Nasi Lemak – A South East Asian Delight

I remember as a child, my father used to drive us every weekend to another town 30 to 40 kilometres away just to treat us to a special nasi lemak lunch. This memory has been ingrained in my mind since then as it represented my father’s love for his family. So every time we have a meal that is connected to our childhood, it transports us to that very warm and fuzzy moment when we shared it with family and friends. Hence, the term comfort food.

“Food brings people together on many different levels. It’s nourishment of the soul and body; it’s truly love.”

Giada De Laurentiis, American chef, writer, and television personality
The versatile nasi lemak in triangle parcel
The versatile nasi lemakis a fragrant coconut rice dish accompanied with eggs, anchovies, roasted peanuts and slices of cucumber in a banana leaf into a “triangle parcel”.

The Rise Of An Iconic Dish

There are many versions about the origins of the humble nasi lemak. Some claim it is from Indonesia and others insist it is home grown and authentically Malaysian. But wherever this breakfast glory comes from, we Malaysians have adopted it as the national breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In the 1970’s nasi lemak was mainly street food. Makeshift stalls under a tree offered this delicacy. Moreover, it was breakfast on the go for the masses. A packet of nasi lemak which was ironically larger than its current version cost a meager MYR0.20. It was also a popular Sunday breakfast at home. However, in the 1980’s it gained popularity especially in the Klang Valley as a supper item after a night out. I believe this is around the time it was gradually reaching national fame in Malaysia.

The dish also claimed its fame internationally when it was the winning dish on MasterChef Australia. Consecutively, this delicacy became a controversial issue on MasterChef UK. So, not only a national pride for Malaysians but it claimed fame on the international culinary stage.

Are There Nutritional Benefits In Nasi Lemak?

It’s amazing how in the old days, people were aware of what a balanced diet was. This nasi lemak is nutritionally complete. Rice provides carbohydrate, coconut milk and the oil used to cook the sambal which is the integral spicy sauce has fat, anchovies and peanuts laden with protein and cucumbers as the vegetable element.

The sambal contains chillies which is an antioxidant. Antioxidants are compounds that inhibit oxidation. The sambal or the sauce is the hero of the proverbial nasi lemak. However, there are many versions of the sambal, some sweet and mildly spicy, while others are just fiery hot. Nevertheless, the sambal remains an integral part of this dish.

What Does Today’s Nasi Lemak Look Like?

The humble nasi lemak has come a long way from a triangle parcel, as shown above, to a full fledged meal. This meal has become more sophisticated with a wide array of side dishes to choose from. For example, beef rendang, ayam masak merah, spicy squid and cockles. Not forgetting the spice infused fried chicken. It’s no longer the triangle parcel that the farmer carried to his rice fields but it has become a delicious treat for most.

In Malaysia this dish has also evolved culturally. Indian restaurants offer the vegetarian option. This is mainly due to Indians who tend to be vegetarians on certain days of the week. Chinese outlets offer ‘non-halal’ versions, with roasted pork belly and pork curry. Also, the sambal differs from state to state, stall to stall, and restaurant to restaurant. The fact remains that Malaysians are still working on elevating this dish in every way possible. It’s truly an obsession that we quietly acknowledge.

Nasi lemak with add-ons such as squid and chicken.
The upgraded version with all the trimmings. Fragrant coconut rice, spicy squid, red hot chicken, sambal, fried eggs and slices of cucumbers.
Source: Image by Faizal Zakaria from Pixabay

My First Encounter With Fusion Nasi Lemak

I went to Bandar Puteri Puchong, a fairly new township approximately 23 kilometres from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, to meet some friends for lunch. We met at a newly opened restaurant called Artto Japanese Art Kitchen. The exterior looked impressive and the interior didn’t disappoint either.

The inviting interior of Artto Japanese Art Kitchen.
The inviting interior creates a great ambience for dining.
Source: Artto Japanese Art Kitchen

Friendly staff greeted us and showed us to our seats and handed us a rather extensive looking menu. Frankly, I expected sushi and similar Japanese fare on the menu but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Artto menu also included western, local and fusion fare. My friends and I scanned through the menu a couple of times over. Almost in unison we decided to try something familiar yet different at the same time.

