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Nasi lemak is a dish that comprises rice made fragrant with coconut cream and pandanus leaves. A light meal that is believed to be Malay in origin, it is traditionally accompanied by fried anchovies, sliced cucumbers, fried fish known as ikan selar, and a sweet chili sauce. Modern-day variations on the dish now offer an extensive array of other side dishes.
Nasi lemak is Malay for “rice in cream”, a reference to the rice being cooked in coconut milk, or “richly flavoured rice”. The rice is lightly salted and made fragrant with a knot of pandanus leaves (locally known as pandan leaves) added while the rice is still cooking. It is the ordinary man’s breakfast, traditionally served with fried fish known in Malay as ikan selar kuning, local anchovies known as ikan bilis, kangkong (also known as water spinach or water convolvulus) and a dollop of sambal (a type of chilli paste). The ikan kuning is fried so crisp that it can be eaten whole. Nowadays, the anchovies are fried with salted peanuts, the dish topped with thin slices of cucumber and an egg, fried or boiled. The rice and all its condiments and side dishes are kept warm in a banana leaf folded into a conical pocket.
The sambal is the dish’s signature condiment. Malays prefer their rice with sambal ikan bilis (a chilli paste made of local anchovies) while Peranakans prefer sambal belacan (chilli shrimp paste). The sambal is a combination of dried chillis, shallots, garlic and belacan with sometimes sliced lemon grass added. Sugar and tamarind give the chilli sauce a sweet and tangy taste.
The rice is traditionally steamed because if it is cooked over a hot fire, the coconut milk can easily burn. Modern cooks use a rice cooker and replace water with the coconut milk instead. Some secrets to good nasi lemak include cooking the rice halfway the night before, then adding the coconut milk and pandan leaves the following morning before completing the cooking process.
The dish remains one of the cheapest meals offered in local food courts and hawker centres. While many stalls sell the dish as a set meal, with the basic accompaniments, others offer a wide variety of side dishes that can be added on.
It is believed that when the local Malay community resided by the seafront in Singapore’s early years, the availability of ingredients such as the coconut and the flavourful outcome of adding it to rice resulted in the innovation of nasi lemak. Side dishes added to the rice came from the village’s natural resources – kangkong plucked from the garden and anchovies harvested from the sea. Others suggest that packets of rice wrapped in banana leaves were brought to padi fields (rice fields) for working farmers to consume. As Singapore developed, itinerant vendors would bring the banana-leaf wrapped rice door-to-door carried in baskets. Today it is a popular dish eaten not only at breakfast but also throughout the day.
One of the earliest published references to nasi lemak appears in a newspaper article dated 1935 that notes the dish was available at the Kuala Lumpur Malay Market at Kampong Bahru. Otherwise, newspaper articles only begin to mention the dish from the 1980s, with increasing frequency in subsequent decades. In the 1970s, the nasi lemak packets were much smaller than those sold today, but were priced at a mere 30 cents. They were often sold door-to-door by itinerant vendors who had the apportioned rice wrapped in banana leaves.
While the rice is traditionally cooked with coconut milk, variants include the addition of garlic, shallots, a small cut of ginger and at least two stalks of lemon grass added into the cooking rice. The spices enhance the sweetness and fragrant flavours of the rice.
Since the 1980s, the dish has gradually evolved to include a greater variety of accompaniments besides the standard anchovies, chilli sauce and cucumber. The range of side dishes is as varied as the imagination of the stallholder. For example, rendang (a local curry), fried chicken wing and otah (barbequed fish paste) seem to be the accompaniments of choice. Others have achar (pickled vegetables) and long beans.
While nasi lemak is essentially a Malay dish, the Chinese also serve it, sometimes accompanied by non-halal side dishes such as luncheon meat. Some well-known nasi lemak stalls, such as Chong Pang Nasi Lemak, are Chinese. A Chinese stall, once located at the Market Street Food Centre, innovatively churned out plates of green nasi lemak that became a popular meal, especially since it came with good chilli. The tinge of light green came from the pandanus leaves.
In Kuala Trengganu, local chef Billy Chua combined Chinese fried rice with nasi lemak to create nasi lemak goreng (fried rice nasi lemak). He had invented it as a teenager. He finally offered it on his menu at his eatery, Billi Kopitiam, where it has remained popular since.
East Malaysian States such as Kelantan and Trengganu also have a similar dish known as nasi dagang or “trader’s rice” (although some suggest the name refers to “foreigners”). The coconut rice is a mixture of normal grain and pulut (“glutinous rice”) which is steamed with halba (an aromatic seed spice), onions and ginger. It is eaten with ikan tongkol (tuna) curry or sometimes chicken curry. The dish, however, is infrequently sold in Singapore. Indonesia has a variant known as nasi uduk, meaning “mixed rice”, where the rice is cooked with lemongrass and other spices.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.