IT’S like any typical weekday in George Town, Penang. The roads are rather empty, scorched by an intense sun. If you’re lucky, the sea breeze might kiss you in its occasional gusts. Unfazed by the heat, the queue in front of Ali Nasi Lemak Daun Pisang Lebuh Pantai continues to grow longer as the sun moves to its highest point.
Passing through Beach Street, it is hard not to notice the stacks of unpretentiously wrapped nasi lemak at the stall. Positioned right at the entrance of Sri Weld Food Court, people of all ages and races queue up faithfully for their turn to place an order. Still piping hot, the pyramid-shaped morsels are arranged in six sections, each labelled with an alphabet to indicate its fillings. Customers can choose between nasi lemak with chicken, fried fish, salted fish, shrimp, cuttlefish and the most popular, bilis telur.
“When I first started in 2001, it was only nasi lemak with hard-boiled eggs and fried anchovies. Since then, it has been our original bestseller and would of course be a great recommendation to first-timers, especially to non-local customers,” reveals Wasnita Idris, the owner of the Ali Nasi Lemak, fondly known as Kak Was by her staff and some loyal regulars.
The 45-year-old who is originally from Pekanbaru, Indonesia confides that it was not an easy beginning. The stall started small with her and her husband working tirelessly to jumpstart the business. After a few years, the business picked up with many returning customers. Today, she manages the stall with five helpers who take turns to cook and prepare the main components of the nasi lemak every morning, from Mondays to Saturdays.
“I honestly don’t know what’s so special about my nasi lemak. I’ve been cooking this the usual way but with good intentions. It could probably be the belacan (shrimp paste),” she chuckles.
Using her grandmother’s recipe, Kak Was begins cooking at 6am as the stall opens an hour later. Her customers range from locals to tourists.
“Sekarang, Mat Saleh pun dah pandai makan (The Caucasians these days know how to enjoy nasi lemak),” shares Kak Was in her mother tongue. She enjoys watching people appreciating her cooking, citing that non-locals are the ones who would usually be taking countless photographs of her stall.
Approximately 30 pieces of banana leaves are laid on the preparation counter at one go. Rice goes on top, followed by hardboiled eggs in halves. One at a time but quickly, the sambal laden with fried anchovies are poured onto each serving. Then, they are individually wrapped and served.
It is quite interesting to see how quickly the entire process takes place. It looks effortless. “They’ve done this every day. It’s not difficult to learn how to wrap nasi lemak but a strong fist is required,” Kak Was explains that the stall sells over 400 packs daily.
The excitement builds up as I begin to unwrap my lunch. And since it’s popular in Penang to have nasi lemak with fried fish, I have to give it a try. Lightly spiced with turmeric powder, the fried fish is a nice side dish to the simple coconut milk infused rice and sambal. Do not expect big chunks of fish. Small local fish is usually served with the nasi lemak here. Kak Was sources for any types of small fish from the local market every day.
“It depends on what the local fishermen have to offer. It’s normally ikan kembong (Indian mackerel), sardines or ikan kayu (yellow tuna). Sometimes, I grab whatever that is available,” the mother of two explains.
Onto my second pack, — the bilis telur as recommended by Kak Was — is a homerun for me. There is nothing extraordinary in it however, just an inexplicable taste of egg, anchovies and sambal that complement each other beautifully. It’s simple comfort food so familiar to the palate.
KEEPING IT REAL
At RM1.80 per packet, it is no wonder why the nasi lemak is so well-received. One of her patrons, Uncle Chan begs to differ: “It’s not really about the price. It can be cheap but if it’s not nice, people will not come back for more.”
The sexagenarian has been a customer for almost a decade and reckons that Ali Nasi Lemak is one of the more authentic ones in George Town, Penang.
It leaves me wondering the secrets behind this popular offering. “It must be the banana leaves,” I figure. “We use banana leaf because it makes the nasi lemak more fragrant and keeps the rice fresh longer than other conventional wrappers like paper or plastic. It’s more authentic, don’t you think?” Kak Was says, throwing the question back at me.
The use of verdant banana leaves, sourced entirely from Balik Pulau, has certainly given the all-day favourite a unique touch. It naturally eliminates the need for plates or additional washing, keeping her running cost low.
Looking at the bigger picture, this is not a lucrative business. In retrospect, Kak Was started her business small as a way to support the family. Even though her business has grown tremendously, she remains humble with no plans to expand her business.
“The place has changed so much since I started my stall at this food court. Once
derelict shop houses, the row of well-designed commercial buildings adjacent has given a boost to the number of visitors coming to this part of town,” she says of the gentrification in George Town since receiving the designation of Unesco Heritage Site in 2008.
“People may think that there are many steps to making nasi lemak. What I am selling here is the simplest of a simple recipe. There’s no rocket science. What you see is what you get,” laughs Kak Wan as other curious stall operators walk over to join our conversation. (typical Malaysians, no?)
It’s hard to say “no” to a delightful serving of nasi lemak, even after three whole packets. Born in Malaysia, the ubiquitous aroma of coconut milk rice infused with the fragrance of pandan leaves leaves you wanting more. The delicious taste of nasi lemak lingers forever. And no matter how far the world takes you to, a spoonful of the fluffy rice doused in aromatic spicy sambal and crunchy anchovies is the remedy to feeling at home.