Understanding Nasi: Expert Explains Southeast Asian Rice Meal

Walk into any restaurant in India today that claims to serve Asian or Southeast Asian food, and you will find at least one variety of Nasi on their menu. Yes, it is highly likely that Nasi Goreng is the only dish you will find on a menu. But if you are lucky and the restaurant has an experienced staff, it is likely that you will find a variety of Nasi bowls to dig into. And yet, if the wide variety of Nasi options available at restaurants today confuses you, then it’s time to get your Nasi basics cleared with expert knowledge. 

To start with, Nasi is simply the Malay and Indonesian word for rice. And as for its immense popularity across Southeast Asia—and also India—this is explained well by Chef Rohan Mahabal, Executive Chef, The House of Malaka Spice. “The main reason behind rice being consumed predominantly in Southeast Asia is because they are rice producing countries,” he explains.  

“Rice forms a major agricultural production in most of the Southeast Asian countries, making it a staple food of the region,” he adds. “Rice and culture are also intertwined in Southeast Asian countries, hence making it an important part of their cuisine as well. The use of rice in various recipes such as stews, soups and desserts are thus making it the central ingredient in Southeast Asian cuisines.” 

Rice, But Not Basic: What Makes Every Nasi Unique 

Given the popularity of rice as a staple, the varieties of Nasi available in Southeast Asia are easily explained. Each region, community and nation has its own techniques and takes on Nasi as not just a basic rice bowl but rather a complete, unique meal.  “In all these varieties, while rice remains the centre, most of them differentiate on the preparation style of the rice and the accompaniments that are served with it,” Chef Rohan explains.  

“For example, in Nasi Lemak, the rice is steamed with coconut milk and Pandan leaves, while in Nasi Ayam the rice is cooked in chicken stock,” he adds. “The Nasi Ayam is said to have originated in Hainan (China) and hence has that influence. In fact, we had the Thai Style Hainanese Chicken Rice in our 2023 winter menu which was inspired by the Nasi Ayam. Now speaking about Nasi Ambeng, this is a communal meal, usually eaten in a big group, while Nasi Dagang again has rice cooked in coconut milk, lemongrass and is served with fish.” 

Chef Rohan and his team’s inclusion of varieties of Nasi in their menu at Malaka Spice wasn’t just a one-off thing in 2023. This year, they have launched Nasi Kandar as their key summer special—and this Nasi has Indian-origins too. 

Nasi Kandar And The Indian Connection 

One of the main reasons why Chef Rohan’s team decided to introduce Nasi Kandar to their menu this summer is because of its Indian connection. “Nasi Kandar is a famous Malaysian dish from Penang. It was introduced in the country during the 1900s when the British were ruling over India and took communities from Southern India to Malaysia to work at the docks and in the fields,” he explains. His team explains that the very word Kandar refers to the shoulder and back, which these migrant workers depended on for their work. 

“When these communities from India travelled to Malaysia, they took their cuisine and culture with them, and this dish was one of the few born as a result of this migration,” he adds. “This summer menu we decided to explore the beautiful and much loved Nasi Kandar and put it together in a thaal. Each curry in the thaal has a different flavour profile and so we recommend mixing all of the curries into the rice to truly get the Nasi Kandar experience. From the subtle flavours of coconut and lemongrass curry to the slightly sweet taste of the pineapple and prawn or yam curry and then the slightly spicy version with our pulled lamb curry or rendang curry, we recommend drenching your rice when you are eating, and all the other dishes can be enjoyed as accompaniments!” 

How Nasi Plates Translate For Indians 

Given this connection that India and Indian cuisine has with Nasi, the popularity of dishes like Nasi Lemak, Nasi Goreng and Nasi Lemak is understandable. Chef Rohan says this connection is heightened by many other points of similarity too. “There are similarities between the cuisines of Southeast Asia and mainly Southern India,” he explains. “Ingredients such as coconuts, fresh coconut milk, rice along with certain spices such as cinnamon, cloves, star anise etc are used quite commonly in both Indian and Southeast Asian Cuisine. Certain cooking methods such as steaming are also common to both the regions. Curries as a food are as staple to India as they are to Southeast Asia. The combination of eating curries with rice is again quite common in both the regions.” 

Despite these similarities, many people can find it difficult to navigate the world of Nasi. “For those who are new to the cuisine, they can start with the Nasi Goreng,” Chef Rohan recommends. “They can also come over for our Nasi Kandar Thaal or the Nasi Bokhari rice and some amazing curries that we serve along with it.”  

And if you need a quick guide to navigate your way through the Nasi varieties from different parts of Southeast Asia, here’s a quick list you can refer to. 

1. Nasi Goreng: Born in Indonesia, this Nasi is cooked with kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), garlic, shallots, and chili, often accompanied by prawns, chicken, or other proteins, and typically topped with a fried egg. 

2. Nasi Lemak: Originating in Malaysia, this Nasi is also considered to be the country’s national dish. It is typically made with rice cooked in coconut milk, served with sambal, anchovies, peanuts, boiled egg, and cucumber. It often includes additional sides like fried chicken or rendang. 

3. Nasi Padang: Coming from the Padang region of Indonesia, this Nasi features rice served with an array of pre-cooked dishes, such as rendang, various curries, vegetables, and sambals.  

4. Nasi Kerabu: Credited to the Kelantan region of Malaysia, this Nasi is colourful and vibrant, primarily because of the addition of butterfly pea flowers. It is usually served with dried fish or fried chicken, crackers, pickles, and other salad-like sides, along with a rich coconut sauce.  

5. Nasi Kandar: Born in Penang, Malaysia with roots in Tamil and Kerala cuisine, this Nasi is served with a variety of curries and side dishes, with a clear influence of the Indian Muslim community in Malaysia. 

6. Nasi Uduk: This Nasi is basically a traditional Betawi or native Jakartan dish where rice is cooked in coconut milk with lemongrass, cloves, and pandan leaves, resulting in aromatic and flavorful rice. It is typically served with fried chicken, tempeh, tofu, and sambal. 

7. Nasi Campur: Popular in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, this mixed rice Nasi has an assortment of meats, eggs, vegetables, peanuts, shrimp krupuk—making it a textural and wholesome dish. 

8. Nasi Dagang: Originating in the Terengganu and Kelantan regions of Malaysia, this Nasi is traditionally made of rice cooked with coconut milk and fenugreek seeds, served with a side of fish curry and pickled vegetables. 

9. Nasi Liwet: Born in Java, this Nasi features rice cooked in coconut milk, chicken broth, and various spices. It is traditionally served with chicken, boiled eggs, tempeh, and a side of sambal. 

10. Nasi Jinggo: Originating in Bali, this Nasi is actually a street food! It consists of small portions of rice wrapped in banana leaves, served with a variety of side dishes like shredded chicken, fried noodles, and spicy sambal.