COMMENTARY, Aug 27 — Queueing up for your favourite nasi lemak is a rite of passage for most Malaysians.
The wait is worth it when you recognise the undeniable pleasure of unwrapping a packet of nasi lemak bungkus. Bring a packet or a dozen home and it’s another adventure: What treasures have our loved ones included for us?
The sides — the lauk-pauk — boggles the mind. Be it fried or curried, chicken pairs perfectly with nasi lemak. Then there is sambal udang and beef rendang. There is fried fish, tiny bones requiring utmost care and patience.
But nothing beats a simple nasi lemak: fluffy grains of rice cooked in santan (coconut milk), the fresh fragrance of pandan leaves, fried ikan bilis and peanuts, spicy sambal and slices of cool cucumber, half a hard boiled egg. We don’t need more.
Simple yet celebrated, nasi lemak is rightfully our national dish. Surely every Malaysian would agree?
Of course every state has their specific dishes, their own pride and joy. Melaka has chicken rice balls, Sarawak has kolo mee. Some are particular to towns, such as Muar’s famous otak-otak or Tuaran mee from Tuaran (naturally).
But nasi lemak is Malaysian, through and through. If, for instance, laksa demonstrates diversity and variety, be it Penang’s asam laksa or laksa Johor with its use of spaghetti, then nasi lemak is a symbol of unity, of how we all delight in this dish in equal measure.
Even our foreign friends long for our national dish, should they have the good fortune of tasting it once — just once is enough! — before. One American friend visited KL on her birthday one year and pleaded we take her out for nasi lemak. That’s all she wanted, you see.
We understand. It’s a craving that begs to be satisfied, this taste of home. It’s what we long for when we work overseas or even when we are on vacation.
We were in New Zealand right when the Covid-19 pandemic started rearing its ugly head around the world. On hindsight, there were fewer safer places to be, given how well their prime minster Jacinda Ardern and her team handled the crisis.
But we didn’t know that at the time.
Everything was so uncertain, even though New Zealand had yet to enter its Level 4 lockdown. We checked into our hotel in Wellington. The duty manager Dayana Razali was all smiles welcoming us. Nowadays seeing hand disinfectant everywhere is the norm; back then it was slightly alarming to see even one, much less an assortment, at a hotel lobby.
When Dayana found out we were Malaysians, her already brilliant smile got even wider. She asked us about how things were back in KL, how our trip was, whether we needed any recommendations.
I used to be dubious about folks who hunted down their own countrymen whenever they travelled overseas. When things are chaotic, when it’s easy to despair and wonder why you’re despairing, the appeal of such company — of those who grew up as you did, of those who come from where you came from — becomes clearer.
We understand now.
Dayana knew, as most Malaysians living abroad do, where the best spots for Malaysian food are. She didn’t ask us if we hankered for some authentic nasi lemak; she knew instinctively it’s what we needed to bolster our spirits, battered by the daily barrage of bad news.
As directed, we found the restaurant Little Penang on The Terrace, opened by a Malaysian couple, Tee Phie and Keith Cheah. The spacious shop had a blackboard menu that doubled as a welcome greeting: Would we like some taukua sumbat or some mee siam? Maybe some char kway teow or a kerabu salad?
Keith explained to us how the lunch set worked, suggesting an array of curries to go with — what else? — our nasi lemak. When he found out we were fellow Malaysians, it was a repeat of our experience with Dayana.
How are things back in KL, how is your trip, do you need any recommendations?
Malaysians love other Malaysians. Sometimes it might not seem that way when we read the news, because we do have our differences. But that’s just like every other country, no? Beyond the disagreements, we have more to bind us than to push us apart.
The trick is not to forget this. We have to work at seeing what brings us together and work at keeping it that way. In each other, we find our way home.
Till today I still remember Dayana’s hospitality and warmth, her story about how she studied in Australia and then moved to New Zealand with her husband, how they would look forward to their trips back home to their tanahair.
Our tanahair. Where they and we can enjoy our favourite nasi lemak and hopefully know how blessed all of us are, to be Malaysians and to always have a place to call home.
For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.