In a city with a metropolitan population of 5.5 million, and where thousands of food spots, big and small, offer the ubiquitous Malaysian breakfast dish - the nasi lemak - Nasi Lemak Tanglin has been staying up there among the best, if not actually THE best since its inception in 1948.
Back then, the founder, an enterprising cook, Suryati Jawirunnah, made her signature nasi lemak “sambal tumis” (fried sambal chilli sauce) by slow-cooking her own special blend of chilis, onions & other spices for 3-4 hours to obtain its trademark dark-red hue and caramelly-sweetness. Her secret family recipe has now been passed onto her son, Zainal Abidin Hassan (who runs the business today and who personally prepares the sauce each day) and has remained unchanged for the last seven decades.
Nasi lemak-loving KL-lites flock to Nasi Lemak Tanglin almost on a daily basis (the place opens at 7am) and the queue in front of its location, Stall No. 6 at the Tanglin Food Centre (right opposite Tanglin Health Clinic) on Jalan Cenderasari is ever-present. Some old-time KL residents would actually reminisce about the time(s) when they queued at the stall with a tinge of nostalgia, such is how Nasi Lemak Tanglin’s existence is intertwined with the food memories of KL-lites. Back then, the nasi lemak stall was in a small, wooden shack which stood where the hawker centre is today.
Nasi lemak (the name of the dish, in Malay, means “rich-tasting rice”, due to the addition of coconut milk to enrich the rice during cooking) is, of course, of Malay origin, although its appeal transcends racial boundaries in Malaysia, with Chinese- and Indian-Malaysians also tucking into the dish for their daily breakfast. There would be subtle differences, however, in the nasi lemak cooked by the Chinese, who favour a richer, oilier nasi lemak, by adding more coconut creme and milk, compared to the Malay version. Chinese-style nasi lemak is the sort one finds in the popular Madam Kwan chain of restaurants, usually served with a rich chicken curry.
Nasi Lemak Tanglin sticks firmly to its traditional Malay roots: perfectly-steamed rice, with just enough coconut milk added during the cooking process to give the rice a gentle, aromatic lift, splashed with its assertive, spicy “sambal tumis” sauce, a sprinkling of crisp-fried salty ikan bilis (anchovies) and groundnuts, and sliced cucumbers. The server who’s serving you will also add “kuah hitam daging”, a dark-hued beefy sauce to blend with the “sambal tumis” for an additional taste dimension and added depth of flavour.
To this basic rice set, the customer can then choose the add-ons from a variety of cooked side-dishes at the service counter. There are 3 servers at the counter, just indicate to your server which item you’d like to add on to your breakfast plate. The more popular options are the: “ayam goreng” (fried chicken), “sambal kerang” (chillied cockles), “limpa berlada” (spiced ox-spleen), “sambal sotong” (chillied cuttlefish), “paru goreng” (spiced fried beef-lung), or a very tasty beef curry, which is one of the best I’d tasted from any eatery in Kuala Lumpur.
What we had this morning:
Nasi lemak with Ayam Goreng (fried chicken)
We also added a hard-boiled egg (which has also been lightly golden-fried after de-shelling). There are no vegetable side-dish to choose from - traditionally, the only non-meat dish in a nasi lemak set would be thin slivers of raw cucumber.
One of my breakfast companions chose the Sambal Sotong (spicy cuttlefish) to go with her nasi lemak. In Malay language, “sotong” is a common term used to refer to all cephalopods: squid, octopus, cuttlefish. But sambal sotong will always be cooked using cuttlefish (just as another Malay dish, ketupat sotong will only utilise squid, stuffed with glutinous rice).
Yet another breakfast companion chose the beef curry, which I thought tasted simply amazing - the beef was melt-in-the-mouth tender and had the tastiest curry sauce I’d ever had anywhere in KL. Don’t miss this.
I’d recommend coming here pretty early - although it operates from 7am till around noon, most of the more popular dishes (chicken, beef, cockles) would be sold out by late-morning, around 10am.
Seating arrangements are pretty spartan - it is only a stall in a small, nondescript hawker centre, but quite strategically located opposite the Klinik Kesihatan Tanglin (Tanglin Health Clinic) from where it got its name, the Masjid Negara (National Mosque) and Bukit Aman (the location for Malaysia’s Police Headquarters). Its clientele are mostly Malay-Muslims, a testament to Nasi Lemak Tanglin’s authentic traditional Malay flavours.
BTW, Nasi Lemak Tanglin came up against its deadliest rival, Village Park Nasi Lemak ([Kuala Lumpur] Village Park Nasi Lemak @ Damansara Uptown) in one of the episodes of Food Wars: Asia on the Food Channel recently to decide who makes the best nasi lemak in Kuala Lumpur. Nasi Lemak Tanglin came out tops when 2 of the three judges, in a blind-tasting of the respective nasi lemak by the two rivals, chose Nasi Lemak Tanglin over Village Park’s rendition.
Nasi Lemak Tanglin
Gerai No. 6, Kompleks Makan Tanglin
Jalan Cenderasari (near Klinik Kesihatan Tanglin/Tanglin Health Clinic)
50480 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Opening hours: 7am-12noon daily