Nasi lemak - once a farmer's meal, now Malaysia's favourite

Local favourite: Back in the day, in an agrarian society, the villagers would consume a healthy serving of nasi lemak for breakfast before heading out to the fields. — filepic

This coconut rice dish has gone far beyond its humble beginnings.

NASI lemak may be the darling of every Malaysian who loves local food. What started as a humble (national) dish with the essential coconut milk rice, ikan bilis (anchovy) sambal, slices of cucumber, hard-boiled egg and roasted groundnuts wrapped in banana leaf has evolved into an industry and tourism commodity.

Many nasi lemak vendors have included variations of accompaniments such as chicken rendang, paru (lung) beef or prawn curry and even fried chicken as well as kangkung.

Whether you prefer the traditional version or the “modernised” one with all the fixings, have you ever thought about the origin of nasi lemak?

It is nearly impossible to ascertain, according to heritage historian Ahmad Najib “Nadge” Ariffin.

“Although it did start within the Malay society in South-East Asia, they were very mobile people and the concept of ‘coconut milk rice’ was a slow invention that spread throughout the different communities,” said Nadge, who is an expert and researcher in culture, tradition and heritage in South-East Asia. He is also the founder of Nusantara Academy of Development, Geocultures & Ethnolinguistics.

Based on his interviews with elderly people, Najib said nasi lemak did seem to originate from the west coast of peninsular Malaysia.

“The east coast, which is the most culturally conservative part of the country, has its own signature traditional rice dishes with prominent, distinct fish flavours such as nasi dagang and nasi kerabu.”

He added that back in the day, in an agrarian society, the villagers would consume a healthy serving of nasi lemak for breakfast before heading out to the fields.

“Farmers needed a hearty meal in the morning, so eating nasi lemak kept them full because you have all the food groups covered — carbohydrates from the rice, oils from the sambal and protein from the anchovies.”

One misconception that people have with nasi lemak is translating it as “fatty rice”. “In the olden days, coconut milk was not considered as ‘fat’ but it was a fortifying ingredient that gave a smoother taste and richness to the rice dish.”

This month, people can vote for their favourite nasi lemak eatery/stall under The Star People’s Food Awards via Metro Online Broadcast (

Those who nominate, vote or successfully share a link are automatically entered into a race to win prizes.

Nominations are open for the first 10 days of the month, followed by voting from Nov 15 to 30.

The Star People’s Food Awards is a monthly contest that recognises the best street food in the Klang Valley.

Every month until May next year, the public can vote for the best category-based street food such as nasi lemak (November) or char koay teow (December) via MOB.

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