What is Nasi Lemak?

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  • Written By: K.C. Bruning
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2019
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Nasi lemak is a popular Malaysian dish that consists of a ball of coconut rice which is often topped with anchovies and wrapped inside a banana leaf. Though the recipe is most popular in Malaysia, where it is considered to be a national dish, it is also common in Asian nations such as Brunei, Riau Islands, Southern Thailand and particularly Singapore. Nasi lemak is often confused with nasi dagang, a similar coconut milk rice dish that is primarily different because it is also prepared with fish curry.

The phrase nasi lemak means “rice in cream” in Malay. It is popular both as street food and as a restaurant meal. The dish is served any time of day, though it is most popular for breakfast

Nasi lemak is commonly served as part of a plate of food. Typical accompaniments include hard-boiled eggs, sliced cucumber, roasted peanuts, and hot sauce. It can also be served with heartier foods such as chicken, cockle, pickled vegetables called achar, and cuttlefish. Beef lungs, known as paru, and beef rending, which is a dish cooked in coconut milk and spices, are also commonly served with nasi lemak.


A ball of coconut rice is the base element of nasi lemak. Once the cooked rice is mixed with coconut milk it is seasoned with screwpine, also known as pandan, leaves. These leaves are not only a key ingredient of nasi lemak, but an important part of Malaysian cooking overall. Other flavoring such as salt, ginger, and shallots may also be added.

Ikan bilis is the Malaysian word for anchovies. The topping that most often accompanies the coconut rice ball is called sambal ikan bilis. To prepare it, a mixture of prawn paste and seasonings such as dried chilies and garlic are fried in a pan and mixed with onion rings. Then sugar, salt, and tamarind juice are stirred in. The final element is the addition of fried anchovies.

In Malaysia, nasi lemak is commonly sold by vendors from establishments known as mamak stalls. These dining venues can be anything from a makeshift stall to a small restaurant or café. They are popular gathering places due to the variety and low cost of the food and extended operating hours. Many mamak stalls are open most, if not all, hours of the day and stay open every day except for certain holidays. The eateries get their name from the Tamil Muslims who typically run them.


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