Everyone has their go-to comfort food when the going gets a little tough. A steaming bowl of ban mian, a pint of creamy mint chocolate, or even a trip to the Golden Arches would do the trick. For me, nothing is a better salve than a plate of nasi lemak.
For this Food Showdown, we’ll be pitting two titans of the nasi lemak world: Ponggol Nasi Lemak and Bali Nasi Lemak. If you know a little about these two establishments, you’ll it’s also a family affair—more on that later.
As a caveat and before everyone gets a little too excited in the comments section, we are comparing two different Chinese nasi lemak. Rest assured, that all iterations of nasi lemak will get their moment.
The essentials of a plate of nasi lemak are as follows: a mound of coconut rice, a generous dollop of sweet and spicy sambal, an oily and well-fried ikan kuning (yellowstripe scad)ending with a crispy serving of fried chicken. While you can further embellish your nasi lemak depending on the stall, a decent plate of nasi lemak should at least get these basic components right.
We’ll be judging them on the aforementioned items and see who reigns supreme. To compare both places as fairly as possible, I went to each place one right after the other so the impressions would be freshest in my mind. For this long-time devotee of nasi lemak, it was a real treat.
We’ll begin with one of the most recognisable nasi lemak stalls, Ponggol Nasi Lemak. Established in 1979 by Mr Ang Chye Choon and Mdm Koh Ah Tan, this family started their trade by delivering traditional pre-packed nasi lemak to hawker stalls.
Fast-forward 41 years and Ponggol Nasi Lemak has stayed ahead of the game with four outlets, the newest one in Capitol Singapore. I decided to head over to their Jalan Besar outlet, which is Ponggol Nasi Lemak’s flagship outlet.
This outlet features a partially automated kitchen and is fully air-conditioned—a cool respite from the sweltering heat. While the preparation methods for some food items have been streamlined, Ponggol Nasi Lemak still retains that handmade quality to certain components such as their prized sambal recipe.
Decked out with shiny posters of their food and a chrome counters, it was akin to a fast-food joint. Orders are churned out swiftly and even though there is a queue, you won’t have to wait more than 10 minutes for your food.
Tucked away on one of the eclectic lorongs of Geylang, Bali Nasi Lemak Fast Food Shop has been a long-time favourite for those living in the area. Helmed by Mdm Susan Koh who is Ponggol Nasi Lemak’s Mdm Koh Ah Tan’s sister, she has been peddling nasi lemak since 1985.
A simple, no-frills coffee shop, this will guarantee a satisfying meal.
It’s also interesting to note that Bali Nasi Lemak has a distinct Indonesia slant to their dishes. One of the reasons for that is Mdm Susan used to have a neighbour who would ask her to prepare Indonesian dishes. With that, she was inspired to prepare Indonesian-style dishes at Bali Nasi Lemak.
Just like our ever-dependable fast food joints, Ponggol Nasi Lemak offers different sets of nasi lemak to make ordering as easy and convenient as possible. For the purposes of my visit, I ordered Set Menu 1 (S$5.50) with the addition of Crispy Wing (S$1.80) and Spicy Otah (S$1.60) making this plate a grand total of S$8.90.
For Ponggol Nasi Lemak, everything on the plate had a standardised, cookie-cutter appearance to each item. Not that it was a bad thing, it only signals to me that Ponggol Nasi Lemak has figured out the way to keep each item consistent.
For Bali Nasi Lemak, while there are pre-selected sets available, most people would opt to just to have their nasi lemak a la carte.
The rice would set you back S$2 and each item costs S$1, while the chicken goes for S$1.50 a wing and S$3 a drumstick.
You would have to agree that quite a lot hinges on the rice in a plate of nasi lemak. You’ll want your rice to be fragrant, redolent with that intoxicating coconut scent such that is good enough to eat on its own.
For Ponggol Nasi Lemak, it’s not just any old rice. They use Thai AAA Hom Mali rice (also known as Jasmine rice) to ensure good bite and texture. True enough, the grains were light, fluffy and well-separated.
With a distinct and light fragrance from coconut milk and pandan leaves, it’s clear why Ponggol Nasi Lemak has enjoyed so much success over the years. While not mind-blowing, Ponggol Nasi Lemak’s rice serves as a benchmark for any nasi lemak you’ll eat.
