, April 8). Coconut rice paradise. The Straits Times, p. 56. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Yahaya Hanum & Fadillah Yakin. (2009). Cuisine of the premiers. Kuala Lumpur: Institut Terjemahan Negara, p. 134. (Call no.: RSING 641.59595 HAB)
14. Zakiah Hanum. (1995). The great Malaysian breakfast. Kuala Lumpur: Berita Publishing Sdn Bhd, p. x. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59595 ZUK); World food. Malaysia & Singapore. (2002). Footscray, Vic.; Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publication, pp. 34–35. (Call no.: RSING 641.9595 WFMS)
15. Winstedt, R. O. (1909). Papers on Malay subjects. In R. J. Wilkinson (Ed.), Life and customs Pt. 2 [Microfilm no.: NL 263]. Kuala Lumpur: [s.n.], p. 62.
16. Kuala Lumpur’s Malay Market. (1935, July 21). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Tan, C. (2006, October 1). Do the sambal. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Ho, Z., & Wu, A. (2001, April 8). Coconut rice paradise. The Straits Times, p. 56. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Raghavan, S. (2010). Flavors of Malaysia: a journey through time, tastes, and traditions. New York: Hippocrene, Inc, p. 117. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59595 RAG)
19. Raghavan, S. (2010). Flavors of Malaysia: a journey through time, tastes, and traditions. New York: Hippocrene, Inc, p. 117. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59595 RAG)
20. Phoon, A. (2010, February 6). Cream of the crop. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Tully, J. (2010, June 26).Grain of truth. The Business Times, pp. 4–5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; World food. Malaysia & Singapore. (2002). Footscray, Vic.; Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publication, pp. 34–35. (Call no.: RSING 641.9595 WFMS)
21. Basan, G. (2006). The food and cooking of Malaysia & Singapore. London: Aquamarine, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING 641.59595 BAS)
22. Tully, J. (2010, June 26).Grain of truth. The Business Times, pp. 4–5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, C. (2011). Cultural reproduction, local invention and globalization of Southeast Asian Chinese food. In C-B Tan (Ed.), Chinese food and foodways in Southeast Asia and beyond. Singapore: NUS Press, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 394.12089951059 CHI)
23. Tay, L. (2014). Only the best! The ieat, ishoot, ipost guide to Singapore’s shiokest hawker food and the best ieat guide to durians ever! Singapore: Epigram Books, p. 149. (Call no.: RSING 641.595957 TAY); Kim, K.-O. (2015). Re-orienting cuisine: East Asian foodways in the twenty-first century. New York : Berghahn Books, p. 40. (Call no.: RSEA 394.12095 REO -[CUS])
24. Billi’s fried nasi lemak a hit. (2008, October 21). New Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg 
25. Norazah Ahmad. (1983, December 21). Nasi dagang has a taste of its own. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Raghavan, S. (2010). Flavors of Malaysia: A journey through time, tastes, and traditions. New York: Hippocrene, Inc, p. 128. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59595 RAG)
26. Basan, G. (2006). The food and cooking of Malaysia & Singapore. London: Aquamarine, p. 13. (Call no.: RSING 641.59595 BAS); Norazah Ahmad. (1983, December 21). Nasi dagang has a taste of its own. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Raghavan, S. (2010). Flavors of Malaysia: A journey through time, tastes, and traditions. New York: Hippocrene, Inc, p. 128. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59595 RAG); Zakiah, H. (1995). The great Malaysian breakfast. Kuala Lumpur: Berita Publishing Sdn Bhd, p. 1 (Call no.: RSEA 641.59595 ZUK)
27. Norazah Ahmad. (1983, December 21). Nasi dagang has a taste of its own. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Raghavan, S. (2010). Flavors of Malaysia: A journey through time, tastes, and traditions. New York: Hippocrene, Inc, p. 128. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59595 RAG); Zakiah, H. (1995). The great Malaysian breakfast. Kuala Lumpur: Berita Publishing Sdn Bhd, p. 3. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59595 ZUK)
28. Sri, O. (1994). Indonesian regional food and cookery. New York: Doubleday, p. 174. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59598 OWE); Brissenden, R. (2011). South East Asian food: Classic and modern dishes from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Prahan, Vic.: Hardie Grant Books, p. 165. (Call no.: RSING 641.5959 BRI)
29. Sri, O. (1994). Indonesian regional food and cookery. New York: Doubleday, p. 243. (Call no.: RSEA 641.59598 OWE); Brissenden, R. (2011). South East Asian food: Classic and modern dishes from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Prahan, Vic.: Hardie Grant Books, p. 166. (Call no.: RSING 641.5959 BRI)



The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Heritage and Culture
Cooking, Malay
Cookery>>International and regional cooking>>Malay
Ethnic Communities>>Food
Cookery, Singaporean
Ethnic foods