The recent article in Time magazine which stated that nasi lemak is one of 10 healthy international breakfasts was picked up by most major Malaysian newspapers and one can presume, generated much conversation in kopitiams across the country. Malaysians are both bemused and delighted at the elevation of nasi lemak as a healthy breakfast food.

Basically, the story lists the author’s choice in each of 10 selected countries. Presumably, if another 10 countries are selected, then there will be another 10 “healthy” breakfasts – so perhaps we should get real and realise that he did not say that nasi lemak is one of the world’s top 10 healthiest breakfasts.

It may be that nasi lemak is just the healthiest (or least unhealthy) option in a country saturated with fatty foods – the main story actually is that nasi lemak and nine other country choices are healthier than the regular American breakfast options.

So, apologies if you’re a serious fan chomping on a plate of nasi lemak while reading this – but that’s the purely analytical view.

And talking about American breakfast options, I once had a breakfast at Denny’s in Florida which came with so much food that I had to push back the beef patties and slices of bacon flopping over the side of the main plate – it was like a surreal Man Vs Food moment and in the end, I have to admit, Food won (again) as usually happens in the United States.

nasi lemak bungkus

What goes into a packet of nasi lemak?

So that’s what the writer had as a baseline in his search for a “healthy” breakfast.

But since we are on the subject, let’s investigate a little what goes on in a plate of nasi lemak from a food chemistry point of view.

From a calorific point of view, a plate of nasi lemak with some chicken, meat or fish contains between 800 to well over 1,000 calories, depending on the options selected – this is roughly equivalent to eating four fast food hamburgers.

So having nasi lemak for breakfast means that over half the daily calories needed by most people are already ingested. This may not be significant if eating can be control-led over the rest of the day – and in any case, many people may prefer to have their calories at the start of the day.

Cucumber is cool

Starting with the little stuff, most plates of nasi lemak have some cucumber, a fruit vegetable from the cucurbitaceae family which also includes melons. The species found in Malaysia is normally cucumis sativus linn, and the vegetable is 95% water, around 16 calories for each 100 grams in weight and is an excellent source of vitamin K.

A sprinkling of peanuts

Some vendors will scatter a few roasted peanuts on top of the rice. For every 5 grams, they add 25 calories to the dish. The peanuts introduce a bit more fat, fibre, vitamin B2, magnesium and some other trace minerals.

Sambal, of course

Next would probably be the sambal, a spicy sauce made with chillies, shrimp or fish paste pounded with herbs such as garlic, shallots, ginger and further flavoured with tamarind, lime juice or vinegar, palm sugar and salt.

Traditionally, most sambals for nasi lemak would also be fried in oil and may also be garnished with dried anchovies (ikan bilis) cooked with the sambal or deep-fried and scattered on top.

Generally, most of the base ingredients, apart from the sugar, are not problematic – for example, chillies introduce capsaicin, the chemical which causes chemesthesis, the effect of feeling heat in the mouth.

Capsaicin is a very complex, interesting compound which has been claimed to decrease the absorption of food calories and increase fat oxidation in humans, although this claim seems to be based on a study with only 15 people involved, so please don’t read too much into it.

The secret to a good nasi lemak is the sambal, but what about the oil it is fried with?

What is more conclusive is that capsaicin has been shown to be able to help break down fats in rats and lower aortic cholesterol levels in turkeys – so if you have a turkey with heart disease, then perhaps you should include a few chillies in its diet. The anchovies are also fine as a source of protein and some Omega-3 fatty acids.

The problem with sambal generally arises from the frying in oil. Depending on the oil used, this can introduce trans-fats and the pungent aroma of sambal arises from the production of complex aromatic compounds called Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs) via the Maillard reaction. Most AGEs are known to damage protein structures in the body.

The quality of the oil is also significant – a poor quality oil will oxidise rapidly and produce other unsavoury chemical compounds such as peroxides, alkenals, aldehydes and other free radicals, with the quantities depending on the frying temperatures.

Also, all commercial cooking oils introduce Omega-6 fatty acids, which may add to inflammation issues in the body. There is normally around 15 to 30 grams of sambal on a plate of nasi lemak which provides around 70 to 140 calories.

The optional egg

Next would be the egg, which is optional. If it is boiled, the (whole) egg introduces around 55 to 70 calories and contains some vitamins (A, B2, D), iodine, phosphorus, calcium and thiamine. If the egg is fried, then the calories would increase by about 35%.

Fried chicken

The main garnish is usually a piece of fried chicken and the portion sizes will vary depending on the vendor. So just be aware that 100 grams of fried chicken introduces approximately 250 calories to the nasi lemak and all the comments earlier about cooking in oil also applies to the fried chicken.

Some places may offer fried fish instead and if so, then there are around 210 calories per 100 grams.

Fried chicken contributes a good dose of protein and some potassium, magnesium, iron and vitamin B6 – but also quite a lot of additional fat, which derives mainly from the frying oil and the skin. The fat itself is not necessarily problematic but that’s highly dependent on the quality of oil used.

A sobering look at rice

The main ingredient of nasi lemak is of course white rice cooked in coconut milk. This item is the major contribution to the calories, around 300 calories per 100 grams – and one supposes that a normal portion would be roughly one and a half times to double that amount. Rice provides a significant amount of manganese and also some zinc, phosphorus and vitamins B5 and B6.

Although many rich claims have been made about the health benefits of coconut milk, there is not much hard research to justify such adjurations. The input of coconut milk is mainly saturated fat, along with some dietary fibre and trace minerals and vitamins.

While undoubtedly tasty and texturally pleasant to eat, it should be noted that the white rice in nasi lemak is a ready source of a soluble starch called amylopectin.

This is a polysaccharide made up of several branches of glucose molecules – being water soluble, it is very easily digested with a pretty low thermic effect of food (TEF, or loss of calories during digestion) and therefore has a very high Glycaemic Index (GI).

This is obviously not good news for diabetics or people with a predisposition to diabetes due to the rush of glucose into the blood that arises from digesting rice.

The diabetes connection

Even more sobering is that excessive consumption of rice has been implicated as a potential cause of diabetes in the first place – this is based on a global study published in the British Medical Journal which covered 350,000 people.

If you are scoffing at this because you know that Malaysians eat rice almost every day, and you are feeling perfectly healthy, the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) reported a count of 3.3 million diabetics in Malaysia in 2015 – the incidence of diabetes runs as high as 24% in certain age demographics in the country.

However, Malaysians also have a propensity to consume extremely sugary drinks and desserts with their meals and this cultural sweet tooth probably contributes quite significantly to the diabetes rate – excess dietary sugar has been widely linked with obesity and diabetes.

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So now you know

So now you know more of the relevant facts about nasi lemak. They only confirm that not all dishes are healthy and perfect – and very often we love such food precisely because its nutritional flaws are what make it taste so good.

And regardless of everything written so far, I would still be delighted to have a nasi lemak with friends or family any day of the week – but to be truthful, probably not every day of the week.


Chris Chan writes a fortnightly investigative food science column, Curious Cook for Star2.com