Nasi lemak is a fragrant rice dish cooked in coconut milk and “pandan” leaf commonly found in Malaysia, where it is considered the national dish; Brunei; Singapore; Riau Islands; and Southern Thailand. It is not to be confused with Nasi Dagang sold on the east coast of Malaysia or Terengganu and Kelantan although both dishes can usually be found sold side by side for breakfast. However, because of the nasi lemak’s versatility in being able to be served in a variety of manners, it is now served and eaten any time of the day.
Nasi Lemak is probably the most popular dish in Singapore and Malaysia. Traditionally, it’s served as a quick hearty breakfast meal; but, these days it’s available everywhere, round the clock at many restaurants and markets. Nasi Lemak or coconut infused rice is usually served with a spicy sambal, sliced cucumber, deep-fried anchovies, fried peanuts, and eggs, either hard-boiled or fried.
- 2 cups long grain rice, washed and drained
- 3 pandan leaves, washed and knotted
- 1 Asian shallot, peeled and thickly sliced
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1½ cups coconut milk
- ¾ cup water
- 50g deep fried anchovies
- 1 large red onion, quartered and sliced thinly
- 70g brown sugar
- 15g tamarind paste mixed with 1 cup of water, discard the solids
- 1½ teaspoons sea salt
- ½ cup cooking oil
- 100g Asian shallots, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 40g dried red chillies, soaked in boiling water and drained
- 1 teaspoon belacan
- Place all the coconut rice ingredients in a rice cooker and cook according to the manufacturer instructions. When the rice is cooked, fluff with a fork and keep warm in the rice cooker.
- Blend the spice paste ingredients and cook on a moderate heat with the oil. Stir frequently until fragrant and the oil has separated from the mixture.
- Add the red onion and give a quick stir.
- Mix in the tamarind juice, sugar and cook the sambal mixture for about 20 to 25 minutes.
- Mix in the fried anchovies and cook for another 15 minutes.
- Season with additional sugar or salt if necessary.
With roots in Malay culture and Malay cuisine, its name in Malay literally means “fatty rice”, but is taken in this context to mean “rich” or “creamy”. The name is derived from the cooking process whereby rice is soaked in coconut cream and then the mixture steamed. This is the same process used to make a dish from their neighbouring country, Indonesia, which is nasi uduk, therefore the two dishes are quite similar. Sometimes knotted screwpine (pandan) leaves are thrown into the rice while steaming to give it more fragrance. Spices such as ginger and occasionally herbs like lemongrass may be added for additional fragrance.
Traditionally, this comes as a platter of food wrapped in banana leaves, with cucumber slices, small fried anchovies (ikan bilis), roasted peanuts, hard boiled egg, and hot spicy sauce (sambal) at its core. As a more substantial meal, nasi lemak can also come with a variety of other accompaniments such as ayam goreng (fried chicken), sambal sotong (cuttlefish in chilli), cockles, stir fried water convolvulus (kangkong), pickled vegetables (‘acar’), beef rendang (beef stewed in coconut milk and spices) or paru (beef lungs). Traditionally most of these accompaniments are spicy in nature.
Nasi lemak is widely eaten in Malaysia and Singapore, even as a dish served in Malaysian schools. Commonly a breakfast dish in both countries, it is normally sold at hawker food centres in Singapore and roadside stalls in Malaysia. It often comes wrapped in banana leaves, newspaper or brown paper,and it could be served on a plate. However, there are restaurants which serve it as a noon or evening meals, making it possible for the dish to be eaten all day. Nasi lemak kukus which means “steamed nasi lemak” is another name given to nasi lemak served with steamed rice.
In Malaysia and Singapore, nasi lemak comes in many varieties as they are prepared by different chefs in different cultures. The original nasi lemak in Malaysia is arguably a typical Southern and Central Peninsular Malaysia breakfast among Malays. Malaysian Chinese and Indians also partake this dish in their breakfast but not as frequently as Malays. The sambal tends to range from fiery hot to mildly hot with a sweet undertaste. Nasi lemak in the Northern West Peninsular tends to include curry. Nasi lemak is not as popular as the indigenous nasi berlauk, nasi dagang, and nasi kerabu in North East Peninsular Malaysia. Nasi lemak is not a familiar breakfast in Sabah and Sarawak. Hotels usually have nasi lemak on their menu with elaborate dishes, such as beef rendang and the addition of other seafood. Hawker centres in Singapore and Malaysia usually wrap them in banana leaves to enhance the flavour. Roadside stalls sell them ready packed, known as “nasi lemak bungkus”. Seafood outlets often serve the basic nasi lemak to accompany barbecued seafood. There are Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indian versions, and Singaporean Malay and Singaporean Chinese versions. Some people suggest that sambal is the most important part of a nasi lemak meal. If not prepared perfectly, it could ruin the whole meal, since Malaysians like their food served hot and spicy.
The Malaysian Indian variation is similar to the original version. However, many Malaysian Indians are Hindus, and do not eat beef. Therefore, beef is not included while preparing the Malaysian Indian version of nasi lemak. Nasi lemak in Malaysian Indian style is served with curry, such as chicken curry, fish curry or lamb curry.
Although it is not common to see Malaysian Chinese stalls and restaurants selling nasi lemak, there is a non-halal version that contains pork sold in towns and cities such as Malacca and certain parts of Kuala Lumpur. Some Malaysian Chinese hawkers are known to make minced pork sambal.
Similar to Malaysian variation with a kind of small fish called ikan tamban, usually fried with sambal and very crispy, whole fish is edible.
This traditional favourite offers ikan bilis, nuts, fried fish, cucumber, and occasionally a fried egg.
Retaining the familiar aroma of pandan leaves, the Chinese variation comes with a variety of sides that includes deep fried drumstick, chicken franks, fish cake, curried vegetables and luncheon meat.
In certain parts of Kuala Lumpur, some Malaysian Chinese and Malay hawkers also offer vegetarian nasi lemak in which the dried anchovies is substituted with vegetarian mock anchovies.