The class falls silent; my eyes turn toward the fluttering curtains, Miss V’s constant chalking against the green board is fast becoming hypnotic and my eyes can barely stay open. The tummy, now rumbling like a motorcycle is in dire need of some refuelling. Is it nine thirty am yet?
Few dishes are more vivid in my memory than a packet of Nasi lemak. I refer to a packet because that’s how the old school canteen lady does it: wrapped in thick brown paper, waxy on the inside, and coarse on the outside. We used to wait – intently – for the recess bell to go, 9.30 am, and almost as soon, we’d jump up from our seats, blaze down the stairs and run the canteen. Hundreds of eager children, a harmoniously crowded wail, like a flock of birds, all of us reaching for the proverbial finish line. Panting as I approached, I remember the smell of scented chilli sweet aromas coming from the kitchen; I had always assumed it was the spicy seasoning that went into the fried chicken, and being that I was a pretty chubby little fella, I never get there first, but I always manage to push to the front.
With one hand on the counter as leverage, The other outstretched arm, little and short would be extended as far as possibly with a one dollar note at the end of that length. We were all hopeful to catch the canteen lady’s attention. Me! Me! Me!
“Two packets, two packets!!”. I am glad to come away with at least one, the rest are ‘reserved’. Closely guarded, the rice warms the packet in my hands. I walk slowly to my favourite seat in the open-air mess, unwrap my daily treasure and dive headfirst into the pickled spicy fragrance. A spoonful of the coconut infused rice, boiled egg and the magic belacan sauce…. the perfect breakfast, and only then did my day begin.
Nasi lemak loosely translates as ‘fat rice’, and – this is what we ten year olds had concluded after numerous debates – it’s known as ‘fat rice’ because it is made with sinfully delicious elements, starting with the coconut cream infused rice, salty and crunchy ikan bilis (anchovies), the ‘belacan’ : preserved spicy paste of secret home recipes, finished with sliced boiled egg.
Of course, there are many variations to this Malay dish; you can get it with curry beef, fried chicken, a fried egg, you can even get it with ‘gravy’ in fast food chains (Look up Jolibee). And depending on which part of Borneo you happen to be in, you can even find an iteration known as ‘nasi katuk’ or ‘rice on knocking’. Yes for those of you secret restaurant home lovers; these are true ‘home restaurants’ which will serve you hearty home cooked one plate meals at two in the morning….
……..Chinatown, London, 2009.
Everybody is talking about Rasa Sayang, the new darling of Malaysian restaurants. There I was, studying the menu and reading the expressions of the diners inside. The smell of this place took me back to simpler times. It was fitting that I was here to meet with two high school buddies of mine, like meeting at crossroads after not seeing them for years and hearing about what they were on to now. It was surreal seeing how people change, yet at the same time, they haven’t really. I’ve really only come for one dish; the short version: just about enough to evoke the nostalgia of 1995.
The long version: First of all, just a tad too much spiciness, my tongue was a little numb after eating it – this isn’t really a bad thing, some will enjoy this, but personally, I prefer the heat to be on the milder side. The belacan is a little sugary and there were still chewy bits, when I was expecting it to be a much smoother consistency. And if I’m really nitpicking, I think the rice could do with just a little more creaminess. I’m more used to spice and herb simmered chicken instead of a runny curry, but that’s just a personal choice. In totality, with a teh tarik full of bubbles, it was a cheerful walk down memory lane…
Nasi Lemak at £7.00
5 Macclesfield St W1D 5
020 7734 1382