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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…