As for Bali Nasi Lemak, they use Thai basmati rice so the grains are a little longer and more slender than those of Punggol Nasi Lemak. A little detail but it makes a world of a difference. The moment I set the plate down, the gleaming grains beckoned a taste.
When you try Bali Nasi Lemak’s rice, every other nasi lemak rice will pale in comparison. Each spoonful was unbelievably fragrant, rich to the point that the rice tasted starchy. It’s clear this round went to Bali Nasi Lemak.
Besides the rice, another important element in a perfect plate of nasi lemak is the sambal. Now, the sambal can’t afford to be boring and one-dimensional and only deliver spice. Good sambal is nuanced and complex; the best ones are able to toe that line between delivering a gratifying amount of heat that is tempered by a little sweetness.
For Ponggol Nasi Lemak, their sambal was not too shabby. I detected a little heat at the back of my throat but unfortunately, that faded pretty quickly.
I found the sambal a little too mild and veered a little too much on the sweet side. A punchier sambal would have been a better contrast to the rich coconut rice.
Just by looking at Bali Nasi Lemak’s sambal, I could tell this was not for spice novices. With little flecks of chilli seeds peeking from the chunky maroon sambal, Bali Nasi Lemak goes for the jugular.
The sambal delivered a slow burn that was at once addictive and piquant, with a kick that will satisfy even the most devout of spice zealots.
The Fried Chicken
Now that both the rice and chilli have passed the initial test, it’s on to one of the main highlights—the fried chicken. Punggol Nasi Lemak’s was well-battered, complete with craggy crispy bits for that crunch.
A crispy edge is a win anywhere but I felt that Ponggol Nasi Lemak’s chicken could have better seasoned the batter. Eaten on its own, the chicken was a little salty but fine when paired with rice. Either way, for the crowds that Punggol Nasi Lemak handles, colour me impressed for their consistent fried chicken.
For Bali Nasi Lemak, there are two types of fried chicken you can get with your nasi lemak—because no one ever said no to more fried chicken. I had their Honey Fried Chicken first, and just like any fried chicken, this was thick and juicy, although with a thinner batter than Ponggol Nasi Lemak.
Between the two, there was an almost imperceptible difference between Bali Nasi Lemak’s and Ponggol Nasi Lemak’s fried chicken.
One of Bali Nasi Lemak’s specialities is their Kicap Manis Chicken (S$1.50). For the uninitiated, kicap manis is an Indonesian sweet sauce that has a molasses-like consistency and treacly flavour without being cloying. A little different from what we are used to, but judging by the high turnover at Bali Nasi Lemak, this is a hot favourite.
If you’ve never had kicap manis before, it’s a viscous, thick sauce that goes well with virtually anything. The chicken is a sticky and savoury affair similar to Korean fried chicken, sans the spice. It’s definitely a get-your-hands-dirty kind of situation.
While both establishments knocked it out of the park for their fried chicken, I would say that Bali Nasi Lemak has just a slight edge for their Kicap Manis Fried Chicken.
Ikan kunning is a small and oily fish that is essential in a standard plate of nasi lemak. You’ll want these to be crispy but not dried out that the meat is shrivelled and flaky.
Just like the rest of the items of Ponggol Nasi Lemak’s plate, their ikan kunning was pretty satisfactory and even seasoned with a touch of sambal.
For Bali Nasi Lemak, their Ikan Kunning was a little fleshier and more substantial than those of Ponggol Nasi Lemak.
A little oiler and richer than those of Ponggol Nasi Lemak, these were moreish little slivers of ikan kunning. A constantly overlooked component of nasi lemak, I enjoyed these fish more than usual.
For me, I think it’s pretty clear that between the two, Bali Nasi Lemak was superior. Of course, Ponggol Nasi Lemak has its own merits, as they have figured how to prepare all the essential components fast, efficiently and consistent every time. If you are in a pinch or have a desperate craving for nasi lemak, Ponggol Nasi Lemak is the answer.
Bali Nasi Lemak already knocked it out of the park for me the second I tried their rice. To me, it’s the only part of nasi lemak that I concern myself with. However, you might have other markers of what makes a superb plate of nasi lemak. In that case, let us know what makes a good plate of nasi lemak and which you prefer.