Nasi lemak is common fare for Singaporeans. Not only is it a staple breakfast, one of the many available to us from a spread of foods from different cultures, but it’s also an integral part of our cuisine. We might squabble over which hawker centre or restaurant has the best nasi lemak in Singapore, but how much do we really know about this modest meal?
Here are 6 fun facts about the humble nasi lemak that you probably never knew!
1. Nasi lemak literally means” fatty/oily rice”
The word “lemak”, literally translated, means fat and can be applied to many different kinds of fat, like ghee or oil. The “lemak” in this creamy dish refers to coconut milk, which is high in saturated fats. The name of this dish comes from the process where the rice is soaked and then steamed in coconut milk with other spices and herbs like butterfly pea flowers, infusing the rice with a balanced blend of flavours.
2. It was once named one of the 10 healthiest international breakfasts
While nasi lemak is considered on the heavier side of breakfasts available to us in Singapore, in 2016, TIME magazine named nasi lemak as one of the healthiest breakfasts in the world. It might feel contradictory, considering how the name of the dish itself can be translated to “fatty rice”.
But according to TIME, its high fat content is “balanced with lots of manganese,” which is good for forming connective tissues and bones. Proteins and carbs create a balanced breakfast, and the chilli in the sambal is said to boost metabolism as well. The article described nasi lemak as being “supremely delicious” and we can’t help but agree!
3. It is considered Malaysia’s national dish
While it has not been officially named as the national dish, almost everyone in Malaysia would be able to rave about what they love about this quintessentially Malaysian dish. Nasi lemak is considered essential in a Malay-style breakfast repertoire, although it is served at all times of the day. In Malaysia’s multicultural society, this breakfast menu staple is often cited as a shared childhood experience, and unites the people as part of their common identity, just as is the case in Singapore.
4. It was once a farmer’s meal
Nasi lemak used to be a favourite of farmers! In the past, villagers would commonly eat nasi lemak as their morning meal before heading out to the fields. The combination of the carbohydrates and calories from the coconut steamed rice, together with the proteins from the ikan bilis and oils and antioxidants from the chilli make this dish a perfectly well-rounded meal, providing them with all the necessary nutrients (not to mention a delicious start) to power through a long day’s work!
5. There are many regional variations across Southeast Asia
This dish has spread across Southeast Asia, and as such has a great number of variations across the different cultures. For example, there is a Malaysian-Indian version of this dish which comes with curry, adding a little heat to cut through the rich coconut rice. Even within Singapore, there are many variations of nasi lemak, as different cultures and ethnicities bring flavours from their own cuisine to the mix! Some offer “gourmet” or fusion versions of the dish, while some Singaporean-Chinese renditions offer alternative sides and set dishes not usually served with nasi lemak such as luncheon meat.
6. Its origins are uncertain
This dish is so widespread that no one truly knows nasi lemak’s exact origins. One theory suggests that the answer is in its ingredients — living by the sea, the simple folk relied on the ingredients available to them. Coconuts from the coast, anchovies from the sea and kang kong (water spinach) plucked from the gardens all came together to create the explosion of flavour that is nasi lemak.
The signature banana leaf-wrapped look is sometimes attributed to the fact that this dish was often brought as meals to farmers on the field, providing them with a filling meal. While there might not be any conclusive answers for the origin of nasi lemak, there is no denying its importance in our local food scene!
One last fun fact — you can now try Thai-inspired nasi lemak in Singapore! Lovingly made with authentic Thai ingredients, Lavender Nasi Lemak brings together the best of Thai flavours and local cuisine. Visit Lavender Nasi Lemak at Yishun Blk 504, or order online for delivery to your doorstep today!