How can McDonalds exist in the world of Nasi Lemak?

It's undeniable that both Nasi Lemak and McDonalds are stratospherically popular here in Malaysia.

For those of you that haven't read my past articles extolling the brilliance of Nasi Lemak, it is Malaysia's national dish. The super-heavyweight culinary champion of a country obsessed by food, beyond all else.

The dish itself is an exhibition in simplicity. Fragrant and fluffy rice, steamed in coconut milk and aromatic pandan leaves. Usually accompanied by a spicy sambal sauce, an egg, slices of fresh cucumber and crunchy fried anchovies and peanuts.

Beyond this it becomes a fantastic vehicle for side dishes, perhaps most commonly ayam goreng (Malaysian fried chicken) but also rendangs, curries or whatever else you fancy.

It's cheap, it's fast, it's varied, but most importantly it's bloody tasty.

I've therefore found it a little surprising, if not grating, that amongst some sections of modern Malaysia (predominantly young) there is such an obsession with the scourge that is Yankee fast food, particularly McDonalds, aka the gastronomical dark side.

I have no idea how a craving for a Big Mac would ever creep into your mind, when the base level of cheap street food is so incredibly high.

This is particularly in a country where alcohol isn't exactly that prevalent...

Can you remember your last sober McDonalds...? I can't!

And yet I will bet you my mortgage, that often the longest queues for food in Malaysia will be at the golden arches.

Queues. Proof!

Since moving here I've spend quite a bit of time trying to understand how this could be. So far my conclusion has been: McDonald's marketing team have made a pact with the devil.

Having only just recently moved out the world of advertising, it's with a certain level of begrudging respect that I say their strategy here in Malaysia is unbelievable.

In a country of delicious food they've managed to portray their product as cheap, quality and even a source of Malaysian national pride. Despite them being neither that cheap, that good, and about as Malaysian as a 10-gallon Stetson.

It's helpful here to point out just exactly what they are up against, so to understand how impressive this is.

I therefore undertook the difficult task of visiting some of the very best Nasi Lemaks in town. To show you just how good it can get.

1. The Everyman

Nasi Lemak Bungkus @Medan Selera Jalan 223 in PJ

Available at any Medan Selera (food court), Mamak or Hawker Centre in KL. Bungkus are the entry level Nasi Lemak. A portion of rice, sambal, egg, peanuts and anchovies, wrapped in banana leaf and/or paper (bungkus literally means package).

Ready to eat, or pack in your bag for lunch and/or dinner. They are very popular.

An old colleague of mine used to bring 3 to work. Every. Single. Day.

Despite being cheap, if you go to the right place, you will trade nothing on quality. This one was brilliantly fragrant, the chicken juicy and fresh, and the sambal had one of the biggest hits of umami and chilli I have ever experienced (at any level).

The best thing is the cost. For Nasi Lemak and Ayam Goreng this was RM5, that's just a pound. Just the based bungku was just RM2.

Interestingly Malaysians might often complain this is expensive! Nostalgia calls back to the days these were just RM0.50, or cheaper. It's essentially the Malaysian equivalent of a Freddo!

2. The Lunch Spot

Nasi Lemak & Ayam Goreng @Nasi Lemak Wanjo in Kampung Baru

In the shadow of the Petronas Towers is Kampung Baru. Despite being right next to the business district this is a relatively traditional area with many good food options.

This is a pretty famous spot with almost 2,300 reviews on Google. Set in a nice cool food court, there is often a queue around lunch time but get there a little early and it's never an issue.

Here you pay for the privilege of an actual plate and cutlery, but the product is pretty similar. The chicken pictured was actually a little dry, however that was my own fault for picking a breast instead of the primo thigh. It was made up for by a healthy dose of spicy sambal, a little sweeter this time and an excellent iced coffee (tooth achingly sweet with condensed milk). The rice is also really good. Super fragrant, fluffy but still moist.

In all honestly, I prefer the bungkus spot but it was still a very good effort and still very economical at just RM9 (£1.80).

3. The Weekender

Nasi Lemak & Ayam Goreng @Village Park in Uptown Damansara.

I call it the weekender as, being just 10 minutes from my flat, this has become somewhat of a Saturday pilgrimage for me.

Supposedly celebrity backed (though not being Malay I can't attest to the identify or magnitude of the celebrity) this is a very busy spot. Coming alone definitely helps as you will often need to fight your way onto a table, particularly at peak Saturday brunch/lunch.

This traffic, however means that the food is constantly being churned out and freshness is pretty much guaranteed.

The Nasi Lemak itself is very good, fragrant, fresh and served with excellent condiments (though the sambal is just a touch sweet for my liking). The real star is the Ayam Goreng.

Fried in a batter made from a paste of lemongrass, ginger, shallots, galangal and spices, it is thickened with a little potato starch to give more of a classic fried chicken finish. The result is a super crispy and fragrant skin, protecting a perfectly moist and tender chicken leg. Served with additional crunchy bits from the batter in the oil, this is perfection.

The celebrity attachment, popularity, and comparatively large portion do affect the price. However, still at just RM10.40 (£2.05) this is a really awesome value plate of food.

4. The Wildcard (?)

Nasi Lemak McD & Ayam Goreng @McDonalds...

As I said, McDonalds seem to have pulled off the impossible and positioned themselves locally as a semi-Malaysian brand. A lot of this is to do with their positioning around key Malaysian events such as Merdeka (Independence Day) and Raya (Ramadan) but they've also gone as far as to adopt local dishes...

Therefore in the interest of research, I went behind enemy lines (sober) and ordered.

As much as I want to hate it, I have to admit it's not a terrible attempt.

I've had worse.

The rice is fluffy. It's lacking a bit of fragrance. I suspect this is due to the high probability they use an extract instead of fresh pandan leaves. But, the sambal is actually pretty impressive. Again not very fragrant but they make up for it by being actually pretty spicy and a good savoury base flavour (probably MSG, but nowadays this is totally acceptable).

The thing that lets it down is the chicken. It's in a classic fast-food style batter (a la KFC) and has that weird greying gloss on the meat that doesn't exactly scream fresh.

Despite this, I finished it. Not as disgusted as I was expecting, however at a RM13 I still have no idea why you would eat here and not a local spot.

"So what?!" I suppose.

I am acutely aware that as a foreigner I don't want to be too preachy or patronising about these kind of things (though I suspect this article belies that intention somewhat). Malaysia is after all a fairly developed nation. If they want to follow the well-trodden path of development, fast food, diabetes, then that's their decision.

However, my main worry is that amongst many young people this isn't just an occasional meal but genuinely becoming their idea of what good food means.

The trouble with this is that, compounded with a relatively complete disinterest in cooking by young people in Malaysia (a story for another time), it's not out of the question that some of the amazing food culture could be lost here in Malaysia.

And this is where I have some expertise as I'm British.

Although the British food scene is amazing in many quarters, the one thing we don't have is a true national culinary identity.

It's not 100% negative as I think it's definitely the reason why food from around the world is so readily accepted and championed. However I still think we have a massive way to go to undo the damage of WWII, rationing, microwave ready-meals and fast food.

Once you lose culture it's almost impossible to regain.

I just hope that Malaysia doesn't suffer the same fate.

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