I am sure many fellow Singaporeans would disagree, but I have not found a perfect nasi lemak here.
Perhaps it is because I spent my early years in Kuala Lumpur, where amazing versions of the dish are a dime a dozen – whether it is sold at a roadside stall or in an air-conditioned eatery such as Madam Kwan’s or Sakura Cafe.
Nasi lemak at its most basic is rice cooked in coconut milk, accompanied by sambal, fried ikan bilis and peanuts, some cucumber slices and either a hard-boiled or fried egg.
To these, you can add a variety of dishes. In Singapore, it is usually a fried chicken wing or a piece of grilled otah, although more adventurous hawkers may offer rendang or curry as well. Fried ikan kuning, which used to be popular, is less common these days.
I prefer items with gravy because the basic dish is rather dry with the fried ikan bilis and egg. Having more deep-fried items does not appeal to me.
Also, much as I like fried chicken wings, it is something I enjoy eating on its own with my hands. With nasi lemak, I would rather have chicken rendang.
What makes or breaks the dish are fragrant, fluffy rice, a delicious and spicy sambal and crispy ikan bilis. The rest are a bonus.
But I cannot find a stall with rice that is so fluffy the grains do not clump together. The only eatery that achieved that was Madam Kwan’s when the Malaysian eatery opened in VivoCity in 2013. It closed a few years later, however, because its $13.90 nasi lemak was considered too expensive then. It did not help that the other dishes on the menu were not very good.
Famous and popular stalls I visited over the past three weeks turned out disappointing.
Some had fragrant rice but the sambal was too sweet with no heat. Or the ikan bilis was not crisp. And there were more than a few chicken wings covered in hard batter.
A long queue may not mean good food. It could just be slow service, I discovered.
What used to be my favourites are now not as good as some new eateries opened by youngsters who spent time researching and testing recipes to get them right.
So while it is sad to see established players no longer living up to their reputation, it is also heartening that fresh players are flying the flag for this heritage dish.
1. COCONUT CLUB
Where: 28 Ann Siang Road, tel: 6635-2999
Open: 11am to 3pm (Mondays to Sundays), 6 to 9.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays)
My first visit to the shop more than two years ago was at its previous location a stone's throw away. Then, I could not smell anything from the rice.
This time, the rice has a slight fragrance. But it is still not fluffy, so there is room for improvement.
Besides the basics, the nasi lemak set also comes with ayam goreng berempah (spiced fried chicken), which boasts a delicious marinade. You get to choose breast meat or a whole leg.
The rest of the dish is well above average. The sambal is spicy and not sweet, which is how I like it. And the fried ikan bilis and peanuts are crisp and fresh.
The set is enough for a singleperson meal, but if you want something with gravy, you can add side dishes such as beef rendang ($16.50) or sambal kangkong ($7.80). Your bill will go up substantially though.
2. HOYEAH NASI LEMAK
Where: 158 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4
Open: 7.30am to 8.30pm, closed on Mondays
Price: $2.50 to $4.50 a set
The alluring aroma of coconut milk hits me even before I step into the coffee shop, which is a very promising sign.
And true enough, the rice smells wonderful and has a nice savoury taste.
The $4.50 set comes with either a deep-fried chicken drumstick or thigh, or curry chicken. The fried chicken wing option costs $3.50.
I would have gone for the curry, but the pieces of thigh in the window look so tempting. And my piece turns out great. It is put into the deep-fryer for a final crisping and comes warm.
The sambal is not overly sweet - which is good - but it can do with more heat. And there is too little of it.
The rest of the dish comprises a fried egg with runny yolk and crispy ikan bilis and peanuts. Nice.
3. D'AUTHENTIC NASI LEMAK
Where: 01-36, 84 Marine Parade Central,
Open: 7am to 3pm daily
Price: $4.60 with added cuttlefish, peanuts and a sunny-side-up egg
This old-school nasi lemak hits the spot on the strength of its rice, which smells and tastes of fresh santan. I would rate it as good as HoYeah's.
Sambal cuttlefish is a great side dish for nasi lemak - a common combination in Kuala Lumpur - and this stall has it. Its mildly sweet and spicy gravy goes well with the rice.
You pick what you want to go into the dish. Fried ikan bilis, sambal and cucumber are included without extra cost. My $4.60 plate includes fried peanuts ($1) and a sunny-side-up egg (60 cents) besides the cuttlefish ($2). The a la carte selection also includes chicken rendang ($3), chicken wing ($1.50) and begedil (80 cents).
The ikan bilis is crisp but salty while the sambal is spicy and mildly sweet.
4. TREE COCONUT NASI LEMAK
Where: 01-27 Jalan Berseh Food Centre, 166 Jalan Besar
Open: 6.30am to 9pm or until it sells out; closed on Sundays
Price: $2.50 for basic set
Run by a young girl, this stall boasts the crispiest ikan bilis and peanuts among the stalls I visited.
You have to pay an extra 50 cents for them though. The basic set comes with just sambal, a fried chicken wing and a sunny-side-up egg.
For an extra $1, you can add a piece of otah, which tastes pretty decent.
The chicken wing is well-marinated and the batter is light and crispy. And I like the runny yolk in the egg.
The rice has a mild fragrance, but it leaves a slightly oily feel in the mouth when eaten on its own. That does not become a problem though when you mix in a bit of sambal, which has a good balance of sweetness, spiciness and a hint of acidity.
What is odd is that there are no cucumber slices, an integral part of the dish.
5. MOMO KITCHEN
Where: 01-1090, 146 Jalan Bukit Merah
Open: 11am to 3pm and 5.30 to 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays); 11am to 8pm (weekends and public holidays); closed on Mondays
The nasi lemak set comes with a choice of rendang chicken, lemongrass chicken and grilled chicken.
The rendang I ordered was very delectable, rich with coconut milk and just a little spicy.
The rice is dyed a bright blue with butterfly pea flowers. It looks good in photos, but I find the Smurf colour rather disconcerting in savoury food. But at least it smells fragrant.
I like the sambal, which is slightly piquant and not sweet, but the ikan bilis and omelette are nondescript.