Intangibility Of Our Intangible Heritage – The Unassuming Nasi Lemak

By Hang Kasturi

Before anything else, let me just take care of the elephant in the room. Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Say that 63 times. Happy Independence Day to all Malaysians and to our wonderful country Malaysia. However, like the Beatles song says: Will you still need me? Will you still feed me? When I’m 64.

Well, Malaysia will be 64 next year. Will we still need her? Treat her nicely? Take care of her the way she has taken care of us for the last 63 years? Of course we do. Well, at least my friends and I will. And we all hope you will too. She is after all a “wargamas” (senior citizen) that needs our attention and care.

Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! The first time these words were shouted seven times by Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, during the proclamation of Malaysia’s independence at the Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur. Today, on 31 August, 63 years later, we are proud to be able to shout it again. – Photo credit:

So Happy 63rd Merdeka Day Malaysia. We will love you today, when you’re 64, and every year hence.

6 Degrees Of Desperation

Now, welcome to my little op-ed column. A piece of fortnightly drivel I call 6 degrees of Desperation. Yes, whilst all of us are separated by six degrees (google it if you don’t understand this theorem), we are also separated by six degrees of desperation – in its many forms. So, bear with me as I delve weekly on the many kinds of desperation our society wallows in – some profound, some stupid, but mostly just pointless ones.

Things and events effect all of us…in ways you may not even know it. All within six degrees of us all.

Food, Glorious Food

To begin, let’s talk about something that ALL of us agree on. Yes, we are only separated by one degree in this particular subject. Everyone is an expert. Everyone can NOT stop talking about it. Everyone thinks they know everything that needs to be known about it. And everyone loves it. MALAYSIAN FOOD!

Yup…a trivial enough subject that actually needs to be seriously studied under the microscope.

We talk about food ALL the time. We talk about it when we are not hungry. We talk about it when we are hungry. We talk about it when we eat and when we don’t eat. We never stop.

The choices are immense when talking about Malaysian cuisine
Do Malaysians talk about food all the time? Incessantly. Photo credit: Hang Kasturi

How many of you know a family member who, right after finishing lunch, asks: “What’s for dinner?” Hands up, too, those who argue that “let’s not have “nasi kandar” today since we had it yesterday?” A statement that thousands of “Asnafs” (the homeless community) in Malaysia would find so insulting as they would be ever so grateful to be able to afford nasi kandar every day for the rest of their lives.

Malaysian food. Yes. A subject so trivial, yet so powerful and has great impact, especially the iconic Malaysian dish – nasi lemak. So iconic and Malaysian this dish is, so much so that Singapore has laid claim to it as their own heritage dish.

Oh you didn’t know? Nasi lemak is a Singaporean dish. Google it.

It’s even permanently displayed in their Living Gallery in the National Museum of Singapore. The museum states: “This gallery focuses much on the street food sold by hawkers during the 1950s through the 1970s. On display are our familiar favorites such as Laksa, Char Kway Teow, Nasi Lemak and Satay.” Coincidentally, is there any museum in Malaysia that displays the nasi lemak as its heritage dish? Not that I know of., a Singapore cultural portal writes: In Singapore, nasi lemak is a notable Malay dish, and is acknowledged as an important part of Singapore’s food heritage. The dish is sold across Singapore, and some people cook it at home as well. Although traditionally consumed during breakfast, the dish is now eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper.

What are Malaysians doing about this? Post a scathing Facebook quote? Create a pathetic meme condemning our southern neighbours of being cultural thieves?

That’s what Malaysians are good at. Whining and complaining and yelling. But when it comes to proving that nasi lemak is a Malaysian dish, no one seems to be able to defend this dish.

What does Wikipedia has to say about it?

“Nasi lemak is a Malay cuisine dish consisting of fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan leaf. It is commonly found in Malaysia, where it is considered the national dish; it is also the native dish in neighbouring areas with significant Malay populations such as Singapore; Brunei, and Southern Thailand. In Indonesia it can be found in several parts of Sumatra; especially Malay realm of RiauRiau Islands and Medan. Nasi lemak can also be found in the Bangsamoro region of Mindanao prepared by Filipino Moro. It is considered one of the most famous dishes for a Malay-style breakfast.”

Yes, Wikipedia does mention that Malaysian considers it a national dish. But which version?

Which Version Of Nasi Lemak, Please

Showing the variety of nasi lemak available in Malaysia
From the sublime to the supreme, nasi lemak in all its glory. And then some. – Photo credit: Dapur Hasnah

The Singapore national dish called nasi lemak is usually fragrant rice cooked in coconut milk with a slight hint of ginger and pandanus, served with fried thinly sliced egg omelette, spicy sweet sambal (chilli sauce) and either a fried fish (usually ikan selar kuning or yellowtail scad) or a slice of otak-otak (nope, it’s not zombie food). And of course garnished with slices of cucumber. As you can see, the Singapore version is actually different from the Malaysian version which should be fragrant rice cooked with coconut milk or santan, sambal tumis (either anchovies or squid), fried anchovies with fried groundnut and a half hard boiled egg. I think everyone can agree that this is the traditional Malay nasi lemak that is cited as our national dish and also a certified intangible heritage cuisine of the nation.

But now, that’s where the ‘traditional’ ends. Because the nasi lemak we all know today is a totally different concoction. The one mentioned above is now usually what you get when you buy nasi lemak bungkus. What you usually have as nasi lemak is basically nasi campur spread with nasi lemak (the rice). You destroy the traditional nasi lemak with fried chicken (whatever form – tumeric fried, fried with lots of spices, or fried with seasoned flour mix – the KFC variety, etc), chicken or beef rendang, sambal sotong (squid), kangkong (water spinach), sambal kerang (clams) and many other side dishes.

The first time I was exposed to this smosgabord nasi lemak style was when a friend took me to the famous and original Nasi Lemak Antarabangsa found near the Sulaiman Club in Kampung Baru area in the late 70s. I was shocked to see the plethora of side dishes to be eaten with my nasi lemak. I cannot brain it then and I cannot brain it now. I am a purist. Even when I cook nasi lemak at home – it is just nasi lemak, cucumber slices, eggs (boiled or fried sunny side up) and sambal tumis. That’s it. No fried peanut, no rendang, no fried chicken, no sotong, nothing. When I am not so lazy, I will fry a crispy ikan selar kuning (yellowtail scad) which exposes my Singapore roots.

But that’s not all. The nasi lemak in the North is not nasi lemak at all! It’s nasi kandar disguised as nasi lemak. Ok, sue me all you want! Of course nasi lemak Kedah is delicious but it is not nasi lemak. If it is you might as well call the briyani nasi lemak too. Nasi lemak CANNOT be eaten with curry!!! Nooooo!!!! Never!!!!

Nasi Lemak or Nasi Kandar Lemak?
Nasi lemak in Kedah. Or just a variation of the nasi kandar? – Photo credit: Hang Kasturi

But unfortunately Wikipedia has already included it. It’s called Indian Nasi Lemak. To be served with whatever curry you want.

The Chinese Nasi Lemak is also listed – just because the side dishes are non-halal dishes.

Across the border, nasi lemak is called nasi gurih or uduk. So let’s not even go into that debate.

And don’t let me start about satay, okay?

This is Hang Kasturi signing off.

Yeah, the guy who actually fought Tuah, not the fake guy named Jebat.

Google it.

About the writer: Unemployed writer, stressed beyond belief. Waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel to shine on his world. Bad golfer. Wannabe cartoonist.

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