Nasi Lemak: The Story

MY mom’s Nasi Lemak this morning and also my life-long love affair (and am sure, majority of us Malaysians, too) with this hearty breakfast made me decide to write a bit more about this famous dish.

Without a doubt, this hearty breakfast has been with us since, like…errr, forever.

Apart from being handed down through generations via our great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mothers, Nasi lemak was in fact, mentioned in a book The Circumstances of Malay Life, written Sir Richard Olof Winstedt in 1909.

Rooted in Malay culture and Malay cuisine, its name in Malay mean “rich” or “creamy” rice.

Undoubtedly, the name is derived from the way the dish was cooked. The rice is soaked in coconut milk and then the mixture will be steamed or boiled. A knotted pandan (pandanus) leaves will be added in to give a distinctive flavour. A stalk of ginger and lemongrass can be added too for extra ooomph.

Traditionally, and this is the way I like my Nasi Lemak, when it is served with a hot spicy sauce (sambal), and the usual garnishes such as fresh cucumber slices, small fried anchovies (ikan bilis), peanuts, and hard-boiled or fried egg.


As a “complete” meal, Nasi Lemak would be served with an additional dish such as ayam goreng (fried chicken), sambal sotong (cuttlefish in chili mixture), cockles and rendang daging (beef stewed in coconut milk and spices). Other accompaniments include stir fried water convolvulus (kangkong) and acar.

Traditionally served as breakfast, now Nasi Lemak can be enjoyed anytime of the day. No longer just limited to early morning cravings, now night owls can also satisfy their Nasi Lemak cravings from stalls that open till late at night.

According to writer Dwayne A. Rules in (The Star, 2011), Nasi Lemak can be eaten at any time – breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner, supper, post-boozeup – and the mingling of flavours and textures (creamy, hot & spicy, crunchy, nutty, etc) makes it simply… sheer ambrosia.

As times go by, there are many variations to the Nasi Lemak now. Sometimes the changes are made due to health constraints — like the lack of coconut milk and being replaced with healthier options.

According to Wikipedia, there are few variations of Nasi Lemak available now including the traditional Malaysian Malay version; Malaysian Indian version which replaces beef with chicken, lamb or fish curry; Malaysian Chinese version which sells the typical Nasi Lemak and also offers a non-halal meat and Vegetarian version which the dried anchovies are substituted with vegetarian mock anchovies.

Apart from home-cooked, Nasi Lemak can also be enjoyed in Nasi Lemak Bungkus style in which everything is wrapped together and sold by roadside stalls or in some cafes, delis and bakeries.

It is also served in restaurants and hotel eateries, and served with most of the ingredients as described above, except more pricey…

Despite the variations, Nasi Lemak undoubtedly one of many elements which united us Malaysians. I still remember during my working trip to Beijing, China, after a week eating Szechuan cuisines and other local food, my fellow Malaysian journalists were craving for Nasi Lemak. The first thing they said after we finished our work and packing our luggage for departure was, how they couldn’t wait to eat Nasi Lemak!

As we discussed which style and which garnishes we like most, it was such a joy that we all share something beautiful in common! And to think that my fellow journalist then were all Malaysian Chinese, I marvelled (with pride and joy and a happy tear) how this unique food unites us all… A