Is Nasi Lemak Actually From Malaysia Or Singapore? This Documentary Tries To Find Out

The origin story behind this beloved dish isn't as straightforward as you may think.

Cover image via CNA Insider (YouTube)

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A significant dish that marks our identity as Malaysians, nasi lemak has been regarded as our national dish.

While every local can agree that it's an absolute classic, would you be surprised to find out that it may not have come from Malaysia?

It's no secret that nasi lemak is arguably one of the most vibrant and beloved dishes in Malaysia, but there's no denying its existence in other Southeast Asian countries as well. 

A Malay cuisine through and through, you'd likely find populations of people in Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, and Indonesia savouring in the delectability of nasi lemak. 

However, it could come as a shock to many to find out that this dish may not necessarily have originated from Malaysia.

There has always been a long-standing debate over which country gets to claim this outstanding dish as their country's own. But it seems that this may have finally been put to rest by a short documentary released by the digital media platform, CNA.

A classic serving of nasi lemak (Image for illustration purposes only).

Image via Asian Inspirations

An episode of On The Red Dot, a series by a sub-division of CNA which documents the stories of ordinary Singaporeans, sought to determine where nasi lemak actually comes from

Titled Nasi Lemak: National Dish Of Singapore Or Malaysia?, the 23-minute episode attempted to break down historical findings and factual evidence on where the dish got its roots from. Hosted by culinary consultant and chef, Ming Tan, the host revealed how the conversation over the dish's origin began for him.

Going back to 2017, Tan began by discussing the inception of the 'Nasi Lemak Burger', which was released by McDonald's Singapore in conjunction with the Singapore Food Festival, and to celebrate the country's national day on 9 August.

However, issues over the burger came into play when Malaysians did not take too kindly to the slogan promoting it: "Just for you, Singapore!"

Moving forward to present day, Tan began his research by flying down to Kuala Lumpur to meet with one of the co-founder's of myBurgerLab, Renyi Chin, who had an interesting response to McDonald's Singapore's creation.

Ming Tan, host of the episode 'Nasi Lemak: National Dish Of Singapore Or Malaysia?'.

Image via CNA Insider (YouTube)

"As a Malaysian, it is generally known that nasi lemak is a key representative when it comes to food," said Chin in a conversation with Tan

Shortly after the release of the 'Nasi Lemak Burger' by McDonald's Singapore, myBurgerLab released their own 'Nasi Lemak Ayam Rendang Burger'.

In a tweet posted to their page, the promotional photo of the item by myBurgerLab had the phrase "Dear Singapore, nice try, but..." written in the bottom left corner.

Check out the original tweet below:

In explaining his stance on nasi lemak being a Malaysian dish, Chin stated that the ability for locals to buy nasi lemak at any time of the day makes it, by default, the national dish of Malaysia.

"We want the world to say, 'Hey, when you think of nasi lemak, you think of Malaysia'," added Chin.

Making a trip to Melaka, Tan then stopped by a famous stall called Nasi Lemak Ujong Pasir, where he chatted with its founder, Kak Salehah, on what it takes to make the perfect nasi lemak

Explaining the process of putting together nasi lemak, the duo also discussed how the dish has evolved over time to include other side dishes, such as squid, cockles, beef rendang, fried chicken, and chicken rendang.

In a conversation with Tan, Kak Salehah also revealed that she learnt how to make the perfect nasi lemak from her mother-in-law, who was of Boyanese descent, specifically from the Bawean islands of Java, Indonesia.

Continuing on, it soon occurred to Tan that there was a possibility of nasi lemak originating from Indonesia, instead of either Singapore or Malaysia.

Kak Salehah showing Tan how to make coconut rice for nasi lemak.

Image via CNA Insider (YouTube)

Attempting to find answers, Tan soon came across a dish that has been deemed similar to our very own nasi lemak for also containing coconut milk in its rice, nasi uduk

From reports that nasi lemak and nasi uduk are close cousins in the culinary line, to others stating that it has the same soul and popularity, it was revealed that nasi uduk was created at some point in the early 17th century (anywhere between 1613 to 1615).

To determine when nasi lemak may have came about, Tan met with food historian Ahmad Najib "Naj" Ariffin, a known expert on the origins of food. Breaking down elements in the dish, both men noted how different each item was in presentation and taste.

Giving his take on their apparent likeness, Naj was of the opinion that the dishes weren't as similar as people may think.

"Neither came from the other. They were separately created dishes which grew over time. Coconut trees are ubiquitous, so at some point in history, people would have already experimented cooking with rice or other grains and coconut milk," opined Naj.

Ming (left) and Naj (right).

Image via CNA Insider (YouTube)

Providing deeper insight, Naj stated that there is a folklore from Melaka about a mother and daughter that may spell out how nasi lemak really came about

Narrating the myth, Naj explained that the story, which originates from Johor and Melaka, is about a widow named Mak Kuntum and her daugther, Seri

"One day, while cooking a pot of rice, Seri accidentally spilled coconut milk into it. When Mak Kuntum came home, she smelled the fragrant rice and asked her daughter what it was. Seri, being a bit hesitant and afraid of being scolded, replied, 'Nasi le mak', which, in colloquial Malay, means, 'It's just rice, mum'," he explained.

Using the context of history, Naj explained that nasi lemak could have originated anywhere from the 14th century onwards, placing it way before nasi uduk in the timeline of creation.

Taking the theory one step further by negating the possibility of this myth being true, Naj explained that through his research on the dish and the ingredients that went into making it, it was predominantly found in the West Coast of the Malay Peninsular, which includes the location of Melaka as well. Therefore, myth or not, the likeliness of nasi lemak originating in Malaysia is substantially high.

Naj explaining his findings to Tan based on the map of Malay Peninsular.

Image via CNA Insider (YouTube)

Linking most of the information presented to him, Tan stated that, factually, it didn't seem very likely that nasi lemak originated from Singapore

However, in an attempt to substantiate his findings, Tan met with Sarafian Salleh, a Malaysian heritage researcher. In presenting his take, Salleh stated that the essence of nasi lemak is from Malay ancestry that doesn't tie itself to a specific country.

"We are all a migrant society. When Malay migrants from Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, come to Singapore, they brought with them cultural baggage. When Malay migrants started to settle in Singapore and call this place home, they started to cook, thereby making nasi lemak a popular dish in Singapore," said Sarafian in the video.

"So, I wouldn't say that nasi lemak came from Singapore, but I would say that nasi lemak came to exist in Singapore from the Malays," he added.

Ming (left) and Sarafian Salleh (right).

Image via CNA Insider (YouTube)

When concluding his thoughts, Tan was forthright in giving his definitive statement about the origins of nasi lemak:

It is a Malay dish from the Malay archipelago group, created way before Malaysia and Singapore existed as independent countries.
Ming Tan

In the latter parts of his video, Tan went on to discuss the comparisons of Malaysian and Singaporean nasi lemak dishes, which can be distinct in many ways, and how the dish has continued to evolve over the years in a multitude of ways.

A comparison of the versions of nasi lemak consumed by Malaysians and Singaporeans.

Image via CNA Insider (YouTube)

While we may never receive a definite answer about where nasi lemak truly came from, we can agree that we're fortunate enough to live in a country where such good food is so accessible.

Watch the full YouTube video by CNA Insider below:

SAYS recently delved into discovering the origins of nasi lemak, too:

It's not uncommon that Malaysia and Singapore overlap in our kinds of food, though they don't always taste the same:

While different countries have their own take on nasi lemak, here are many kinds of nasi goreng you can try right here in Malaysia:

Read more #makan stories on SAYS:

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