Dwi Larasatie Nur Fibri, a food and gastronomy researcher at University Gadjah Mada in Indonesia, literally wrote the book on nasi goreng. In it she explores 104 variations of the dish, which differs not only between regions, but households.
Her exploration adds some much needed complexity to an ongoing food fight about the origin of nasi goreng, which reached boiling point back in 2016 when footballer Rio Ferdinand tweeted: “Nasi goreng lunch. Keeping it local in #Singapore” while visiting the island state.
This rice dish, fried with a spice base and topped with vegetables, meat or egg became a flashpoint for Malaysians and Indonesians. Both parties lay claim to the dish and were miffed to see Singapore get the credit.
But there is truth to all ownership claims, as nasi goreng literally translates to “fried rice” in both Malay and Indonesian languages. Thanks to family ties, trade and migration between all three countries, which predate national independence, there is a lot of overlap in the food.
However, it is tricky to define what makes nasi goreng Indonesian, Malaysian or Singaporean. And Fibri believes there is no such thing as a “standard” nasi goreng anyway.
What is always true about the dish is that it is an innovative way to use day-old rice and stretch a meal using aromatics and vegetables that were wilting in the fridge. This is an important consideration in a region where rice is a staple food and people eat it three times a day. It is a one-pot, pantry clean-up dish at its best, jazzed up with a scrambled or fried egg.
“The most common ingredients are garlic, shallot, pepper and chilli, while the extra toppings are typically egg, shrimp, spring onions or chicken,” Fibri says. “Beyond that, there are regional differences. In Bali, the spice base includes palm sugar and candlenut, in Medan it has chives and in Java, people typically only use shallot.”
These differences are not obvious in cafés and restaurants in Australia, which typically offer a “national” version of Indonesia’s nasi goreng. According to Peterson Purwo, consultant chef in Melbourne’s Chi Chi Cafe, the nasi goreng in Australia typically includes kicap manis and keropok (fried fish crackers), which stays true to its origins. But chefs in Australia might use frozen carrots and peas as vegetables to cater to local taste, rather than cabbage or choi sum which are more common in Indonesia.
“When I moved from Indonesia to Australia in 1997, fried rice was more towards the Chinese style, which was a simpler version without the spices. But these days, with programs like Masterchef, people are exposed to newer flavours. So they are more likely to buy things like sambal oelek to make nasi goreng,” he says.
Sambal oelek is an Indonesian tangy chilli paste which is now stocked in major supermarkets. It may contribute to diversifying the Australian palate, but it also further entrenches the idea that nasi goreng is uniquely Indonesian, something that Malaysian-born chef Irna Mysara has witnessed.
When she used to manage her restaurant Sijori, she had three types of nasi goreng on the menu: nasi goreng kampung (Malaysian style) with sambal belacan (fermented shrimp paste), water spinach, long beans and fried anchovies; nasi goreng Sijori (Indonesian style) which includes a chili-garlic-onion blend and kicap manis; and nasi goreng kapitan (Chinese style) which has scrambled egg and no spice blend.
“The Indonesian style was the most popular, maybe because the Australian customers were more attuned to Indonesian food than Malaysian food. Over time though, our Malaysian-style nasi goreng became more popular, as people became used to the sambal belacan and fried anchovies – which are flavour bombs.”
There is some truth to the close links between Australia and Indonesia compared with Australia and Malaysia. Indonesia was the second most popular holiday destination for Australians in 2019 while Malaysia is not in the top 10 list. Of the 1.4m Australians who visited Indonesia that year, 1.23m went to Bali. Indonesian is one of the languages offered in Australian high schools while Malay is not. In mainstream and niche supermarkets in Australia, there are two major Indonesian food labels, Indofood and Bamboe to Malaysia/Singapore’s Ayam brand.
Despite this, Mysara will not be drawn into a discussion on which country has a monopoly over nasi goreng. “Food is so political. My customers always want to know which country’s nasi goreng is the original and who copied who. I just tell them nasi goreng is a Malay food and there are Malay people in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.”
Rather than playing “who cooked it first”, she offers two pieces of advice for nasi goreng first-timers. The most important thing is to always use day-old cooked rice, never freshly cooked rice – otherwise it will not get crunchy. Then, you must fry the spice blend on high heat until it is fragrant and the oil separates. “If the spice blend is raw when you add the rice, you cannot salvage the dish. This is why it’s better to cook the spice blend, egg and vegetables separately and toss it in with the rice. Takes a bit longer but it’s impossible to go wrong.”
Irna Mysara’s recipe for nasi goreng kampung
neutral vegetable oil
150g chicken breast, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp sambal oelek
½ red onion, diced
3½ cups cooked long grain rice
1 tsp belacan paste, available from most Asian grocers
80g water spinach
43g crispy anchovies
2 tsp fish sauce
2 tbsp kecap manis
salt to taste
sugar to taste
1 sliced spring onion
Heat some oil in a large skillet over high heat. Sauté chicken until browned on both sides and cooked through.
Heat 2 tbsp oil in a wok (or skillet) over high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until fragrant. Add sambal oelek and belacan.
Add rice and cooked chicken. Break up the rice, and stir fry until the rice is heated through and well coated in paste.
Add water spinach and anchovies. Add fish sauce and kecap manis and coat rice evenly, then season with salt and sugar to taste.
Transfer the fried rice to a serving platter and sprinkle with spring onions and fried shallots.
Cook eggs, sunny side up. Serve the rice with a fried egg on top and a side of cucumbers.