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History of Nasi Lemak ● Trinity of Rice, Coconut Milk & Sambal


Nasi Lemak is a popular dish of rice boiled in coconut milk and stalks of pandan leaf. In its most basic form, it is eaten with a dollop of sambal (spicy sauce) of chili pepper, onion and often whitebait / anchovy.


My favourite form is this trinity of coconut milk, rice and sambal tightly wrapped with banana leaf in a pyramid shaped bundle. The flavour and aroma of the coconut milk, rice, sambal as well as the banana leaf mell and infused everything in the tight bundle. It's a special kind of pleasure. Nasi lemak is considered Malaysia's national dish and listed in Malaysia's Department of National Heritage's (
Jabatan Warisan Negara) list of 214 intangible cultural objects.

Since time immemorial, nasi lemak is a staple along the Straits of Malacca i.e. the west coast of the Malay peninsula, east Sumatra and the Riau islands but its origins is unrecorded. The core of its range coincides with the realm of the old Malacca sultanate (which ruled this area from 1400 to 1511).

The earliest written record of nasi lemak is very recent (in historical terms), in 1909 by British colonial officer Sir Richard Olof Winstedt in his book "Life and Customs: The Circumstances of Malay Life".

It was a passing mention but Winstedt touched on all three elements of the nasi lemak trinity - rice, coconut milk, and sambal belacan (fermented krill). Winstedt was briefly describing various types of "daily food of the poor" and nasi lemak was one of them (though Winstedt did not use the term "nasi lemak" in his book).

However, Winstedt's description of the rice includes spices like carraway seed, clove, mace, nutmeg, ginger and garlic which are not used in cooking today's nasi lemak rice. It is more akin to today's Indonesian nasi uduk.

Today, the sambal in nasi lemak is usually sans belacan but a blend of chili, onion, and sometimes dried whitebait or anchovies. Today's nasi lemak sambal usually tastes sweet spicy with umami-savouriness.

The Malay name "nasi lemak" literally means "fatty rice", "rich rice" or "creamy rice" due to boiling in coconut milk. 

There is an oft mentioned "origin" story allegedly from Malacca of a daughter accidentally making nasi lemak by spilling coconut milk into her rice. When mum asked what she cooked, the girl replied: "Nasi le, Mak.. ." ("It's rice, mum.") Without any sort of context, I don't think it is worth repeating. 

If we define nasi lemak as the trinity of rice, coconut milk, and sambal, then the
arrival of chili pepper in the Malay world may provide a clue of the dish's origin. Chili pepper only came to the Malay peninsula with the arrival of the Portuguese in 15011. Chili pepper is native to the Americas and was brought around the world by the Portuguese and Spanish only since the 1500s.

Hot chili peppers were well received everywhere the Portuguese and Spanish brought the hot spice to. So, yeah the nasi lemak trinity as we know it, appeared only after the Portuguese arrived in Malacca in 1509, returned to base in Goa (India) to assemble the required Armada and promptly conquered it in 1511.

Coconut milk infused rice though should be around longer (than the nasi lemak trinity with sambal).

From its most basic form of rice boiled in coconut milk and pandan leaf eaten with sambal, we can deduce that nasi lemak is a dish of communities who lived by the seashores where coconut palm and krill / whitebait are abundant.

Today, nasi lemak is well loved by all communities in Singapore and Malaysia. There's now Malay and Chinese versions of the dish, but the core remains - just the side dishes differ.


From its basic core of the definitive trinity of rice, coconut milk and sambal, an infinite variety of side dishes orbit around the heart of nasi lemak. Examples include cucumber slices, fried anchovies, fried fish, fried chicken wing, fried chicken thigh, otak otak, fried fish fillet, fried egg, fried luncheon meat (non Halal), fried beef lung, beef rendang, sambal egg, sambal cockles, etc. Some sides may come and go (including trendy lobsters) but missing any one of the trinity of rice, coconut milk or sambal, and the dish is no longer nasi lemak.


