SINGAPORE - The ubiquitous fragrant rice dish of nasi lemak - commonly served with ikan bilis, egg, chicken wing and a dollop of sambal belacan - is a perennial hawker favourite.
The humble dish is getting a modern spin in what chef Shen Tan calls a "nasi lemak renaissance".
No fewer than five new players have entered the scene in the past four months, each with a fresh spin on it. These include Folding Rice at Junction Nine mall in Yishun, The Coconut Club in Ann Siang Hill and Village Nasi Lemak Bar in Circular Road, which opens next week.
They add to nasi lemak institutions such as the stalls in Changi Village; Boon Lay Power Nasi Lemak at Boon Lay Place Food Village; and Ponggol Nasi Lemak in Jalan Besar, Upper Serangoon Road and Tanjong Katong Road.
Business owners and chefs note the nostalgia factor of nasi lemak and reminisce over the times when it came wrapped in banana leaf and cost $1 or less.
For The Coconut Club's chef Lee Eng Su, 37, nasi lemak is not just a dish, but also a "cuisine". After attending a nasi lemak convention in Kuala Lumpur in 2014, he was inspired to work on his own version.
"Turning hawker food into a restaurant concept that serves only one dish was a risk," he says.
But the risk has paid off. The three-month-old casual restaurant shot to fame after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hosted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to a meal there last month.
Long queues now form before it is open and chef Lee has only enough - about 200 portions a day - for the lunch crowd. Everything is made from scratch and he is still trying to perfect the dish, from carefully selecting his coconuts to frying ikan bilis upon order.
Chef Tan's nasi lemak at Revolution Coffee cafe at Media Circle in one-north also took her years to perfect. The rice alone boasts 10 ingredients such as fenugreek, ginger, lemongrass and shallots, and it is steamed twice with coconut milk.
"I don't want the rice to taste one-dimensional or have overwhelming coconut or pandan flavours," says Ms Tan, who used to run the now-defunct Madam Tan Nasi Lemak at Maxwell Food Centre in 2009, as well as modern Singaporean restaurant Wok & Barrel, which has also closed. She drizzles coconut oil over the rice to finish.
On the renewed interest in nasi lemak, she says: "Nasi lemak crosses all races and everyone likes it. As much as we try to break ground with new dishes, we still want our comfort food. It's got carbs, spice and fried items - what more do you want?"
Also looking to stand out from the nasi lemak pack is Route 12's owner Muhammad Faizal Ahmad, 38. His Nasi Lemak Sotong dish has been trending on social media for its large, fried squid on a skewer served on fragrant pandan rice.
The dish is not new - he launched it a year ago when he first opened, in addition to his menu of Western cuisine. He says: "Nasi Lemak Sotong has been on the menu from the beginning, but after the attention online, that's the only thing people order and I had to shelve my Western dishes."
In 2014, Ms Michelle Chen, 34, decided to focus on the dish at Village Nasi Lemak as it is one of the most popular items in her seven- year-old catering business, Nosh Kitchen.
The brand has been renamed a more hip Village Nasi Lemak Bar and relocated from Simpang Bedok to Circular Road. In line with its move to the Central Business District, Ms Chen replaced the usual fried egg with a truffle poached egg. Tapa items are available at night.
She says: "We want to make things more interesting. Diners can have wine or beer with their nasi lemak. Both pair well."
As for Folding Rice, Arteastiq's director Ivan Teo, 41, is looking to stick to tradition. He says: "It is not about being fancy, but to go back to the roots of nasi lemak."
The dish served in the cafe is a family recipe from his group's Malay chef. Mr Teo is looking to expand to foodcourts and kiosks.
For nasi lemak chain Crave, which was set up by Pezzo Group which owns Pezzo pizza chain, the strategy to focus on the dish has paid off. Thirteen months after it opened in Hougang Mall in September 2015, it has expanded to 11 stores and has plans to open at Northpoint Shopping Centre in Yishun. Crave brings together Selera Rasa Nasi Lemak at Adam Road Food Centre and teh tarik from Rafee's Corner in Amoy Street Food Centre.
Ms Adora Sarah Chou, Crave's marketing manager, says: "Business has been thriving and our most popular item - the Full House set with chicken wing - contributes to 60 per cent of sales.
"Nasi lemak is part of our culture and it has resonated with us for generations. At Crave, we did not ignite the culture, but renewed it and made it popular with the young."
The proliferation of nasi lemak outlets is a boon for diners.
