Just as an oceanic island drives upwelling, bringing a wealth of resources to shallower water to nurture a diversity of coral reefs teeming with life, so an educational institution can often enhance an area’s culinary diversity by concentrating demand of a very specific sort. The presence of swarms of hungry young people, craving new stuff and often with appetites bigger than wallets, exerts powerful forces on surrounding shops to adapt to their presence. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Selegie Road, within striking distance of a university and two art schools, should become quite the food spot.
No, it’s true that Nasi Lemak Kukus didn’t start off here; the operation was first based at the northern end of Upper Thomson Road. Nonetheless, I’m sure they’ve considered the local demographic before deciding to set up here. For what these mak ciks have got is a good fit with what the students want – plenty of variety, reasonable prices, a savvy touch with the decor. Also free flow stuff. And – oh, do we really need to mention this – good tasting food.
The spot where Nasi Lemak Kukus stands, in Ellison Building at the head (or tail) of Selegie, has quite a bit of history behind it – for decades it was the seat of Sri Vijaya, an Indian vegetarian restaurant, and just down the road is Ananda Bhavan, which has been here nearly a century. Nasi Lemak Kukus have not impinged much themselves on this austere background. Instead, their decor is consumer driven – you can get markers from the counter and go to town on the chest-high tiles all around the dining area, or at least you can where there’s still space. The rest is simplicity, in the modern, spotlight and concrete way.
As for the food, they’ve paid special attention to the rice that underlies it all. In fact it’s what they’re named for – kukus means ‘steamed’, the rice is first steamed to near-done with knots of pandan before stirring in the thick coconut milk and steaming again to finish. It’s rather more laborious than simply boiling it in the rice cooker, but is also more foolproof, avoiding the pitfall of a mushy, waterlogged pot of rice.
It also makes a great deal of difference to the texture of the rice. Each grain is slightly off-white from the pandan and coconut, distinct and separate instead of clumping together and therefore more evenly infused; since the starch is not bubbled out of the rice, it is chewy and springy, through it still does a good job of soaking up the sauces. And that’s a good thing, because there are plenty of sauces, stews and gravies to soak up; considering the rice is also free-flow for a dollar, it’s easy to eat several meals’ worth of carbs in one sitting.
Having arranged your own banana leaf plate and taken the rice, you then choose from a wide range of toppings; there are the nasi lemak staples – chicken wings, peanuts with crunchy, salty ikan bilis, fried eggs – and then what are arguably the premium items, the stalwarts of slightly more formal Malay food. Well, I’m saying it like you can have one or the other, but you can have whatever the heck you like on your plate. As I do.
The rendang here is made not with beef, but mutton, the stew also a lighter hue than the beef rendition; the meat is fall-apart tender, flavour infused into even the small lumps of collagen-rich tendon and fat. The strong mutton flavour is restrained yet distinct. Prawns in a lighter, golden curry are done just right, tight and crunchy and sweet inside.
Sayur lodeh also balances finely between texture and taste, the cabbages stewed into submission – barely holding their shape, then bursting in floods of coconut-rich gravy, given weight by a note of the animal with belachan. Cured cuttlefish, on the other hand, is stewed in a dark, sweetish sauce, the normally rubbery tentacles now tender and yielding. Even the fried stuff deserves a mention, with battered chicken skin on skewers having a rich, almost nutty taste. Turns out there’s egg in the batter, which also accounts for the bright yellow.
The atmosphere of Nasi Lemak Kukus, though, is another draw, now enhanced by the historicity of the setting. There’s the dining area decor, but the kitchen out back looks positively like a kampong, greenery around the stoves where huge metal pots and big woks of oil are bubbling away, two mak ciks walking around to monitor the proceedings. It feels like the run-up to a Malay wedding reception, communal and upscaled; hilariously, on my second visit some items are off the menu because there will be a wedding, of the chef’s son (congratulations!).
And this factor is almost enough to make one forget that nasi lemak with rendang and sayur lodeh is not exactly typical, that it might be unfair to compare something this atas to the good old wings-egg-peanut-sambal sort of nasi lemak. Is that really the case, though?
I think I’d prefer to say that Nasi Lemak Kukus’ food is a slightly deeper insight into the dish. We know it is a modular, easily assembled meal; we know it can be turned out on an industrial scale while being satisfying. But by taking in the rest of Malay cooking and drafting them as components, Nasi Lemak Kukus offers a glimpse into a more complex, alluring serving of rice. It’s nasi lemak in a Jason Wu evening gown. Why say no to that?
Nasi Lemak Kukus
229 Selegie Road
Hours: Mon – Sat, 12pm – 11pm