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ON HAWKER: Nasi Lemak

APPETITE ON HAWKER is our ongoing research project on Singapore’s hawker culture. We explore essential dishes from this city’s culinary tradition and investigate their international influences.

To some, the perfect post-workout treat is a plate of nasi lemak, accompanied with a piping hot cup of kopi o. Nasi lemak translates from Malay as “rich rice” and is best explained by its constituent parts: rice, ikan bilis, and sambal belacan.

The rice itself is cooked in coconut milk, from which it derives its sweetness.1 So important is the use of coconut milk that fairy tale-like stories exist of the technique’s origin. One story speaks of a woman in a seaside town who used coconut milk to cook rice out of sheer boredom, and that when her mother quizzed her on the dish she responded with “nasi le, mak!” (“rice, mother!”).2

It is more likely that coconuts were used as they are native to Southeast Asia and by extension, are a central part of Malaysian cuisine. Malaysians in seaside towns did not waste any part of the coconut. They ate its shavings, drank its water, and used its husks to cook satays. The production of coconut milk, vinegar, and oil is probably a result of that practice.3

While drying as a preservation technique is widespread, the Portuguese refined the process of salting and drying ingredients. Ikan bilis, or salted anchovies, is one such ingredient with strong Portuguese influences.4

When Vasco da Gama first left Portugal in 1497, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and sailed the world to the east of Eastern Africa, he found out of necessity that food needed to be preserved for prolonged periods of time so that his sailors could safely eat.5 These techniques were not held as secrets once the Portuguese made landfall in Southeast Asia; they freely shared their knowledge with colonial subjects, often combining local and readily available fish.6 Therefore, Portuguese preservation techniques could explain the development of dried anchovies— which were local to the waters off Malaysia— and perhaps even sambal belacan

Sambal belacan is a simple combination of fermented shrimp paste mixed with chilli. Although Malacca was a centre of the spice trade and an established spice hub by the 16th century (indeed, the Portuguese colonised Malacca for this reason alone), there is no documented evidence of fermented shrimp in the region prior to the arrival of the Portuguese.

Nasi lemak has many regional variations when it comes to sambal. Two common ones are belacan and tumis, the latter of which is common in Singapore and Malaysia. Often in Malaysia and Indonesia, sambals are also used with different accompaniments, such as cockles (sambal kerang), squid (sambal cumi), and shrimp (sambal udang).7

Journalist Dr. Janet Boileau found that the Kristang in Malacca — a creole people of Portuguese and Malaysian descent— “became expert manufacturers of the indigenous fermented shrimp paste, belacan, earning it the nickname ‘Portuguese cheesecake’”. Combined with spices local to Southeast Asia, Portuguese shrimp paste becomes the Malaysian sambal belacan.

Nasi Lemak is deceivingly simple, as most comfort foods are. Its history, however, reveals one of Singapore’s fundamental truths: porous borders and global influences.


Annotated Bibliography

Boileau, 2010. “A culinary history of the Portuguese Eurasians: The origins of Luso-Asian cuisine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”. 

Janet P. Boileau is the CEO of Taste and Travel Publishing International, Inc., which launched the Taste & Travel food magazine in March 2011. Boileau herself holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Adelaide, which we refer to heavily in our studies involving Portuguese influence. 

National Library Board. 

The National Library Board (NLB) is a statutory board under the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) in Singapore. Along with being held to the standard of government scrutiny, research memos published by the library are also rigorously substantiated with various primary (books, interviews) and secondary (newspapers) sources that can be found in the library.

Sim, 2019. The Spruce Eats. “Profile of Malay Cooking and Culture”. 

Spruce eats hires a variety of food writers and editors to ensure that quality recipes and information reaches its readers. The team comprises a team of experienced writers who are selected for their expertise in their respective fields.

Written by Arjun Jayaraman


1 National Library Board. Source:

2 Fun, 2018. World of Buzz. “Here’s how Nasi Lemak was Created and Why M’sians Eat It for Breakfast”. Source:

3 Sim, 2019. The Spruce Eats. “Profile of Malay Cooking and Culture”. Source:

4 Boileau, 2010. “A Culinary History of the Portuguese Eurasians: The Origins of Luso-Asian Cuisine in the Sixteenth and Seventheeth Centuries”.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Basan,  2006. “The food and cooking of Malaysia & Singapore”.