Spic­ing up Malaysia’s beloved ‘fatty rice,’ nasi le­mak


Zainal Abidin’s tiny food stall serves just one item and opens for only a few hours but is be­sieged each day by nearly a thou­sand cus­tomers clam­or­ing for Malaysia’s undis­puted na­tional dish, nasi le­mak.

“We need more rice in here!” shouted a sweaty teenager work­ing Zainal’s stall as cus­tomers waited ex­pec­tantly in a long line amid the aroma of co­conut milk and fried an­chovies.

Italy has its pasta, Ja­pan its sushi and Eng­land its fish and chips.

But per­haps no dish is more ubiq­ui­tous or beloved in Malaysia as nasi le­mak, rice cooked with co­conut milk and served with golden-fried an­chovies, roasted peanuts, a boiled egg, sliced cu­cum­bers and a dol­lop of a fiery chili con­coc­tion sam­bal.

Born as a cheap break­fast, nasi le­mak is to­day eaten through­out the day, and is on an ex­pand­ing culi­nary so­journ with the clas­sic recipe con­tin­u­ally tweaked, and even in­no­va­tions such as nasi le­mak pizza and ice cream ap­pear­ing on menus.

“De­mand for nasi le­mak has gone up a lot over the years be­cause it is not just for break­fast any­more,” said Zainal, 57, whose mother first opened their “Nasi Le­mak Tan­glin” stall in 1948.

Usu­ally trans­lated as “fatty rice,” nasi le­mak also is served in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries like In­done­sia, Sin­ga­pore and Brunei, but nowhere is it more deeply rooted in the food cul­ture than Malaysia.

Farm­ers and fish­er­men are be­lieved to have thrown it to­gether as a break­fast rich in nec­es­sary carbs, pro­tein, fats and de­liv­er­ing a spicy kick.

But it is now ubiq­ui­tous across the coun­try, in­clud­ing higher-end restau­rants and ho­tels.

Malaysia Meets Italy

At Kuala Lumpur’s up­scale Tujo Bar-ser­rie & Grill, Malaysia and Italy have been united in a nasi le­mak pizza — thin crusts in­fused with ei­ther squid ink or spinach, and topped with an­chovy, onions, roast peanuts and sam­bal.

“Tourists like it too, but lo­cals es­pe­cially get quite ex­cited be­cause they can’t imag­ine it when they read about it,” said Sa­man­tha Lee, a Tujo spokes­woman who said a pasta ver­sion will de­but soon.

Food crit­ics say nasi le­mak’s sim­plic­ity makes it a clean slate ripe for culi­nary ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

“Nasi le­mak pos­sesses a po­ten­tial that many Malaysian restau­ra­teurs are ex­ploit­ing in in­no­va­tive ways,” said Sean Loong, a Malaysian food blog­ger.

“These in­no­va­tions il­lus­trate Malaysia’s con­tin­u­ing fas­ci­na­tion with nasi le­mak,” Loong said, add- ing that ex­per­i­ments with the dish have be­gun to take off in the past two years.

Ong Kee Win, who runs the trendy Cielo Dolci cafe known for its orig­i­nal ice creams in­clud­ing beer and soy flavours, came up with a nasi le­mak ice cream in 2012.

“Peo­ple thought I was crazy. No­body wanted to try it at first,” Ong said. “But these days, more lo­cals and for­eign­ers want to try it.”

Af­ter cook­ing his co­conut rice, Ong churns it to­gether with a se­cret gelato base, later top­ping it off with frozen peanuts, an­chovies and chili flakes.

The end-prod­uct, redo­lent of co­conut, tastes un­can­nily like a thick, creamy, frozen ver­sion of the real deal.

Over­seas Ac­cep­tance Lags

Few traits are as ef­fec­tive in pro­mot­ing a coun­try and its cul­ture abroad as cui­sine, yet nasi le­mak — de­spite its im­por­tance at home — is yet to join the glob­ally rec­og­nized ranks of sushi and pasta.

Tourism of­fi­cials, how­ever, last year mar­keted nasi le­mak as a slice of Malaysian ex­ot­ica in a pro­mo­tional cam­paign in Ja­pan.

The dish also got some over­seas pub­lic­ity when a Malaysia-born woman won the pop­u­lar MasterChef tele­vi­sion cook­ing con­test in the United King­dom with a nasi le­mak dish.

Ong feels the of­ten in­tensely spicy sam­bal blocks over­seas ac­cep­tance.

“Nasi le­mak hasn’t be­come glob­ally fa­mous yet be­cause of the spici­ness but ex­per­i­men­ta­tion will help as we put nasi le­mak in a dif­fer­ent con­text now,” said Ong.

The dish’s ex­pand­ing fron­tiers and pop­u­lar­ity at home were on dis­play at a re­cent nasi le­mak fes­ti­val in Kuala Lumpur that drew thou­sands seek­ing to taste the cre­ations of some of the cap­i­tal’s top chefs.

These in­cluded veg­e­tar­ian and or­ganic ver­sions that re­placed an­chovies with mush­room stalks cou­pled with cre­atively fried veg­eta­bles and brown rice.

Another recipe in­volved fry­ing the co­conut rice in a wok with a spe­cial chili for­mula that turned it all a fiery red.

Across Malaysia, other ver­sions may in­clude sides of fried chicken, squid mar­i­nated and cooked in chili sauce, fried beef lungs, or an ar­ray of other touches.

But ad­her­ents aren’t about for­sake the time-tested orig­i­nal.

Dean Jo­hari flew in es­pe­cially for the fes­ti­val, say­ing the stan­dards of clas­sic nasi le­mak in his na­tive neigh­bor­ing Sin­ga­pore have slipped.

“It brings back child­hood mem­o­ries, and of a time that was sim­pler. To me, that is price­less,” he said, fin­ish­ing off a plate.



(Top) In this pic­ture taken March 25, a Malaysian stall as­sis­tant serves Nasi Le­mak at the Nasi Le­mak Tan­glin stall in Kuala Lumpur. (Above) In this pic­ture taken Feb. 28, the owner of the Cielo Dolci cafe poses with a cup of Nasi Le­mak ice cream at his cafe in Kuala Lumpur.

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