If Malaysia has a national dish, it's almost certainly nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut cream and served with sides of tiny deep-fried fish, peanuts, slices of cucumber, a boiled egg and a dollop of sambal belacan, a type of chili paste.
It's available everywhere, typically unceremoniously bundled in sheets of brown wax paper or banana leaves, and stacked on top of a table. It's always inexpensive and always satisfying -- spicy, savoury, crunchy and a bit salty. It's the kind of dish you begin take for granted or even overlook if you spend enough time in Malaysia, until, that is, you encounter a version that reminds of you of exactly what it's meant be.
The nasi lemak that did it for me was recommended by author and Penang native, Ong Jin Teong. Teong described this version (pictured above), sold from a shophouse cafe near Penang's Pulau Tikus market, as Penang style, and explained that it differs in a few subtle ways. Firstly, the sambal belacan here is left raw (elsewhere it's often fried in oil) and is served with a squeeze of calamansi (the result is a lot like the Thai nam phrik kapi). And instead of a hard-boiled boiled egg or tiny fried fish, the rice is accompanied by fish rubbed with salt and turmeric before being deep-fried, or prawns marinated in tamarind then fried. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this version of nasi lemak is, paradoxically, its most basic element. As Teong mentioned to me, "This is the only place where the nasi lemak is lemak." "Lemak" literally means "oily" in Malay ("nasi" means "rice"), but it's rare that the dish has much of this texture or flavour. Yet the rice here was overtly rich, featuring a lot of the decadent fattiness and a little of the slightly sour fragrance that comes from using coconut cream.
For me, eating this version was almost like tasting the dish for the first time, and I have to admit: it's been hard going back to those paper packets.
Jin Hoe Cafe Jalan Cantonment, Pulau Tikus, Penang, Malaysia Breakfast Fri-Wed
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