Rice is a staple of the Malaysian diet. You can choose to have rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sadly, this habit has contributed to rising obesity cases in the country, according to the Malaysian Ministry of Health. But we Malaysians do love our rice.
One quintessential rice dish considered our darling, pride and joy is the humble nasi lemak.
“Nasi” (pronounced nah-see) in Malay means rice, and “lemak” (pronounced luh-mahk) is translated in the cooking context to mean enriched. In this case, it is enriched with coconut milk. In any other sense, “lemak” means fat. But to directly translate nasi lemak as “fat rice” would be linguistically wrong, gastronomically speaking.
Even expats living in Malaysia, in the west peninsular particularly, are more or less familiar with this rich, decadent dish, which is a staple in most local restaurants. It is hard not to love a nice, warm plate of nasi lemak. It would be like being in Italy and not having pizza or pasta.
Two important elements make up this dish: the rice, which is cooked in coconut milk with little shreds of ginger and lemongrass as well as screwpine (pandan in Malay) leaf thrown in for added fragrance, and the spicy sambal, a chili-based sauce that has either fried anchovies (ikan bilis in Malay) or prawns in it. As many would say, it’s all in the sauce, and this one packs a punch. The other essential condiments usually found in nasi lemak are sliced cucumbers, half a hard-boiled egg and roasted ground nuts. Nowadays, many variations of accompaniments are served with the dish, such as chicken, beef or prawn curry and even fried chicken.
The traditional way of packing nasi lemak is to wrap it in a banana tree leaf, as the leaf gives added fragrance. It is still sold as such throughout Peninsular Malaysia, but restaurants serve up a “modernized” version on a plate with all the trimmings.
One Australian expat I interviewed last year, Hugh Ujhazy, had this to say: “People think it’s a dollar’s worth of rice in a brown paper packet. For me, the rice and sambal has to be just right. I love it with coarse-cut onions, chili, ginger and garlic. The side of fried anchovies is also essential. I have yet to find the perfect nasi lemak,” he enthused.
Origins of nasi lemak remain unknown
Be it that we Malaysians have long claimed nasi lemak to be ours, the truth is no one really knows where it originates from because the practice of using coconut milk in rice is also common in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and India. While driving to work one day, I was lucky to catch an interview with a Malaysian heritage historian — a man named Najib Ariffin — on one of our radio channels, who happened to talk about the origins of the famous nasi lemak.
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Ariffin studies ethnic origins and relationships between cultures, focusing on the Indo-Pacific region. He said he has yet to come across any conclusive evidence on the origin of this dish. There is even a folklore story set in the historic state of Malacca (a couple of hours south of Kuala Lumpur) about a young village girl who, while helping her mother cook, accidentally spilled a cup of coconut milk in a pot of rice, much to the chagrin of her mother, who ended up actually liking the taste, hence the birth of nasi lemak.
The fact that Malaysia is a melting pot of different races — including Malays, Chinese and Indians — translates into our cuisine as well. “Malacca has its own Chinese version of nasi lemak which is judged on how they cook the sambal. Some like it a tad sweeter and some don’t,” he explains.
Some clues show nasi lemak, which is often consumed as a big breakfast meal, originated in the west coast of Malaysia, he said. The east coast, which is the most culturally conservative part of the country, has its own signature traditional rice dishes with prominent, distinct fish flavors. “The nasi lemak has not changed their fondness for their local dishes. It just adds on to the variety of rice dishes available there,” Ariffin added.
He goes on to say that back in the day, in an agrarian society, his grandparents would consume a healthy serving of nasi lemak for breakfast before heading out to the fields. “They really worked up a sweat as farmers so they needed a hearty meal in the morning. Eating nasi lemak kept them full because you have all the food groups covered — carbohydrates from the rice, oils from the sambal and protein from the anchovies.”
It is a pity nothing was recorded on paper back then. “I scoured old books, articles, libraries and even talked to some friends of my grandparents to find out about stories they heard. Let’s just say all the anecdotes died with them,” he concluded.
I love indulging in a hot packet of nasi lemak, but the best is always cooked by my own mother. She has graciously shared her recipe.
This recipe can be made in a rice cooker or stock pot. Make sure you simmer the rice on medium to low heat until cooked. You can cook the dish in your own kitchen, but you may need to substitute some ingredients if you can’t locate them in your area. Some Asian grocery stores might have them in stock.
2 cups white rice, rinsed and drained
2 ½ to 3 cups coconut milk, depending on your desired thickness
2 tablespoons cooking oil (to prevent rice from sticking)
One screwpine (pandan) leaf, or substitute with three bay leaves
1 stick of lemongrass, smashed
Pinch of salt to taste
2 tablespoons of fresh ginger, julienned
1. Wash the rice in a colander or pasta strainer until the water runs clear. Set aside.
2. In a rice cooker or pot, heat the oil on slow fire and add the coconut milk, lemongrass, leaves and salt. Add the rice.
3. When the rice is half cooked, add the ginger and close the lid until it is fully cooked.
This recipe calls for dried anchovies, which can be found in most Asian stores. If unavailable, medium-sized fresh prawns can be used.
2 cups dried chilies, seeded and soaked in water, boiled and blended (If unavailable, these can be replaced with 3 tablespoons of sweet paprika or cayenne pepper)
1 stick of lemongrass, smashed
4 tablespoon cooking oil
1 cup of shallots, ginger and garlic, puréed
2 tablespoons tamarind juice, plus enough water to make ½ cup (This can be substituted with 2 tablespoons of lime juice.)
3 cups of dried anchovies, washed, drained, dried and fried (If you are using fresh prawns, use the same measurement and wash and peel off the veins.)
Salt to taste
Sugar to taste
1. In a stock pot, heat oil over medium heat and add the lemongrass for two minutes.
2. Add the chili mix and stir until fragrant, followed by the shallots, ginger and garlic mix. Sweat it for about three minutes.
3. Mix in the tamarind or lime juice and simmer until everything is fragrant.
4. Toss in the anchovies or prawns and simmer until they are well coated or until the prawns are cooked, about 5 to 7 minutes.
5. Add the salt and sugar according to your preference.
Top photo: Nasi lemak. Credit: Aida Ahmad