Nasi Lemak: A nutty love story


Text and images by Cathering Ling @ Makansutra

Nasi lemak is a dish that’s beloved by all. The simplicity of fragrant coconut cream rice with a good spicy-sweet sambal is the basis of great enjoyment that transcends race.

There is even a movie in Malaysia that’s chosen Nasi Lemak 2.0 as its name, and it speaks about uniting cultures. “Individually they are peanuts and eggs, but together they make nasi lemak,” said one actress.

But even these cultures have different interpretations of nasi lemak. In Singapore, we predominantly have the Chinese style and Malay style.

Nasi Lemak: A nutty love story
Nasi Lemak: A nutty love story

The Malay Style

Nasi lemak used to be a breakfast ritual for the Malays, but is now eaten even for lunch and supper. The Malay style remains simple and uncluttered. The rice can be very humble local broken rice, but the coconut fragrance and spicy sambal tumis more than make up for it. The supporting cast of crispy anchovies, peanuts, fried or boiled egg, fried ikan kuning and cucumber also help to make it stellar. Some Malay or Indonesian stalls may amp it up with fried chicken wings, achar (pickles), and sweet-and-spicy mermaid fish, but the general version just has the few regular ingredients.

Changi Village Hawker Centre has several stalls selling Malay nasi lemak. Opinions vary fiercely on which is the better one (or the one worth queueing up for).

Boon Lay Power Nasi Lemak only opens in the evenings but manages to draw crowds to the far Western end of Singapore thanks to its piping hot rice and freshly fried chicken wings.

Selera Nasi Lemak at Adams Road Food Centre – the nasi lemak here has allegedly even charmed the Sultan of Brunei. The owner prefers using high grade basmati rice as he says it is better at absorbing the coconut flavour. Enjoy the quirkily named combo sets named after poker terms like Full House and Royal Flush.

Nasi Lemak: A nutty love story
Nasi Lemak: A nutty love story

The Chinese Style

The Chinese have adopted nasi lemak with great passion, but have practically turned it into a variant of “chye peng” (rice with dishes). At Chinese stalls, you’ll often see a mind-boggling array of side dishes. Fried slices of luncheon meat, sausages, fish cake, fried eggs with runny yolks, stir-fried vegetables, otah, sambal squid/prawns and even curries. Everything goes with coconut rice!

However, the coconut rice tends to be less or “lemak” or rich, and the sambal leans towards sweet rather than spicy. While both Malays and Chinese like a certain sweetness in their sambal, the Chinese in general have a lower tolerance for chili heat. So the Chinese sambal tends not to be as spicy as the traditional ones cooked by Malay families.

Chong Pang Nasi Lemak (447 Sembawang Road) has been dishing it out since 1973.Its side dishes include ngoh hiang, Chinese sausages and hash brown. In addition to sambal, they also offer curry sauce and sweet-and-sour sauce.

Bali Nasi Lemak (2 Geylang Lor 15) is most famous for its “kecap manis” chicken wings, which are deep-fried variety and drenched in a sweetish black sauce.

Punggol Nasi Lemak is the other famous nasi lemak brand in Singapore. They use jasmine rice which gives a better bite, and their fried chicken wings are popular even at wee hours of the morning.

Well, such cultural variations only spice up our enjoyment of this dish. Whether it is simply packed in banana leaf, or sold with an entire entourage of side dishes, there’s no denying that as a cheap and tasty meal, nasi lemak is here to stay.