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.