Nasi Lemak: A Brief of What We Know

A staple Malaysian dish, Nasi Lemak is a dish that we will see frequently on the breakfast, lunch or dinner table. 

It is widely considered the national dish and is also a native dish for neighboring countries such as Singapore, Brunei and Southern Thailand. We love it with fried chicken, we love it with sambal squid, we love it with various curries that is served with it, we even love it on its glorious own.

Notably mentioned in the book “The Circumstances of Malay Life”, written by English Orientalist and expert in British Malaya, Sir Richard Olaf Winstedt, nasi lemak loosely translates into rice cooked in fat or oil. The context in this case of “fat” is used to bear the meaning of “rich” or “creamy”.

The rice is usually pre-soaked in coconut cream before being cooked with a couple of pandan leaves in it to give it the noticeable flavor we now know and love. The main ingredients of it such as coconut milk, rice and anchovies are naturally found in the region but it took some time for sambal itself to be created later on.

As a prime hub in the trade routes at that time, chillies are not native to Southeast Asia and was introduced to the area in the 15th century by Portuguese traders, following the discovery of the Americas’ chilli peppers by European colonisers in the late 1400s.

The first ever mention of nasi lemak on paper can be found in The Straits Times newspaper dated 21st July 1935, describing a malay market in Kampung Baru. 

Nasi lemak has been part of Malaysian culture through all the good times and bad times as well, noticeably during World War 2.

Farmers were fuelled by nasi lemak to work in the fields, other workers also followed and found a hearty breakfast in nasi lemak.

An article in The Straits Times titled “The Worker’s Breakfast” from November 1946 describes nasi lemak being sold in packets and eaten with fried prawns and sambal.

A study on the dish also revealed that the preference of nasi lemak is widely popular across the country’s ethnocultural groups. Each culture has their own version of the dish, adding their own special touch to it such as fried chicken, seafood to vegetarian styles or non-halal versions.

While one could go on about nasi lemak for what seems like forever, it’s true meaning and power lies without a doubt in its ability to bring us Malaysians together as what not to love about food?

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