Nasi Lemak: The Food and The Film

30 Jan

It occurred to me that I haven’t done a post on actual Malaysian food in a while. And I’ve never done a post on nasi lemak, which is a huge oversight on my part. Nasi lemak is about as close to a national dish as Malaysia has. It’s so resonant as a symbol of the country that it’s even the title of a movie about racial identity in Malaysia: Nasi Lemak 2.0.

OK, so calling it a film about Malaysian identity makes the movie sound way more serious than it is. (As does the trailer: here’s a more representative scene.) Perhaps it should have been called Rojak, since it’s a mashup of kung fu parodies, social satire, and good old universal slapstick, but then it wouldn’t have much to do with the plot. The film is directed by Namewee, a Malaysian Chinese rapper who made a name for himself by remixing the Malaysian anthem with lyrics criticizing the government, especially its racial policies. (The remix is called “Negarakuku,” and you can find the video and English lyrics here.)

Nasi Lemak 2.0 is about a Chinese-Malaysian chef (played by Namewee) who is so dedicated to cooking authentic Chinese food that he finds himself out of a job. He pleads with the nasi lemak aunty, who sends him on a quest to learn how to cook proper nasi lemak — a journey that takes him from the curries of the Indian community, to the rice of the Malay villages, to the sambal of the Chinese Nyonyas, demonstrating how all the cultural traditions have come together to create this satu Malaysia dish. Oh yeah, and he also has a cook-off with a Chinese-Chinese chef and saves a restaurant. It’s pretty funny, although a lot of the humor is very Malaysian and thus went over my head. I recommend it to anyone who wants a little insight into race relations in modern Malaysia, delivered in a lighthearted way. Oh, and kung fu jokes. And a pretty killer Bollywood send-up. I don’t think it’s coming to Netflix anytime soon, but you can find the movie on YouTube. (With, in One Malaysia fashion, subtitles in English, Chinese, and Malay.)

So what exactly is nasi lemak? The name, meaning “rich” or “fatty rice,” refers to the rice, which is cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaves. It’s served with a cooked sambal (a kind of sweet-spicy condiment), peanuts and fried tiny fish, and an incredibly overcooked hard-boiled egg. If you’re feeling extra hungry, you can add on any number of accompaniments like curry, rendang, fried chicken, fish, etc., etc. Nasi lemak can be eaten at any time of the day, but it’s most commonly eaten for breakfast, and the best nasi lemak comes from the aunties who line the streets in the morning with plastic containers full of home-cooked goodies and cause all sorts of horrible jams (because Malaysians think nothing of parking in the middle of the street while they grab some food). These days, the aunties are just as likely to give you a styrofoam container, but tradition dictates that the rice is wrapped in a triangle of banana leaf and paper that miraculously doesn’t leak. These little packets are ubiquitous; even 7-Eleven has them.

Old-school nasi lemak

Nasi lemak is definitely a sometimes food, as anything called “fatty rice” naturally is, so I limit myself to visiting the aunties only when I’ve done my “long” run around the neighborhood. Running outdoors in Malaysia requires getting up early (by 9 am, it’s way too hot); the aunties set up about 1 km from my apartment, so picking up a packet on the way home makes for a delicious, carb-y reward, and I’m assured that I’ll get to the stall before they run out of goodies (although a good sambal is enough of an accompaniment).

Nasi lemak -- unwrapped!

I haven’t tried to make this at home yet, but I suppose I should start practicing for the inevitable day when we move away from a country where a nasi lemak is only a short walk (or long run) away. I don’t think I’ll ever master the packet, though.

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