Breaking down the different ingredients of a Malaysian nasi lemak

Patricia Hului

Malaysians can get defensive when comes to their food. When a foreigner mocks Malaysian food, Malaysians react as if their parents were insulted.

An example is when a British journalist tweeted on Jan 15, 2020 about the nasi lemak served to her on a British Airways flight.

Along with a vomiting emoji, Katie Morley tweeted, “Chicken curry served with anaemic boiled egg, topped with smelly, slimey anchovies. ANCHOVIES. I quite like plane food usually, and this was a 0/10.”

While some Malaysians condemned her harshly over her tweet, some suggested she try the real Nasi Lemak.

Morley then gave the real deal a try at a restaurant in central London. She later tweeted thanking Malaysians who suggested her to try the real nasi lemak. She stated, “You are right, it’s delicious!”

Who doesn’t love this rice cooked in coconut milk with pandan leaf and served with sambal, anchovies, cucumber and various side dishes?

Historian Ahmad Najib Ariffin – who is also the founder of Nusantara Academy of Development, Geocultures & Ethnolinguistics – gave an insight to the history of nasi lemak.

He told the Star in 2014 that nasi lemak seemed to come from the west coast of peninsular Malaysia.

“The east coast, which is the most culturally conservative part of the country, has its own signature traditional rice dishes with prominent, distinct fish flavours such as nasi dagang and nasi kerabu.

“Farmers needed a hearty meal in the morning, so eating nasi lemak kept them full because you have all have the food groups covered – carbohydrates from the rice, oils from the sambal and protein from the anchovies.”

Here at KajoMag, look into the different components that make up a traditional Malaysian nasi lemak:

A Malaysian nasi lemak with rendang.

1.The rice

Did you know that rice cooked in coconut milk is actually common in Indonesia? Nasi uduk, nasi gurih and nasi liwet are all Indonesian dishes comprise of rice cooked in coconut milk.

However for nasi lemak, the taste is more fragrant because of the Pandan leaves.

The rice can be cooked with fresh or canned coconut milk.

Other spices used in the rice are ginger and lemon grass to enhance its fragrance.

There is a folklore behind how coconut milk was added into the rice. Long time ago, there was a widow Mak Kuntum and her daughter, Seri.

While cooking a pot of rice, Seri accidentally spilled coconut milk into it. Mak Kuntum returned home, smelling the fragrant rice, asking her daughter what it was. To this, Seri replied, “Nasi le, mak! (It is rice, Mum!).

The earliest mention of nasi lemak can be found in The Circumstances of Malay Life, written by Sir Richard Olaf Winstedt.

He did not state nasi lemak directly but rather explained how the Malay people during the early 1900s cooked their rice.

Winstedt wrote, “To an epicure well cooked rice is the alpha, just as well-spiced condiments are the omega, of good curry. Unfortunately for European taste, at marriages and festivals the Malay cook will try to improve on perfection. He will boil the rice along with such spices as carraway seeds, cloves, mace, nutmeg and ginger and garlic, in dripping or coconut oil, or he will boil it in coconut milk instead of water, or he will gild the lily with turmeric, using glutinous rice.”

2.The sambal

A sambal is basically a sauce or paste made from chilli pepper with other secondary ingredients.

The secondary ingredients usually comprise of shrimp paste, garlic, ginger, shallot, palm sugar, lime juice, scallion and tamarind pulp.

There are so many types of sambal out there.

When it comes to nasi lemak, the sambal is the one which seals the deal when deciding if it is a good nasi lemak.

The key to making perfect sambal for nasi lemak is to stir-fry it after crushing or blending the ingredients together.

As for its basic ingredients, those commonly used are garlic, shallots, white onion, dried chilli, red chilli salt and sugar to taste as well as cooking oil.

There are many tips and tricks to make a good sambal. If the blended the ingredients are too dry, add a little oil into the mixture.

If you stir-fry the blended ingredients in a hot wok, it tends to splatter oil while frying.

One trick is to a sprinkle a bit of salt in the hot oil when it starts to bubble. It will help absorb moisture and prevent splashing.

If you are using crushed anchovies in your sambal, do not blend the anchovies with the rest of ingredients. Fry the blended anchovies first before putting in the other mixture. This tip can also prevent the oil from splashing.

Some Chinese are famous for making their own sambal. Theirs are usually less spicy and combined with minced pork as an additional ingredient.

3.The cucumber slices

The basic vegetable to compliment a Malaysian nasi lemak is the cucumber slices. However, sometimes we do see nasi lemak which comes with other vegetable such as kangkung.

A fresh, crunchy cucumber is always good addition to the dish while stale cucumber slices are always a major turn off for nasi lemak.

4.The small anchovies

If Morley’s claim was true, it was sacrilege for British Airways to be serving smelly and slimey anchovies.

The real Nasi Lemak anchovies should be crunchy.

These small anchovies give extra texture and saltiness to the whole dish.

5.The roasted peanuts

Speaking of crunchiness, here is another ingredient which adds extra texture to the whole dish, the roasted peanuts.

Together with the fried anchovies, there should be roasted peanuts, making it immediately recognisable as a nasi lemak dish.

6.The eggs

Malaysian nasi lemak commonly uses a hard boiled egg as part of the dish. If the nasi lemak is selling at a cheaper price, then the hard boiled egg is cut into half or even a quarter.

Sometimes, it is also served with a fried egg.

Regardless, the egg is an essential source of protein for the dish.

7.The extra dish

Now comes the fun part, the extra dish. There are endless possibilities when comes to the extra dishes for a nasi lemak.

The common ones are, of course, rendang, curry and fried chicken. The curry can be chicken curry, fish curry or lamb curry.

Although nasi lemak is a dish of Malay origin, other races have added their own twist and made it as their own. For example, a non-halal nasi lemak is served with pork which is either served as barbecued or fried.

A Malaysian Nasi Lemak with cripy pork slices.

If you cannot have enough of sambal, there are plenty of dishes cooked in sambal and served with a nasi lemak. This include sambal sotong (squid) and sambal udang (prawn).

With this extra dish of protein, nasi lemak has come a long way from being a comfort food for farmers.