It was at Nyonya, a Malaysian restaurant in New York City, that I recently found myself with the legendary and insatiable Gael Greene, trying to explain the wonder that is nasi lemak, a Malay dish of coconut rice topped with a fried egg, fried chicken, crispy anchovies, cucumber slices and fiery sambal chili sauce.
“We eat it for breakfast — or lunch,” I said, explaining that some Singapore hawkers will have packets of the rice tightly wrapped up in banana leaves set out in the morning, ready for the harried to buy and eat on the run.
“Breakfast?” she said, looking intrigued.
Granted, it’s hard to appreciate nasi lemak as one of the best ways to start the day when the New York version set before you is a mound of flavorless rice paired with a mushy mess of sodden chicken and anchovies that are limp and cold instead of crunchy and tongue-searingly hot.
But if you’ve had the real thing for breakfast while sitting in a humid hawker center in sweltering tropical heat, trust me, you’ll be a convert. Oatmeal and French Toast will be all but a distant, lesser memory.
In Singapore, one of my favorite places for the stuff is a little stall in Changi Village, a somewhat sleepy nook by the sea. It’d been many years since I’d been there — but I’d heard its lines remained as impossibly long. (Always a good sign.)
Clearly, it was time for a revisit …
When people try to describe how to find International Food Stall, which is located in a warren of Malay food stalls, each touting its own nasi lemak as famous or good, this is what’s usually said: “Look for the one with the very long queue.”
Which is sound advice, really. Even at off-peak eating hours, this place always has a line.
The offerings here are straightforward — you can get nasi lemak with a fried chicken wing, fried fish or otak, a spicy, coconutty mackerel paste. (Based on what you get, the dish ranges in price from Singapore $3 to $3.50, which is about U.S. $2.12 to $2.50)
Being a fried chicken fanatic, there’s really only one kind of nasi lemak for me. (And I like the chicken deep fried and dry, not the sauce-drenched kinds that you’ll find in Malaysia.)
At International Food Stall, it’s the chicken that particularly grabs me — it’s super crispy on the outside, always juicy on the inside and leaves a lingering trail of ginger and garlic on your tongue even after it’s disappeared.
The anchovies are always crunchy and the chili sauce has a delicious and delicate sweetness to it, which really allows you to taste the coconut flavor in the rice. (If you’re up for working through the bones of a smallish fish, the turmeric-laced fried fish version is pretty darn tasty, too.)
As my nasi lemak disappeared that day, I stared morosely at the ever-more-clean plate and vowed that I wouldn’t let another 10 years pass before coming back here again.
It was a promise, it turned out, that I had no trouble keeping.
Not even week later, when the call of Changi Village nasi lemak beckoned once again, I immediately listened.
International Food Stall, Changi Village Food Center, Block 2, Changi Village Road, #01-57.