Nasi lemak

Singapore Infopedia


Nasi lemak is a dish made of rice cooked in coconut milk.Aromatics, such as pandan leaves, bay leaves, lemongrass, ginger, garlic and fenugreek, can be added to it.2 A light meal that is believed to be Malay in origin, it is traditionally accompanied by fried anchovies, sliced cucumbers, fried fish known as ikan selar, and a sweet chili sauce. Modern-day variations on the dish now offer an extensive array of other side dishes.

The rice is lightly salted and made fragrant with aromatics added while the rice is still cooking. It is traditionally served with fried fish known in Malay as ikan selar kuningikan bilis (anchovies), kangkong (water spinach) and a dollop of sambal (a type of chilli paste).The fish is fried so crisp that it can be eaten whole. Nowadays, the anchovies are fried with salted peanuts, the dish topped with thin slices of cucumber and a fried or boiled egg.4 The rice and all its condiments and side dishes are kept warm in a banana leaf folded into a conical pocket.5

The sambal is the dish’s signature condiment. Malays prefer their rice with sambal ikan bilis (chilli paste made of local anchovies) or sambal tumis (fried chilli paste).6 The sambal is a combination of dried chillies, shallots, garlic and belacan (shrimp paste), sometimes with sliced lemongrass added. Sugar and tamarind give the chilli sauce a sweet and tangy taste.7

The rice is traditionally steamed, because if it is cooked over a hot fire, the coconut milk can easily burn. Modern cooks use a rice cooker and replace water with the coconut milk instead.

The dish remains one of the cheapest meals offered in local food courts and hawker centres. While many stalls sell the dish as a set meal with the basic accompaniments, others offer a wide variety of side dishes that can be added to the order.9

It is believed that when the local Malay community resided by the seafront, the ready availability of ingredients such as the coconut, as well as the flavourful outcome of adding it to rice, resulted in the innovation of nasi lemak.10 Side dishes added to the rice came from the village’s natural resources: kangkong was plucked from the garden and anchovies were harvested from the sea.11 Others suggest that packets of rice wrapped in banana leaves were brought to padi fields (rice fields) for working farmers to consume.12 In Malaysia, nasi lemak is also sold at transient roadside stalls or even from vans.13 Today, it is a popular dish eaten not only for breakfast, but also for other meals.

Nasi lemak was mentioned as early as 1909 by Richard Olaf Winstedt.14 It also appeared in a newspaper article dated 1935, which noted that the dish was available at the Kuala Lumpur Malay Market at Kampong Bahru.15 In the 1970s, the nasi lemak packets were much smaller than those sold today, but were priced at a mere 30 cents.16 They were often sold door-to-door by travelling vendors who had the apportioned rice wrapped in banana leaves.17

Local variations
While the rice is traditionally cooked with coconut milk, variants include the addition of garlic, shallots, a small cut of ginger and at least two stalks of lemongrass added into the cooking rice.18 The spices enhance the sweetness and fragrant flavours of the rice.

Since the 1980s, the dish has gradually evolved to include a greater variety of accompaniments besides the standard anchovies, chilli sauce and cucumber slices. The range of side dishes is as varied as the stallholder’s imagination. For example, rendang (a curry), fried chicken wing and otah (barbequed fish paste) seem to be the accompaniments of choice.19 Others have achar (pickled vegetables) and long beans.20

Essentially a Malay dish, nasi lemak is also served by the Chinese, sometimes accompanied by non-halal side dishes such as luncheon meat.21 The Chinese version usually uses Thai jasmine rice. The traditional Malay version, made with local Malay rice, is usually steamed – thus going by the name nasi lemak kukus (kukus meaning “steamed”). The chilli used is often sweeter.22

The dish has inspired creative variations, such as nasi lemak sushi and nasi lemak burgers.24

Regional variations
In Kuala Trengganu, local chef Billy Chua combined Chinese fried rice (nasi goreng) with nasi lemak to create nasi lemak goreng, a dish he had invented as a teenager. He offered it on his menu at his eatery, Billi Kopitiam, in 2008, where it has become a hit.25

States on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia such as Kelantan and Trengganu also have a similar dish known as nasi dagang, which means “trader’s/traveller’s rice”, although some suggest the name refers to “foreigners”.26 The coconut rice is a mixture of normal grain and pulut (glutinous rice) and is steamed with halba (an aromatic seed spice also known as fenugreek seeds), onions and ginger.27 It is eaten with ikan tongkol (tuna) curry or sometimes chicken curry.28 Indonesia has its nasi gurih and nasi kuning, which are cooked for special occasions and festivities.29 While both are cooked with coconut milk, the addition of spices, lemongrass and turmeric to the latter imparts a fragrance and distinct yellow colour to the nasi kuning.30

Bonny Tan

1. Richard Winstedt, “Life and Customs,” Pt. 2, in Papers on Malay Subjects, ed. R. J. Wilkinson (Kuala Lumpur: Printed by J. E. Wallace at the F. M. S. Govt. Press, 1909), 62 (Microfilm no. NL263); N.A. Canton, J.L. Rosedale and J.P. Morris, Chemical Analysis of Foods in Singapore ([Singapore: Govt. Printer, 1940]) (Microfilm NL8059]; “Perkataan2 Di-Rumah Dan Erti-Nya,” Berita Harian, 1 October 1957, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

