Nasi Lemak: The Malaysian National Dish

What is Nasi Lemak?

Origin of the dish

Malaysian cuisine is deeply rooted to the country’s extremely diverse culture and environment. It is a beautiful amalgamation of Malay, Chinese and Indian influence, thus making it a truly unique Asian culinary experience. Obviously, Malaysian cuisine has a deep roster of exceptional dishes--however, if you ask Malaysians to recommend you one dish, 9 out 10 people would most likely say it’s the Nasi Lemak.

Nasi Lemak is a popular dish in Southeast Asia. Malaysians consider it their national dish and everyone else considers it delicious. The word Nasi Lemak literally translates to ‘’rice in cream” which is derived from the way the rice is soaked and cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves.

Recipe of the dish

The difference between a good Nasi Lemak and a remarkably unforgettable one lies on the use of pandan leaves—a tropical plant widely used in Southeast Asian countries to infuse aroma in rice dishes and desserts. The traditional Nasi Lemak is not complete without its signature side dishes. There are many variations all over Malaysia and even in Singapore but the four staple ingredients are the peanuts, cucumber, sambal and fried anchovies. 

Nasi Lemak Malaysian Dish
Traditional Nasi Lemak

If the rice is the main draw of the Nasi Lemak, the sambal paste makes it a total knockout. If you love Sriracha--a hot sauce craze that swept America in 2014--chances are you will love the Sambal even better. This accompanying chilli condiment is made from various chilli peppers and other secondary spices. It is prepared traditionally with mortar and pestle thereby giving it a rougher texture compared to ketchup or the Sriracha. Of all the side dishes, Sambal is the most essential to Nasi Lemak; it is simply not a true Nasi Lemak without it.

Not just a breakfast food anymore

The Nasi Lemak is a balance and satisfying meal traditionally served during breakfast. It is equally rich in protein, fats and carbohydrate thus making it the perfect meal to kick-start your day. This humble Malaysian specialty is very simple and easy to prepare. It is not at all surprising that locals and tourists alike are now getting their fix any other time of the day. It is such a well-liked dish that almost all local restaurants, food stalls and kopitiam across the country serve it all day every day.

Many variations

The popularity of Nasi Lemak has grown tremendously that many variations is served throughout Singapore, Brunei and Thailand. While the traditional version is already great in itself, the changes and variations are brought about by dietary restrictions or simply due to certain regions’ abundant produce. Like for example, seaside villages normally adds fried fish while Nasi Lemak in the metropolitan area tends to add chicken, beef, pork and sometimes duck. 

Nasi Lemak Malaysian Dish
Nasi Lemak with pork

Food on the go

Now, if you can’t be bothered to cook or dine in the restaurants, friendly itinerant Nasi Lemak vendors walking around town will come knocking at your doorsteps. There is absolutely no escaping Nasi Lemak and it would be a crime to leave Malaysia without giving it a try.

Nasi Lemak Malaysian Dish
Nasi Lemak wrapped on Banana Leaf, usually sold on the streets
photo by Umami/ CC by

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