Penang’s Nasi (Very) Lemak

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Nasi Lemak is Malaysia’s national dish and is my favorite. I didn’t appreciate it as much when I was a kid, but when I visited family in Melaka last summer, I fell in love with its creamy, coconut milk rice with its subtle Pandan leaf fragrance. Traditional Nasi Lemak has fried whitebait, fried peanuts, cucumber, a boiled egg and a delicious sweet chili paste called Sambal. The best thing is you can have Nasi Lemak for any meal of the day- we had it for breakfast!

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The place we went to in Penang is called  Johnny’s Nasi Lemak in the Jin Hoe Kopitiam, a small shop on the side of the road. Like many street-side restaurants, Johnny’s specializes in one thing, and they make it well. Penang’s Nasi Lemak has different accompaniments: tamarind shrimp, fried yellow-striped scad (which tastes like mackerel), cucumber and fiery hot Sambal Belacan. The Sambal Balacan is what really sets the Penang version of this dish apart and is what makes me prefer it to the original. It is made from shrimp paste that is left in the sun to ferment. My aunt liked it so much that she ate my little cousin’s portion! (it was too spicy for them anyway) The pairing of the Sambal Belacan and the very “Lemak,”(which means the creaminess of food in Malay) Nasi Lemak went very well together because the creamy coconut helped ease the spiciness of the chili. I would have been happy with just the two on my plate!

DSC_0146Johnny’s Nasi Lemak stall is simple– a small cart in the front of the shop, a few tables and chairs on the inside and some on the walkway by the street. His small cart had all the ingredients to make Nasi Lemak. He first fluffs up the rice, then stuffs it into a small bowl and knocks it onto some banana leaf, leaving a rice dome. Then he adds the other components onto the plate and that’s it!

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The rice is what makes a traditional Nasi Lemak stand out, but the challengingly spicy Sambal Belacan in Penang makes me drool just thinking about it. Versions of Belacan (dried shrimp paste) are also used in Thailand, Indonesian and Philippines and has a strong pungent fishy smell, but the one in Penang is also packed with chilies… just what you need to start your morning!

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