Marketing director Stanley Lim, 32, says: "I'm a big fan of Boon Lay Power Nasi Lemak and Ponggol Nasi Lemak. I've also tried Route 12's version. I like the fragrant rice and huge squid."
Research assistant Jaslyn Tan, 26, who works in the one-north area, says: "I love chef Tan's nasi lemak as the rice has many flavours, not just coconut. My favourite so far is the beef rendang option."
Reinventing the fragrant rice dish
VILLAGE NASI LEMAK BAR
What: Village Nasi Lemak started in Simpang Bedok in 2014. It has gone hipster with a new location in Circular Road that opens next week.
In the day, it sells its signature nasi lemak (from $7.80) - now with a truffle poached egg. Side dishes include spicy sambal sotong ($7), beef rendang ($6.80) and chicken drumstick ($3.80).
At night, the Asian-inspired tapas menu features shredded papaya slaw ($8.30) and Asian chicken feet salad ($8.50) to pair with wine and beer.
Where: 57 Circular Road, open: 10am to 10pm, Mondays to Saturdays, closed on Sundays
THE COCONUT CLUB
What: Nasi lemak takes centre stage at The Coconut Club - in fact it is the only main item on the menu. The dish (above) comes with ayam goreng berempah, coconut rice, ikan bilis, peanuts, cucumber, fried egg and sambal. It is priced at $12.80 and you get a generous portion. Chef Lee Eng Su, 37, uses Mawa coconuts (a Malaysian West African hybrid) to cook the Thai jasmine rice. The housemade sambal uses ingredients such as ikan bilis, dried shrimp, soya sauce and shallots. Side dishes include fried fish (market price), otak-otak ($8.50) and cendol ($3.80).
Where: 6 Ann Siang Hill, open: 11am to 3pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays, closed on Sundays and Mondays
Info: Call 6635-2999 or go to www.facebook.com/thecoconutclubsg
What: Chef Shen Tan (above) has gone back to her roots. She used to run Madam Tan Nasi Lemak at Maxwell Hawker Centre in 2009 and now helms the kitchen at Revolution Coffee, offering a selection of nasi lemak such as nasi lemak crispy fried chicken ($4.90); nasi lemak crispy pork ($7.90, above); nasi lemak with five-spice pork confit ($9.90); and nasi lemak beef or chicken rendang ($9.90). Additional portions of the meat cost $5 each. All come with ikan bilis, omelette, housemade sambal belacan and coffee sambal - made with the cafe's spent coffee grounds for a slightly smoky flavour.
Other dishes from her repertoire include bak chor mee pasta ($19.90), with five-spice pork confit paired with tagliatelle tossed in a spicy piquant sauce and garnished with crispy lardons and fried shallots; and buah keluak pasta ($19.90).
For dessert, check out the pulot hitam pudding with gula melaka butterscotch served with coconut ice cream ($10) and Shendol Delights ($10), coconut panna cotta with gula melaka syrup topped with housemade red bean ice cream. The cafe's menu also has sandwich, salad and brunch items.
Where: 21 Media Circle, 01-03A, open: 9am to 6pm daily
Info: Call 6777-2110 or go to www.facebook.com/RevolutionCoffeeSG
What: Route 12's Nasi Lemak Sotong is probably the most Instagrammable version of the dish. It comes with a large skewered fried squid ($8, a la carte) on a bed of fragrant pandan basmati rice. Other ingredients include a hard-boiled egg, chicken wings, fried fish, ikan bilis and peanuts.
The Deluxe version ($14) is enough for two people, while the King option ($18) can serve up to four.
It is best to go before 7pm as the Nasi Lemak Sotong sells out fast.
The menu has more nasi lemak options. Prices start at $3 for a nasi lemak fish set. The stall also sells Western food such as fish and chips ($7); spring chicken set ($11) with fries and coleslaw; and Route 12 Hotrod ($7.50), where a 10-inch cheesy chicken sausage is wrapped in a crispy chicken cutlet (instead of bread).
Where: 45 Sam Leong Road, open: 2 to 11pm, Tuesdays to Sundays, closed on Mondays
What: Arteastiq Group's latest venture is Folding Rice, which specialises in nasi lemak. Popular items include Set B ($5.80) with spicy black chicken; and Set D ($7.80), with two fried prawns and a fried chicken wing. The sets come with coconut rice, a sunny-side-up egg, ikan bilis, housemade sambal and cucumber.
Pair your meal with its signature teh sarbat (ginger milk tea) or coffee, tea and soft drinks.
Where: 01-19 Junction Nine, 18 Yishun Avenue, open: 8am to 10pm daily
This article was first published on Jan 22, 2017.
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