For the A TO Z CHALLENGE, I’m blogging for 26 days in April (except Sundays) based on the alphabet, and my theme is #foodiefiction, inspired mostly by the foods of Singapore.
N is for Nasi Lemak
She was in the line for nasi lemak when she heard his voice.
“This is the best nasi lemak because of the sambal. Without sambal, it is not nasi lemak and this one is perfect – a little bit sweet, a little bit salty, a little bit sour, and just the right spiciness. It is sublime sambal.”
That voice, those words, sent a shiver down her spine. She remembered the very day she had used those words, ‘sublime sambal’, the day she had first brought him to her very favourite nasi lemak stall. He had picked her up early and they had driven across the island to get here. He kept grumbling, sure or not, drive so far just for nasi lemak. He had already doubted her then. She should have listened to her inner voice when it told her to listen carefully to his words and not be taken in by his gorgeous smile, his deep voice, his bright eyes that wandered.
And here he was. Just two months after he had broken up with her. On a text message no less: “Sorry. This isn’t working for me.” Here he was claiming her nasi lemak stall as his. Ok so it wasn’t hers exactly, it was the very nice makcik’s who always gave her an extra large helping of her special sambal and clucked in sympathy when she first appeared at the stall without him.
But she was the one who had introduced the place to him, and convinced him that it was the best nasi lemak in Singapore. It had become their Sunday morning ritual. An early morning drive across the island for nasi lemak, teh tarik for her, kopi for him. Then a stroll along the boardwalk to work off the lemak-ness of the coconut rice and the fried ikan bilis. They had discovered the nearby cinema, a little older than the spanking new ones in town, which meant fewer Sunday crowds. And sometimes went bowling just for the heck of doing something different.
His voice brought her out of her reminiscing and back to reality. It was her turn and the makcik already was preparing her usual order with a smile. She reached for her purse and sneaked a look behind her, to see if she could avoid walking past him. The line was long and he was quite a way back but she could tell it was him. He was tapping his foot impatiently. She couldn’t see who he was with but it was definitely female.
Her heart flipflopped but she knew she was being silly. He had refused to answer her messages, emails, voicemails, and phone calls. And while she had been weepy and sad, angry and hurt, eyes red, nose leaking, for weeks until her best friends finally got tired and forced her back into un-tissue papered life again, he had moved onto someone else. Now he was swooping in on her nasi lemak territory.
And that was too much.
No longer could she stroll on the boardwalk without thinking of the way he held her hand, no longer could she go to the cinema without missing his arm around her. So this stake on the nasi lemak stall was hers to claim. She would not, could not, have him here every Sunday, or any other day. She did not want him to be able to savour the luxuriously coconutty rice, the crunchy ikan bilis and peanuts, and she especially did not want him to eat a single bite of any of this with the piquant sambal. It was her sublime sambal. It was not his.
She realized she had muttered the last few words out loud. The makcik looked at her with concern as she handed over the money and asked, “he’s here is it?” She nodded, stunned that the makcik had noticed.
“Don’t worry, I don’t sell to him, ok?”
She walked away with her packet of nasi lemak, trying not to look back. But curiosity got the better of her and she stood a distance away, peering out from behind a pillar.
When it finally got to his turn, the makcik shook her head at him and waved him away. He said something, makcik waved him away again and gestured to the customer behind him. He threw up his hands and turned to look around the hawker centre. She quickly ducked behind the pillar, her heart pounding. She couldn’t believe the makcik had done it.
He never returned to the nasi lemak stall again, the makcik told her a few Sundays later. It seemed that he had relinquished the nasi lemak to her. She was better off without him, she now knew. She had wasted tears on him, she now knew. But she had her nasi lemak and her sublime sambal back, and for now, that was all that mattered.
Nasi Lemak or ‘oily or fatty rice’ has its roots in Malay culture and cuisine. It is rice cooked with coconut milk and pandan leaves, and usually served with fried anchovies (ikan bilis), roasted peanuts, hard-boiled or fried egg, cucumber slices and sambal. The Singapore Chinese version comes with a variety of sides like fried chicken, sausages and luncheon meat. It makes for an excellent breakfast.