Nasi lemak was mentioned in the British scholar Sir Richard Olaf Winstedt’s book The Circumstances of Malay Life, published in 1909. “At marriages and festival”, writes Sir Richard Olaf Winstedt, “the Malay cook will try to improve on perfection. He will boil the rice… in coconut milk instead of water”. This suggests that nasi lemak was also a dish eaten during times of celebration.
Nobody knows who created nasi lemak or when it was created. Its name, however, is probably a dead giveaway to where it originated from. Nasi lemak, according to Singapore Infopedia, is Malay for “rice in cream” or “richly flavoured rice”. Malaysian historian, Ahmad Najib Arffin, better known as “Nadge”, said that nasi lemak most likely originates from the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia.
Nasi lemak is a popular dish in South East Asia. Described as “the ordinary man’s breakfast” on Singapore Infopedia, nasi lemak is now also eaten for lunch or dinner. It used to be a farmer’s staple food that was eaten in the morning before they headed out to work. Nadge explains how the coconut cream rice, together with its accompaniments such as the anchovies and sambal chilli, were supposed to “keep them full because you have all the food groups covered — carbohydrates from the rice, oils from the sambal and protein from the anchovies,”.
The lightly salted rice is cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaves, which are the two main ingredients that give the dish a rich fragrance. It is traditionally eaten with sambal chilli, fried anchovies, cucumber, and a small fried fish known locally as ikan selar. Today, nasi lemak offers other selections as side dishes to the coconut rice. Chong Pang Nasi Lemak and Punggol Nasi Lemak are two of the most well-known stalls in Singapore that serve nasi lemak a la carte. For example, Chong Pang Nasi Lemak is famous for their specially marinated fried chicken wings.
Rice, a pinch of salt, coconut milk, and pandan leaves. Sambal chilli, the key condiment to the dish, requires chilli peppers, garlic cloves, coconut milk, tamarind, water, shrimp paste, salt and sugar to taste.