Travel bites: Malaysia’s unofficial national dish is savoury, spicy and sweet all at the same time

Travel News from Stuff - 04-09-2023
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Nasi lemak is a wonderful combination of rice cooked in creamy coconut milk flavoured with pandan leaf, with crunchy fried peanuts and anchovies (ikan bilis), a hard-boiled egg, cucumber slices and a dollop of spicy sambal on the side – all separate elements to mix and match as you eat according to your personal preference. You can have it on its own, but some like to eat it with other dishes such as fried chicken.

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Every Malaysian will have their idea of what makes the ultimate nasi lemak: the perfect proportions of peanuts and ikan bilis, the right taste to the sambal, and of course, perfectly soft creamy coconut rice. Served anywhere and everywhere from five-star restaurants to roadside stalls – wrapped neatly in a banana leaf – you’ll never be far from this dish.

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I’ll never forget the first time I ate nasi lemak. I’d landed early in Kuala Lumpur and kept seeing people with pyramid-shaped green packages in their hands – everyone from construction workers to teens to business people.

I had to know why everyone was eating this for breakfast and why it was so universally popular. I handed over my money and eagerly opened my purchase – I was in immediate and deep love with this perfect package of flavours and ate at least one every day for the rest of my trip.

But it’s not just a breakfast – people eat it as an afternoon snack, for lunch or dinner. There doesn’t seem to be a time of day that’s not appropriate for nasi lemak. It always feels like such a complete meal – with all its tasty and varied parts.

While you won’t find it at roadside stalls in Aotearoa, you will find nasi lemak at most good Malaysian restaurants – many will serve it with another dish on the same plate like beef rendang or chicken curry.

If you’re in Auckland, try it at , or . In Wellington, visit or any of the other great Malaysian eateries.

Once people start eating it regularly they find their own favourite combo and start to discern what type of sambal they prefer, what they consider to be the perfect consistency for coconut rice, who is stingy and who is generous with the peanuts and ikan bilis (and how crispy they’ve fried them).

Nasi lemak is truly soul-soothing kai.

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