Local Food Tales: Nasi Lemak – Malaysia’s Second Mum

Malaysian food is a rich combination of unforgettable memories and tastes. In this first episode of my series about local cuisine, that I have developed a deep connection with, I strongly suggest for one to experience the history from its flavours. For some Malaysians, nasi lemak literally means ‘mum’. Being a Malaysian, I have grown up eating and cooking this traditional meal. A meal that most mums cook when there is nothing else to cook. A foolproof menu. The literal translation means ‘fatty rice’. Basically, it is rice cooked in coconut milk, served with hard boiled egg, fried anchovies, peanuts, and sliced cucumber. Together with the most important ingredient, sambal (a spicy-sweet chilli gravy). The love for this national delicacy is huge. It is easily available at any time of the day along with the unlimited choices of side dishes to go with it.

Rice cooked with coconut milk with sides of slice cucumber, fried egg, and squid sambal, a mum's must menu.
A wholesome plate of nasi lemak with a special side dish of squid sambal, fried egg, and chicken rendang making one’s mouth to water.
Image by Faizal Zakaria from Pixabay

The Mum Who Invented Nasi Lemak

Successful efforts sometimes come from unintentional efforts. A fluke, as they say. Apparently, nasi lemak was an accidental creation, according to the stories that have been passed down for generations.

As the tale goes, a woman in Malacca was living with her mum. She had accidentally spilled some coconut milk into a pot of boiling rice. The scent from the rice and coconut milk was so fragrant and unfamiliar, they couldn’t help but notice. The lemak from the nasi came from the rich creamy coconut milk they called santan. And lo and behold, nasi lemak was born. Evolving with time, villagers who were mostly farmers and fishermen in the past, paired it with whatever side dishes they had readily available then. As it originated from the lower class, hence the side dishes were humble and inexpensive.

A coconunt sliced in half pouring out coconut milk, a common ingredient used by Malaysian mums.
Coconut milk is such a versatile ingredient that can be used in all types of cooking and baking. It is so rich and leaves only a subtle taste that gives the food a good kick.
Image by Lisa Redfern from Pixabay

Different Mum, Different Nasi Lemak

The hand cannot recreate an identical recipe like the traditional nasi lemak. So, different families get to taste their mum’s version. To read about a different view on what nasi lemak means to Malaysians, do check out this article. Depending on one’s preferences, I’ve come to realise that many factors do impact the outcome of the nasi lemak.

Both my parents’ families have a history with nasi lemak. Coincidentally, both my grandmothers had sold nasi lemak in the past. My maternal grandmother in Sarawak sold in school canteens. Whilst my paternal grandmother in Selangor sold in nearby markets. The food wrapped in either banana leaf with an outer layer of paper or a plastic food pack was sold for less than a ringgit then.

Rice with sambal on top, cucumber slices, fried anchovies and peanuts and a fried egg on the side. My mum's nasi lemak.
My mother’s version of nasi lemak where we wrap them occasionally in banana leaf to eat at home.
Image by Dina Ghazali

Since Malaysia has several different regions, each region has their own version of nasi lemak. In Sarawak, many prefer a side dish of salted fish. Whilst Peninsular Malaysia, fried chicken or squid sambal is favoured. I also found out that the sambal in Sarawak was drier and less spicy as compared to Selangor’s. Naturally, as I grew up with my mum’s cooking, I had grown accustomed to her recipe.

1) Could Sambal Be Our Third Mum?

The sambal is the soul of the nasi lemak. Originating from Indonesia, it has evolved with Malaysian influences. The customary ingredients consist of onions, dried chillies, fresh turmeric, galangal, garlic, lemongrass, palm sugar, and tamarind paste. A mortar and pestle is the traditional method to ground the ingredients in order to obtain the natural oils from the spices. But since it takes too much time and energy, many opt for food processors and blenders nowadays. The blend is then sautéed with oil in medium to high fire until the oil is separated. Once seasoned, it’s ready to serve with the warm coconut rice.

A fancy plate of nasi lemak and layer cake on the side with white flowers on the side, worthy as a second mum.
Many of the side dishes eaten along with this meal consist of different proteins coated in sambal sauce.
Image by Pui Bear from Pixabay

As a busy student, I tend to simplify recipes at best I can. With as few ingredients as possible to save on cost and space. Therefore, adding the traditional ingredients into the sambal or following my mum’s recipe was rare.

For example, my mum uses blended onions and boiled dried chillies as the basic ingredients. But also she adds belacan (fermented salted prawn paste). Often used in Southeast Asian cuisines whereas I don’t. The non-traditional aspect of her recipe that I still follow is her addition of chicken stock. My mum also adds dried anchovies which aren’t traditional but very common in Malaysia. This one I don’t follow because I don’t like the texture of the anchovies in the sambal. Considering the countless times I have eaten sambal with different foods, sambal being Malaysia’s third mum isn’t so far-fetched.

