To celebrate the oneness of Malaysia also means to fete its delicious diversity. In this series, we take a closer look at the iconic foods of the country’s states and territories.
Click the link for all the stories in this series on Great Malaysian dishes
Illustration: Foo Chern Hwan
The go-to dish for hungry workers rushing to work in the morning is a packet of nasi lemak.
Sold at almost every street corner in cities like Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and Labuan – which are the Federal Territories of Malaysia – nasi lemak is a savoury packet that adapts to all wallets, appetites and circumstances.
Want something cheap? Just a little nibble? No time to sit down for a meal? Grab a packet of nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaf and old newspaper on the fly for less than RM2.
This could be your basic nasi lemak, no more than a fistful of fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk, with a dollop of sambal, cucumber slices, ikan bilis, peanuts and egg.
Need a big breakfast or have time and money to indulge? Sit down for a full-blown nasi lemak meal: a mountain of fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk and piled with your choice of toppings that may include fried chicken, beef rendang, sambal sotong, sambal udang, fried fish, fish roe, egg, vegetable acar, fried kangkung, etc.
Nasi lemak is eaten so regularly and widely all over Malaysia, by all walks of life, that it has become the de facto national dish appealing to the 31.7 million population – 1.8 million in KL, 80,000 in Putrajaya and 100,000 in Labuan.
One top spot in Kuala Lumpur to start the day right is Nasi Lemak Tanglin. Located in Kompleks Makan Tanglin on Jalan Cenderasari, Nasi Lemak Tanglin has been around since 1948, and is one of the oldest nasi lemak stalls in KL.
It was started by Javanese Suriati Jawinrunah, who first operated the stall under a big cherry tree near the food court. It moved to its current location a few years ago.
Suriati’s granddaughter still operates the stall, which sometimes runs out of nasi lemak before it even hits noon. Regulars know well enough not to go after 10.30am to avoid disappointment.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak is a fan of Nasi Lemak Tanglin and has stated in interviews that as a kid, he would ride his bicycle to get his favourite pack of nasi lemak there.
Nasi lemak can be dished out in various styles depending on who is making it and where.
In the Chinese version, the rice could be cooked without santan – technically no longer a “lemak” rice – and the Indians sometimes omit ikan bilis for a vegetarian option.
Penang nonyas serve it with fried tamarind fish and tamarind prawns and in Alor Setar in Kedah, what is called nasi lemak is virtually nasi kandar served with coconut milk-enriched rice.
While ordinary rice can be used to make nasi lemak, some cooks recommend Thai fragrant rice for the best results.
The best nasi lemaks are steamed (“kukus”) instead of boiled. The rice is typically aromatised with pandan leaves, but lemongrass and ginger are also sometimes added.
The other crucial component of nasi lemak is the sambal, a thick spiced paste usually made of ground dried chillies and shallots, seasoned with sugar and salt and fried with oil until aromatic.
That’s just the basic sambal, to which some may also add sliced onions and ikan bilis.
More dishes from Wilayah
There’s nothing shy about true blue KL Hokkien mee – it’s robust, thick and dark. The story has it that Fujian migrant Ong Kim Lian opened the first Hokkien mee stall in Petaling Street in 1927. The family-run Kim Lian Kee is still going strong. The noodles are fried over high heat in rendered pork fat with prawns, slivers of pork, liver and cabbage. Crispy lard fritters crown this greasy noodle dish, made complete with a spoonful of sambal.
This Hakka-style dish literally means “board noodles” – a nod to the way it is handmade by rolling the dough out on a board before cutting or tearing it up. It comes in two variants – soup or dry – with a topping of minced pork, mushrooms, fried ikan bilis and sayur manis. In recent times, chilli pan mee, which comes with a poached egg and dried chilli paste, has become extremely popular.
Banana leaf rice
The South Indian tradition of serving meals on banana leaf “plates” is a very popular meal option in Malaysia. A typical banana leaf rice meal consists of white rice, four to five types of vegetables, pickles, crisp papadam and a variety of curries. Rasam, a spiced sour soup, and thick natural yoghurt are usually served on the side. It’s a meal best eaten with the hands, and traditionally, the leaf is folded over towards the diner once the food is finished.