2. Haji Abu Bakar Haji Hasan, Jangka Rampaian: Pada Menyatakan bermacam2 Masakan Nasi Minyak, Beriani, Pilau Dan Lainnya Yang Dihimpunkan Dari Pada Beberapa Masakan Arab, Melayu, Jawa, India, Bokhari, Hindustan Dan Farsi (Parit Jamil, Muar: Jamiliah Press, 1934) 102–4; Siti Radhiah Mohamed Saleh, Memilih Selera (Singapore: Harmy, 1953) (From PublicationSG); Terry Tan, “Home-Made Coconut Rice,” New Nation, 6 July 1980, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
3. World Food. Malaysia & Singapore (Victoria: Lonely Planet Publication, 2002), 34–35. (Call no. RSING 641.9595 WFMS)
4. Joyceline Tully, “Grain of Truth,” Business Times, 26 June 2010, 4–5. (From NewspaperSG)
5. World Food. Malaysia & Singapore, 34–35.
6. Ghillie Başan, The Food and Cooking of Malaysia & Singapore (London: Aquamarine, 2006), 23, 63 (Call no. RSING 641.59595 BAS); Chris Tan, “Do the Sambal,” Straits Times, 1 October 2006, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Tan, “Do the Sambal.”
8. “Recipes,” Straits Times, 22 August 1982, 24. (From NewspaperSG).
9. World Food. Malaysia & Singapore, 34–35; Audrey Phoon, “Cream of the Crop,” Straits Times, 6 February 2010, 6–7 (From NewspaperSG)  
10. Ho Zheng and Angela Wu, “Coconut Rice Paradise,” Straits Times, 8 April 2001, 56 (From NewspaperSG); Aida Ahmad, “Nasi lemak – Once a Farmer’s Meal, Now Malaysia’s Favourite,” 14 November 2014, Star Online
11. Ho and Wu, “Coconut Rice Paradise.”

12. Yahaya Hanum and Fadillah Yakin, Cuisine of the Premiers (Kuala Lumpur: Institut Terjemahan Negara, 2009), 134. (Call no. RSEA 641.59595 HAB)
13. Zakiah Hanum, The Great Malaysian Breakfast (Kuala Lumpur: Berita Publishing Sdn Bhd, 1995), x (Call no. RSEA 641.59595 ZUK); World Food. Malaysia & Singapore, 34–35.
14. Winstedt, Life and Customs,” 62.
15. “Kuala Lumpur’s Malay Market,” Straits Times, 21 July 1935, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Tan, “Do the Sambal.”
17. Ho and Wu, “Coconut Rice Paradise”; Susheela Raghavan, Flavors of Malaysia: A Journey through Time, Tastes, and Traditions (New York: Hippocrene, Inc, 2010), 117. (Call no. RSEA 641.59595 RAG)
18. Raghavan, Flavors of Malaysia, 117.
19. Phoon, “Cream of the Crop”; Tully, “Grain of Truth”; World Food. Malaysia & Singapore, 34–35.
20. Başan, Food and Cooking of Malaysia & Singapore, 63.
21. Tully, “Grain of Truth”; Tan Chee-Beng, “Cultural Reproduction, Local Invention and Globalization of Southeast Asian Chinese Food,” in Chinese Food and Foodways in Southeast Asia and Beyond, ed. Tan Chee-Beng (Singapore: NUS Press, 2011), 34. (Call no. RSEA 394.12089951059 CHI)
22. Leslie Tay, Only the Best! The Ieat, Ishoot, Ipost Guide to Singapore’s Shiokest Hawker Food and the Best Ieat Guide to Durians Ever! (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2014), 149 (Call no. RSING 641.595957 TAY); Kwang Ok Kim, ed., Re-Orienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015), 40. (Call no. RSEA 394.12095 REO-[CUS])
23. Serene Lim, “What Goes Into a S$12.80 Plate of Nasi Lemak?” Straits Times, 11 November 2016, 67; Eunice Quek, “Nasi Lemak Gets Updates,” Straits Times, 22 January 2017, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Eunice Quek, “Nasi Lemak on a Roll,” Straits Times, 2 June 2017, 5; Kenneth Goh, “Nasi Lemak Burger Craze,” Straits Times, 20 August 2017, 19. (From NewspaperSG).
25. “Billi’s Fried Nasi Lemak a Hit,” New Straits Times, 21 October 2008. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
26. Norazah Ahmad, “Nasi Dagang Has a Taste of Its Own,” Straits Times, 21 December 1983, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Raghavan, Flavors of Malaysia, 128.
27. Başan, Food and Cooking of Malaysia & Singapore, 13; Ahmad, “Nasi Dagang Has a Taste of Its Own”; Raghavan, Flavors of Malaysia, 128; Hanum, Great Malaysian Breakfast, 1.
28. Ahmad, “Nasi Dagang Has a Taste of Its Own”; Raghavan, Flavors of Malaysia, 128; Zakiah Hanum, Great Malaysian Breakfast, 3.
29. Sri Owen, Indonesian Regional Food and Cookery (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 174 (Call no. RSEA 641.59598 OWE); Rosemary Brissenden, South East Asian Food: Classic and Modern Dishes from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (Prahan, Victoria: Hardie Grant Books, 2011), 165. (Call no. RSING 641.5959 BRI)
30. Owen, Indonesian Regional Food and Cookery, 243; Brissenden, South East Asian Food, 166.

The information in this article is valid as of August 2023 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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