If there was ever a ‘national dish’ in Malaysia, it would be nasi lemak. This fragrant, rice-based dish is cooked with coconut cream, topped with sambal (spicy shrimp paste) and devoured with gusto by hungry locals. Want to do the latter yourself? Here are the 10 best places in Penang to have your fill of Malaysia’s favourite meal.
The humble nasi lemak has its origins in farming. Long before the boutique cafés of Kuala Lumpur served nasi lemak with lobster and burgers, this humble dish was the no-fuss, no-frills, go-to meal for farmers who toiled endlessly on the soil. Today, nasi lemak is the nation’s pre-eminent reason for getting out of bed. From street stalls to upscale restaurants, the appetite for this dish has become sambal fierce (that is, “spicy shrimp paste” fierce), and the competition is even fiercer.
Everyone in Penang knows Ali Nasi Lemak. Nestled in George Town’s main financial district, this stall is the reason bankers and analysts leave their air-conditioned sanctuaries to brave the sun and heat. Small servings of coconut rice are doused in generous lashings of spicy sambal and pre-wrapped in banana leaf. The basic anchovies-and-egg combo goes for only 1.80 Malaysian ringgit ($0.45). Additional toppings are available.
Don’t be fooled by this weary-looking hole in the wall. When the clock inches towards 9am, a queue begins, and if you knew that food typically ran out within the hour, you’d be queuing too. Nasi lemak here runs Nyonya-style, with bitter-hot sambal belacan (a variation of the traditional spicy shrimp paste) and skinny shrimps still in their shells. An average dish costs RM5 ($1.25).
Projek Nasi Lemak was founded by an unnamed woman who sold her three-wheeled car in 1978 in order to begin her now-thriving business. Here, the Malaysian favourite is served with blue-tinged rice (possibly made with bunga telang, the Asian pigeonwings flower) and can be upgraded with a handsome side of lobster. It’s not cheap, but then again the best things rarely are.
If there’s one thing you should know about Penangites and their food, it’s that they never queue for it. But when it comes to this particular family-run business in Paya Terubong, it appears that even Penang has to bend its rules. The queue begins as early as 4am and the stall sells out 800 packets before your “normal” breakfast time. Sambal is tangy and spicy, and the shrimps are crispy fresh.
In Malaysian slang, “alamak” isn’t usually a good thing but at Alamak the nasi lemak is so good it’s bad, which does a weird kind of justice to its name. This trendy mamak stall offers a modern burger spin on the farmer’s classic, with traditional sambal submerged under thick gooey cheese so divinely sinful you’d think “alamak!” just by looking at it. Its modest location may make it easy to miss though – just be sure to look for an alleyway sheltered by a makeshift roof and hemmed in on one side by an iron fence.
This shy stall on the busy intersection of Jalan Pasar serves two snacks that may change your life: a soft, warm, potato-based curry enveloped in a crispy, deep-fried pastry parcel (otherwise known as “curry puff”) and palm-sized, pre-portioned cocoons of nasi lemak. The latter opens up into a small pyramid of coconut-based rice with spicy sambal and can be yours for an easy RM2 ($0.50).
Heaping portions of rice, sweet-ish sambal and sworn allegiance to the Liverpool football team – this could be your new home if you’re a fan of lemak and Liverpool, and would like to have them both at the same time. Beef rendang (cubes of beef stewed with coconut milk and assorted spices) and shrimp sambal (shrimps in their shells fried with sambal) are also available to help put the ‘oomph’ in your meal and your rallying cry for Mohamed Salah.
The Free Schoolers (students from the nearby Penang Free School) are lucky, because this is what they get to eat on their doorstep. With a variety of curries and sambal dishes, you get to style up your nasi lemak with as much gastronomic pomp as your plate can take. Fried chicken, beef rendang and stir-fried greens are yours for the taking, typically for under RM15 ($3.75).
Hidden by the river in Sungai Dua, this place is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. But look for it you will, because the nasi lemak is a mouth-watering delight of fragrant rice topped with blackened fish, hard-boiled egg and fried chicken. The portions are your typical breakfast size (about the size of your palm), but every bite is saturated with flavour. Prices run from RM3 ($0.75).
Located in the touristy nucleus of George Town, Spicy Lemak perfumes the air with delicious, strong wafts of its tri-coloured nasi lemak. This basic combo is a rainbow assortment of flavoured rice, cucumber slices, not-too-spicy sambal (in spite of the restaurant’s name), fried anchovies and peanuts. For a little extra, you could also go for the sambal-stuffed fish on the side.