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Coconut rice, chili on the side, slivers of anchovy, nuts, and a boiled egg: meet Malaysia’s national dish, the nasi lemak. A simple everyday meal gracing the dinner table of Malaysians all across the country, this beloved dish has a history as humble as its ingredients.
The nasi lemak started off as a farmer’s meal. Long days in the field meant a filling dish ready for on-the-go eating was essential. The rice, oils, and fish provided a balanced diet in one packet, and it was easily concocted too. A recipe of Malay origin, it made use of the seafront harvests, coconuts, and fish.
A closer look at the individual ingredients shows exactly why this plain dish is so revered among the locals.
Plain white rice is steamed in coconut milk; not cooked, for the risk of burning the rice is higher. Coconut milk, or santan, is the “lemak” of the dish: the richness. Often, cooks will add a little extra something to personalize the flavor of the rice, such as ginger, lemongrass, or shallots, but always pandan to create the trademark subtle taste.
A spicy, semi-sweet chili paste is drizzled on the side of the plate; each distinguishable from the next. Malaysians, being of multicultural Asian heritage, have a fondness for spices that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. More signature-worthy than the rice, this crucial element to the nasi lemak can range from a complementary sweetness to bold spiciness. The chili oils provide great mix for the rice, giving it that beautiful vermilion stain.
This handful of side dishes helps transform the packet into a nutritionally balanced meal. The anchovies are usually the fatter, flat variety, instead of the needle-thin ones, while the egg might come sliced in halves – but without even one of these, the nasi lemak is unacceptable.
Nasi lemak, being a cheap and loved pre-packaged meal, is sold almost everywhere, from little roadside stalls to five-star restaurants that provide buffets and fusion foods. The side dishes may vary, but the best add-ons include rendang, a spicy savory curry usually made with beef; fried chicken spiced and herbed specially; and veggie assortments of spinach or kangkung (water spinach).
The flavors of nasi lemak have also changed as the predominantly Malay taste is adopted and tweaked by the introduction of the many other races of Malaysia. For example, Chinese nasi lemak tends to be served alongside non-halal side dishes, notably pork slices. Indian versions of the meal tend to resemble their signature banana-leaf rices, and the sambal is mixed together with other curries. Whatever your preferred taste, this dish is sure to impress with its understated flavors and humble charm.