2) A Motherly Scent Of Rice And Coconut Milk

The story and name come from the rice and coconut milk themselves. It makes sense that the recipe for the rice had remained the same all this while. Usually, knotted-together pandan leaves and salt are added to infuse more flavour, which leaves a refreshing scent. However many people, including my mum, add sliced ginger, onions, and garlic for extra texture and flavour.

A chopping board of onion, ginger, garlic, tomato, chillis and coconut shreds. The essentials of being Malaysia's second mum.
These ingredients can be taken out from the rice after cooking but leaving them in the pot will give a long-lasting fragrance in the rice.
Image by PDPics from Pixabay

Generally, the rice is cooked in a rice cooker, pressure cooker, or steamed in a common pot over the stove. But in the past, it was common to steam the rice in a wooden rice bucket over boiling water. The rich rice with just the sambal itself is delicious enough on its own. In fact, many nasi lemak, sold at roadside stalls and casual restaurants come with just rice and sambal alone.

3) Design Your Own Nasi Lemak

The basic side dishes include freshly sliced cucumber, crispy fried anchovies, peanuts, hard boiled egg, and sambal. If we think of nasi lemak, this is what comes to mind. But more varieties of side dishes have surfaced and quickly gained popularity.

A plate of beef rendang with nasi lemak and a fried egg on top.
Even though nasi lemak is such a common food, people never seem to get tired of it.
Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay

I’ve seen a combination of side dishes. From as simple as fried chicken and fish to as complex as squid, prawn, and beef lung sambal. The side dishes can even include dried cuttlefish, bitter bean sambal, clam, and mutton rendang. There is an infinite, number of options to eat with the nasi lemak. One for everyone’s preference.

21st Century Nasi Lemak

The newspaper and banana leaf-wrap were the traditional packaging for nasi lemak. Today, it has become rarer as people use wax paper to cut cost. Since 2016, the Malaysian government banned newspapers as packaging for food other than as an external layer. Therefore, people resorted to other alternatives. For example, wax paper, plastic food containers, paper boxes, and just regular plates for dine-in customers.

Two beef burgers full of lettuce, onion and tomato with a basil on top.
Nasi lemak gone fusion? Here’s a modern version of nasi lemak burger filled with the basic condiments. McDonald’s and Kit Kat franchises have also joined the bandwagon by having similar menu.
Image by Niek Verlaan from Pixabay

Thanks to the popularity of nasi lemak, the modern world has included it in fusion cuisine. They have fused it to almost everything. Some made me wonder how they came up with such ideas. They include nasi lemak flavoured ice cream, crisps, pizza, burger, spaghetti to even cake. It is an unpredictable taste but this just shows how much love this meal brings. I hope we can keep this culture going for future generations to appreciate and enjoy as well.

The Rank Of The Chilli Rises

We use chillies in almost everything Malaysians call food. Sweet chilli sauce for burgers and fries instead of tomato ketchup. The blend of dried chillies is used in almost every Malaysian savoury dishes. Therefore, chilli farms are mushrooming as the demand is great and the business is profitable.

A chopping board of dried chillies with fennel seeds poured everywhere.
Instead of fresh chillies, dried chillies are often used to cook sambal. They are sun-dried and often used as a blended ingredient in recipes.
Image by Juraj Varga from Pixabay

Your Food Reflects Your Life

Chilli is considered a staple in our Malaysian food culture. In a world with a store-to-table lifestyle, why not try farming our own food? Like the good old days, harvesting food from our garden to our table. We can start by growing chillies like how most of our mothers or grandmothers did.

It can give us a chance to engage with the environment and remember our heritage farmer ancestors. It may be difficult for some if they don’t have a chunk of soil in their home compound. Some don’t know how to begin. To learn more about a mother’s gardening journey, check out this article about home gardening to grow your own vegetables. Alternatively, CityFarm Malaysia has inspired me to start growing my own food. They educate and promote city and indoor farming that can be done anywhere. Thus, creating a more sustainable future food production. Their vast options of farming materials are available for purchase online.

A red chilli plant outside growing on its branch.
Trying to grow your own produce isn’t easy but the wait and effort are definitely worth it in the end.
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Bringing The Past Back

Once your chillies mature, you can harvest them for your sambal in your nasi lemak. It helps us to reflect on how people made this meal back then, without the modern convenience of grocery stores. I truly recommend growing your own food, or even just chillies. It gives you a different perspective of nasi lemak and lifestyle now versus in the past. If you are want to know a more detailed account of how to go about growing your own food in the city, keep a lookout for my future episodes. Coming up next is the popular Sarawak mee kolo that everyone must try at least once in their lifetime. So stay tuned…

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About Dina GHAZALI

Raised abroad almost her entire life, Dina is well exposed to the multi-cultural world around her. Penned her innermost thoughts on paper as a child, and eventually fell in love with writing. Aims to be a successful writer one day.

One Reply to “Local Food Tales: Nasi Lemak – Malaysia’s Second Mum”

  1. Pingback: Local Food Tales: Kolo Mee - Home Away From Home - Espoletta

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