I believe many travelers from America and Europe and Australia have been to Malaysia before, and I am writing this blog post in the manner of addressing people like you. I also believe most of you who have done so (if you are reading this) would have tried the nasi lemak while you were here. Heck, you might even have tried them in Malaysian cafes in your home country.
Nasi lemak is undoubtedly one of Malaysia’s national food. If you translate it literally, nasi means rice and lemak means fat (as in animal fat, human fat) so nasi lemak means fatty rice. But then the literal translation is the wrong translation here. Lemak when used in the context of nasi lemak actually means rich and creamy, so it actually means rich and creamy rice. To achieve this rich and creamy and fragrant state, the rice is cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaves instead of plain old water. And then there will be accompanying condiments to the rice to make it a meal.
The thing is, when I read those travel blogs from people who are like you, every time I read about how you had the nasi lemak, it usually happens in your hotel’s breakfast buffet, or at some rather posh restaurants, and they always looked something like this.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this plate of nasi lemak. In terms of authenticity, nasi lemak is supposed to come with the rice, deep fried anchovies, sambal (chili paste), and sometimes peanuts and cucumber. So this plate is actually quite authentic.
But, the thing is, nasi lemak presented like this is what we can call, the premium nasi lemak. You usually get this in the hotels and restaurants and it will cost a bomb (anywhere between RM 15 to RM 30). Okay maybe not to you, RM 15 – RM 30 is like US$ 4 – US$7. Four to seven bucks is cheap to you, but fifteen to thirty bucks is expensive to us locals. Sure, we would sometimes order this when we dine in hotels or restaurants, but it isn’t what we have on a very frequent basis. This is… what the locals eat, but not exactly what the locals… really eat, if you know what I mean. I think I’ve written this sentence before somewhere.
So, today, I am going to show you white people the type of nasi lemak that we locals… really eat.
You know we have those food courts here, much like Singapore’s hawker centers. You can sometimes find nasi lemak in food courts. It is basically very much like those premium nasi lemak in terms of ingredients, but presentation wise is very much different. You will basically get your food in more of a mess. But it is cheaper. Much cheaper. You can typically get nasi lemak with the usual condiments (fried anchovies, peanuts, cucumber), a fried egg and a sausage or chicken, in a food court, for less than RM 10/US$ 3.
But this isn’t the cheapest that you can get, nor is it the most traditional.
Traditionally, the nasi lemak is sort of a… peasants’ fast food. It is supposed to be something very simple, with minimal ingredients, easy to eat, and very cheap. Traditionally, nasi lemak comes in packets, wrapped with banana leaf.
You don’t get much here. Unwrap the leaf and you will find a bit of rice (probably less than half a bowl), a quarter of a hard boiled egg (sometimes one eighth of it), a few pieces of fried anchovies, and a pile of sambal. That’s it. And there is absolutely no cosmetic consideration here, the ingredients are basically stuffed together and wrapped up and it would sometimes look like, if you didn’t know better, a pile of sh*t.
But you can try asking any Malaysian, and all of us will probably tell you that this pile of sh*t is the best tasting nasi lemak. It is rustic, environmentally friendly, and most important of all, dirt cheap. You can find these in the morning markets and night markets, and sometimes in Malay eateries. A packet of these would set you back RM 0.60 – RM 1.20 depending on which part of Malaysia you are in. That’s US$ 0.15 – US$ 0.30.
And I have to tell you before I end this post, we can eat nasi lemak for basically any meal. It is appropriate for every freaking meal that we might have in a day. For example, I had the super cheap, banana leaf one for breakfast earlier this week, I had the food court one for lunch some time last week, and I had a posh one that looked like the first picture on top for dinner some time last month.
So, yeah… I hope if any of you white people come to Malaysia for a visit again in the future, you will be able to try all versions of nasi lemak. They’re all awesome in their own unique way. 😉