Traditionally considered a breakfast dish, the Malaysian nasi lemak is best enjoyed when you most need it - any time of the day or night. Found on all menus of Malaysian restaurants or hawker stalls (those restaurants that do not have menus), nasi lemak is a satiating comfort food. The last meal you have if you are bidding farewell to home and the first one you long for when you return for the holidays. There is just an almost unexplainable simple pleasure of this perfect combination of flavours, textures and smells. Nasi Lemak is warm, sufficiently spicy, crunchy and thoroughly delicious all at once.
The basic Nasi Lemak is one hardboiled egg, a handful of rice cooked in coconut milk and a few green pandan (screw pine) leaves, a spoonful of crispy dried anchovies, one or two thick fresh cucumber slices, a few roasted peanuts and probably the most definitive of the group is the sambal belacan (pronounced ‘bela-chan’).
Sambal belacan is not to be confused with what the Indian subcontinent refers to as sambhar (lentil curry) or sambal olek (an Indonesian chilli paste). Basic sambal belacan is the fiery result of grinding dried chillies, onions, garlic and the belacan or dried prawn paste and frying this with dried anchovies, sugar, salt and lemon juice.
The various components of the nasi lemak sit neatly around the rice on a plate (or hug each other when wrapped in pandan leaves and an old newspaper for the takeaway version). You the eater can decide how each mouthful will taste. Taking a morsel of sambal belacan with the rice gives you an initial burst of sugar which lulls into you a false sense of sweetness until the potent heat follows very soon after and lingers on your tongue throughout the meal. This is about the time you may want to take a bite into the cucumber slices or chew just the coconut rice alone for a break. Add into your spoonful salty anchovies and peanuts for the crunch factor. Mash the hardboiled egg into the rice for a meatier mouthful.
You can personalise your nasi lemak to suit your preferences. Have it with peanuts or without, with the cucumber slices or without, or choose to have with variations by adding squid sambal , a piece of fried chicken or even some beef rendang. My weakness is to have the egg sunny side up (my mother calls it ‘Bull’s Eye’) with the yolk not fully cooked so that lightly poking it with my fork makes the sunshine goo flow onto the bed of rice like squeezing a new tube of yellow paint onto a white canvas. Tastebuds are going slightly mad at this point.
Directly translated into English, Nasi Lemak is ‘Fat Rice’. A caloric filled meal well suited to the labour intensive lifestyle of Malayan people who traditionally lived and worked on plantations. I wonder if our sedentary lifestyles and the push to eat healthy will be the end of the road for nasi lemak.
I'm not too worried. For now, we Malaysians still get our nasi lemak fixes as an extremely early morning breakfast to accompany long conversations with friends at the local hawker stall and many glasses of coffee. Yes, eating ‘Fat Rice’ at 3 am is an unhealthy trait of Malaysian culture. We try though. I truly believe we threw in the green cucumber slices to justify it is a healthy breakfast!