When Italy Meets South East Asia

My Malaysian genes woke up and sang with joy. The word nasi lemak never fails to pique my interest. I decided to take a chance without a visual reference to the dish. My adventure for the day – Nasi Lemak Pizza. It took about 20 minutes, and the pizza arrived piping hot. I looked at it with excitement. After all, you eat with your eyes first, and it didn’t disappoint either. Now for the taste test. I said a silent prayer, “Please be good”.

I went in with much gusto and the nasi lemak sambal hit me with delight. It was a sweet and mildly spicy sambal on a thin crispy crust. Definitely a marriage made in heaven. I never thought that cheese and sambal could go together but it certainly did. Quartered boiled eggs sat on a red bed of sambal. At the first bite the pizza desecrated the holy sanctity of the original Italian pizza.

Nasi Lemak Pizza
The fusion pizza that will tantalise your taste buds – the Nasi Lemak Pizza! Smothered with sambal sauce and quartered boiled eggs placed delicately on every slice.
Source: Artto Japanese Art Kitchen

Care For Some Nasi Lemak Pizza Anyone?

If you are bored with your daily meals, why not drop by Artto Japanese Art Kitchen to savour their scrumptious Nasi Lemak Pizza for a change. If you are a nasi lemak fan, you might enjoy this innovative dish.

Call for inquiries or reservations: +603 8066 3922

How about finding out what a foreigner says about nasi lemak? Read all about it here.


Semi-retired English language instructor/lecturer, Anita is a go-getter with a passion for life. Spent most of her career in academia, championing the English language. And when she's not "working", she also reads, travels, and sings too.

50 Replies to “Nasi Lemak – A South East Asian Delight”

  1. Pingback: Local Food Tales: Nasi Lemak - Malaysia's Second Mum - Espoletta

  2. Pingback: Carol Lee: Under Lockdown But Work Comes First (Part 2 Of 2) - Espoletta

  3. Excellent article Anita…you have justice to our humble signature Malaysian dish…..from its origins to all its currents avatars…..keep the articles coming….

  4. Hi Anita
    I enjoyed your interesting write up on nasi lemak. Yes indeed you have done justice to our favourite dish. You have further inspired us to try a nasi lemak pizza.
    Thanks and hope to read more from you.

  5. Oh my God Nasi Lemak heaven on a plate ! As written by an Angel, think I’ll come back as a Malaysian instead of a western cheese muncher x

  6. Nasi lemak !!! All time favourite . A beautiful write up . Fusion nasi lemak was yummy 👍and the price was reasonable too. Keep going Anita 🤞 share more interesting and informative articles.

  7. Now I wanna visit Artto Japanese Art Kitchen! I love Japanese cuisine and Nasi Lemak!. Yummmmy!! Thanks Anita for introducing it to us in your well descriptive article. 2 thumbs up!!

  8. Oh dear , now you’ve got me mouthwatering. Looks like I have to find a drool worthy nasi lemak or something with sambal.

  9. Tq Anita. A well written article. Looking forward to next.
    Nasi lemak – every Malaysian’s staple food & all time favourite. It’s just getting more & more creative. A must try at Artto. Aside from nasi lemak pizza, nasi lemak sushi, nasi lemak burger, nasi lemak ice cream are some latest creation known to exist someone. 😄
    My favourite is just plain traditional nasi lemak & nasi lemak served with rendang (chicken or beef).

  10. Great article about Malaysia’s favourite food. It is indeed a comfort food which many of us can’t go on without for long periods. Eventhough, this humble food has evolved over the years…the traditional packet of goodness is what I crave for. Any day any time…it’s definitely worth your dime!

  11. Nasi lemak is always my favourite breakfast choice and I always look for the triangle plain old traditional packet.
    It is true to see how this traditional food has evolved from when we were young till now. The expert in food industry is always constantly creating new ideas related to nasi lemak because they knew people never resist to be adventurous when it comes to this local dish.

    • Thanks for you comments Maslina. The lure of the triangle parcel never loses it’s lure.
      We Malaysians are an adventurous lot.

  12. A very good article. Well crafted concise reseerched and informative. Kudos to the writer. Looking forward for more.

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