Malaysia Day is just around the corner. We invite you to ‘rice’ to the occasion by joining our exploration of the country’s rich culinary traditions. Our focal point: the colourful rice dishes from various states in Malaysia. Enjoy!
(This article was originally published in Destination Malaysia Issue 8.)
In Malaysia, rice or nasi can be transformed into a myriad of tantalizing and colourful dishes. From the basic coconut milk-infused nasi lemak to the ornately spiced biryani, there is something to suit even the most fussy and discerning individual.
#1 Nasi lemak: Considered by Malaysians to be the crown of all rice dishes due to its versatility, the dish comprises rice cooked in coconut milk and pandan (screw pine) leaves, and served with sambal (chilli paste), fried anchovies, boiled egg and sliced cucumbers. Other side dishes such as fried chicken and beef rendang may be added. Commonly wrapped in banana leaves, it is popular as a breakfast item. TIME Magazine recently listed nasi lemak as one of the top 10 healthiest international breakfasts.
#2 Nasi kerabu: Famously tinted a blue colour with the help of bunga telang (butterfly pea flower), nasi kerabu is a ubiquitous sight in Kelantan, where it’s a specialty. Finely sliced vegetables and herbs are the stars of this dish. Common accompaniments include keropok (fish crackers) and solok lada (stuffed green chilli). The added pizzazz is the sambal and budu (fermented anchovy sauce).
#3 Nasi tumpang: Another truly Malaysian dish from Kelantan, the dish consists of rice, beef or chicken, gravy, sambal and omelette packed into a cone-shaped roll of banana leaf.
#4 Nasi ulam: Hot cooked rice is mixed with finely chopped herbs. The herbs must be chopped manually to ensure that they mix well with the rice while still retaining their texture.
#5 Nasi tomato: Rice is cooked with tomato paste, ghee and evaporated milk mixture to give it its trademark red colour and tangy flavour. The rice goes well with creamy, spicy dishes such as kormas and curries. Malays love to cook this dish during festivities such as the Eid (Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Aidiladha).
#6 Nasi minyak: Directly translated as ‘oily rice’, single Malay men or women always get asked the question “Bila nak jemput kita makan nasi minyak?” (When are you going to invite us for a meal of ‘oily rice’?). It actually alludes to whether a wedding invitation is forthcoming. This is because nasi minyak is a staple at Malay weddings. Although it is simply a dish of rice cooked in sautéed onion, spices and stock, its mild taste and fragrant aroma endear it to many.
#7 Nasi kandar: Its birthplace is Penang and its name obtained from the act of sellers of yore who would peddle it on foot, carrying baskets hung on the kandar pole over their shoulder. Today, nasi kandar is served mostly in family-owned chain restaurants.
#8 Nasi kunyit/kuning: The name of the dish is translated as ‘turmeric/yellow rice’. However, it is actually glutinous rice. It is usually cooked for special events such as the birth of a baby. Eaten with meat curry or rendang, it makes for an indulgent treat as well, since the stickiness of the rice goes very well with the rich and spicy curry.
#9 Biryani: The dish is believed to have been brought to the country by merchants from the southern parts of India. Beriani gam, a variation, is a specialty from the state of Johor. The variation is brought about after the biryani cooking method arrived in the Riau-Lingga Sultanate and its spices adjusted to suit the taste of the local Malays.
#10 Chicken rice: Brought to Malaysia by Chinese traders, the dish from Hainan province constitutes boiled and steamed chicken, with the rice cooked in chicken stock. Highly popular with the young and old alike, the Malaysian version of chicken rice balls and Malay-style nasi ayam (which uses star anise in rice and chicken fried in spices) is also available.
#11 Nasi dagang: A specialty of the East Coast states of Terengganu and Kelantan, it is usually eaten for breakfast. A story was told that a reigning monarch invited Bugis traders for a visit to Terengganu. (Hint: ‘trader’ is pedagang in Malay.) As the visitors were busy preparing their traditional dish to be presented to the King, an announcement stating that the King is making his rounds threw the Buginese delegation into a panic. In a hurry, they improvised. However, the King was so impressed that he asked for the dish — christened ‘Nasi Orang Dagang’ — to be served as breakfast the next day.
#12 Yong chow/yangzhou fried rice: Like chicken rice, this dish is also brought into the country by the Chinese traders. It is a staple of many restaurants in the country including Malay warungs (small stalls), going by the name nasi goreng cina (Chinese fried rice).
#13 Nasi goreng: Every Malaysian family and household will have its own fried rice recipe. What makes it so well-loved is the fact that leftovers and overnight rice can easily be turned into a sumptuous dish or a simple comfort food.
#14 Banana leaf rice: It is unique in presentation, where rice is eaten from the banana leaf that is placed flat on the table in front of patrons. Originating from Southern India, banana leaf rice is best eaten with the hand. In Malaysia, patrons will have a choice of either vegetarian or non-vegetarian. It is considered a courtesy as well as a ‘mini feedback’ to fold the banana leaf upon completing the meal, with front fold indicating ‘good’ and back-fold indicating ‘mediocre/fair’.
#15 Nasi campur: During lunchtime, many white-collar workers can be seen milling around various food stalls, restaurants and cafés, poring over trays of dishes to take for the day. Mixed rice, as its name implies, is a filling meal comprising white rice and a combination of two or three sides of meats and vegetables. The Chinese community refers to the same dish as economy rice or chap fan. It is available almost anywhere, and its popularity is due to its versatility and value for money.