ASK locals in Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang what their main local dish is, and don’t be surprised if all say “nasi dagang”!
The reach of nasi dagang covers the entire east coast region and extends further north into southern Thailand – Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
It is one of the most popular breakfast meals in the east coast – like nasi lemak is to the west coast. In fact, nasi dagang has been called the "nasi lemak of the East Coast" since both are coconut milk-rich rice dishes, but the label is spurious, many would say.
Nasi dagang also shows up at lunch and dinnertime; it is even significant enough to be served on festive occasions such as Hari Raya.
A dish of rice and curry, it is a meal on its own. The name means “trader’s rice” in Malay and the often-told story is that it is the meal of the traders of old. Not much is known of its origins – only its ubiquity in this part of the world.
That it is an indigenous dish of the region, we can be certain: it makes use of the natural resources abundant in this rice-planting, coastal stretch. The curry is made with ikan tongkol, a tuna species fished off the coast.
In Kelantan, the coconut milk-infused rice is made with beras dagang, a long grain red rice with some of its husk polished off, so the nasi dagang has attractive reddish brown specks.
In Terengganu, nasi dagang is a combination of white fragrant rice and white sticky rice. So now you know the difference: Terengganu nasi dagang is generally white, while Kelantan nasi dagang is speckled.
After some research, we know that red rice was grown in Thailand, where it was called “red cargo rice”, as the rice was exported in bulk by sea where it travelled as cargo in ships. So the word “dagang” was likely coming from the fact that the red rice was a commodity.
Although it is generally regarded as a traditional Malay food, somewhere along its evolution, there was Indian influence as the tuna curry served with the rice has a strong southern Indian curry character.
In coastal India, tuna curry is widespread. Red rice is also popular in Kerala, where it is double cooked – a method of cooking similar to that employed in the cooking of nasi dagang. Thai red rice would have been traded via the Indian Ocean trade routes of old by Indian merchants.
Nasi lemak has been traced to Sri Lanka; nasi dagang could have arrived the same way in the east coast – which actually gives credence to the suggestion that nasi dagang is the nasi lemak of the east coast.
The use of red rice makes sense as its slightly nutty taste and more robust texture can better stand up to the strong taste of a very fishy and earthy tuna curry.
Kelantan shares a border with Thailand and has easy access to red rice for its nasi dagang; Terengganu does not border Thailand and its version of nasi dagang evolved rather differently, substituting beras dagang with glutinous and jasmine rice – which works just as well.
So nasi dagang is a dish with Malay, Thai and Indian influences. This melting pot of flavours is not that surprising as the south of Thailand and north Malaysia were once the same kingdom under the Malay sultanate of Pattani.
Terengganu nasi dagang is usually made with two parts jasmine rice and one part white sticky rice. It is flavoured with coconut milk, fenugreek, shallots, ginger, pandan leaf (optional) and a bit of sea salt. The rice is combined and soaked for several hours, drained and then steamed to partly cook it. Salted coconut milk is stirred in and it is returned to the steamer to finish the cooking, and the aromatics are added. This way of cooking results in glossy, shiny, individual grains of rice – it is far superior to boiling.
Gulai ikan tongkol
Locals often cook this curry using a premixed spice paste from the market. The spice paste is a combination of dried spices (popular in Indian curries) and a wet spice paste (popular in Malay curries). The dried spices are coriander seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek, black pepper, and dried chillies. The fresh aromatics are garlic, ginger, galangal and shallots. Some cooks add lemongrass, turmeric and belimbing buluh to the mix as well. It is acidulated with asam gelugor and seasoned with palm sugar and belacan.
A simple pickle of cucumber, carrot and onion (acar timun) is usually served as a side dish, along with hard-boiled egg.
This traditional Malay snack is made of fish and sago flour seasoned with salt and sugar. It is enjoyed for its fishy, umami-rich flavour and chewy or crispy texture. There are two main types of lekor: thinly sliced and deep fried until dry and crispy, or sausage-shaped and deep fried or steamed. The thicker, sausage-shaped lekor is chewy and the thin lekor is crispy. Keropok lekor is usually served with a fresh chilli-spiked dipping sauce.
This simple side dish made usually of green chillies stuffed with a filling of pounded fish paste and grated coconut is popular in the areas where fish and coconut are plentiful. The stuffed chilli is simmered in coconut milk until cooked. It is usually served as a condiment with rice.
Aromatic and tasty in a fishy way, sata is a traditional Terengganu snack made of fish paste flavoured with onion, ginger and red chillies, and seasoned with salt and sugar. It is wrapped into little conical or triangular parcels and threaded through a stick of bamboo before being grilled over a charcoal fire until the wrapping is charred, giving it a nice, smoky flavour.