Small fried fish either ikan kuning or ikan selar used to the most common side dish. But, nowadays due to higher cost and less control over supply (compared to chicken), not all stalls serve fried fish all the time. For fried fish, one of my favourites come from Yi Liu Xiang at the Hainanese Village in Singapore. I like its crisp batter which kept the fish meat tender and moist.


Besides fried fish, the most popular side for nasi lemak is fried chicken. Some feel fried chicken may have overtaken fried fish as a preferred side dish even. At Wak Kentut in Kulai, Johor, their coconut milk rice and sambal are great, and the best thing here is their fried chicken.


Perhaps, the most famous nasi lemak shop in Malaysia, Village Park in Petaling Jaya is popular for their huge fried chicken thigh. Great texture (crisp outside, juicy inside) and savoury flavour with underlying juicy chicken sweetness.


If a nasi lemak stall has beef rendang, I will always go for it as it is one of my favourite ways to eat beef. Among nasi lemak stalls, Mana Lagi in Taman Perling, Johor has my favourite rendang which is tender, juicy and saturated with spice flavours.


Besides beef rendang at Malay nasi lemak stalls, another must have for me is their sambal sotong (squid). I love it for their jelly spongy bite and unique umami-savoury, spicy taste. This is from the famous
Nasi Lemak Antarabangsa in Kuala Lumpur.


Otak otak, fish meat mixed with coconut milk and spices wrapped and grilled in attap leaf makes great sides for nasi lemak. The best I've had so far come from Otak Shiduoli in Johor Bahru.


Hon Ni Kitchen, a Chinese nasi lemak stall in Bedok 216 hawker centre makes and serves a nice otak otak using chicken instead of fish.


I like my nasi lemak to come with runny yolk fried eggs like this at Wing Liao Lor at Hong Lim market & food centre (unfortunately stall has closed). I don't like hardboiled egg, omelette nor overcooked fried egg with nasi lemak.


Kenny's nasi lemak stall at Oktober Kopitiam in Johor Bahru serve scotch eggs with nasi lemak. The two, Malaysia and Britain pairs well together. Kenny makes mean runny yolk fried eggs too.


I enjoy creative contemporary interpretations of heritage dishes. I like the nasi lemak cheesecake by Lepaq Lepaq cafe in Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, the cafe has closed. I still have fond memories of it.


In Malaysia, I like to eat nasi lemak in rustic village settings under makeshift thatched roofs under the canopy of a leafy shady cherry tree. This is 
Mughni Saujana Cafe or Warung Sebelah Rumah Menteri Besar in Johor Bahru.


Coming full circle, my favourite nasi lemak is still those that come in a small pyramid bundle wrapped in banana leaf. It's harder to find nowadays, especially in Singapore.

It is often said that nasi lemak is the same as nasi uduk. Is that true? 👈 click

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Written by Tony Boey on 17 July 2021 | Reviewed on 22 Jan 2023


Image of sea side courtesy of Snappygoat. Image of Portuguese warriors is a still from video Fall of Malacca. PDF copy of The Circumstances of Malay by Sir Richard Olof Winstedt.


  1. Boss, sambal for nasi lemak is not sambal belacan. Some do put belacan (fermented krill) in it but most do not. It just soaked dried chilis, onions, blended in a blender and cooked in oil. Sambal belacan is the dipping sauce when having ulam with your lunch. I do like your research but please get the difference between sambal belacan and sambal nasi lemak right. Thanks.

    1. Joshua Sanggang20 July 2021 at 21:46

      Youu are correct. it's called sambal tumis or fried sambal.

    2. Yes, thanks for pointing out. I have made the adjustments.

  2. Is it me, or most of the nasi lemak rice in Singapore taste like they are not using fresh santan? Perhaps it is the lack of sundry shops with the coconut grater machine to get fresh grated coconut?

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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