Growing up as a Malay-Singaporean, nasi lemak is, to me, the quintessential comfort food. It sits right next to roti prata and kaya toast as the classic Singaporean breakfast—although my stomach warmly welcomes it at any time of the day. I’ve had my fair share of delightful nasi lemak (from many kedai kopis and also some masjids across Singapore), but none quite comes close to the home-cooked version of my mother’s.
My mother is Javanese, so her nasi lemak is, well, full of lemak. She doesn’t hold back on her potpourri of ingredients—except to bake her chicken instead of frying it as a healthier option. I’ve obviously been spoiled by her blissful nasi lemak, so it’s hard for me to bring myself to eat any other versions out there—especially one that costs S$12.90 a plate.
I bring myself to Lemak Boys, amidst a simmering kerfuffle that has been going round online. Lemak Boys came into the centre of much-heated debate amidst its opening on September 12 2020, with fierce culture-buffs coming forth to bash their starring dish—the ‘Peranakan Nasi Lemak‘. Lemak Boys were accused of charging exorbitant amounts for a dish you could get for a quarter of the price while hiding behind the ‘Peranakan’ label—and the classical foodies were not having it.
Similar fates have landed on the countertops of Peranakan restaurant Violet Oon, who was forced to change the name of their ‘Nyonya Nasi Ambeng‘ dish to exclude the word “Nyonya”, as it misinformed diners of the dishes’ original Javanese roots.
I have never spent more than S$5 for a plate of nasi lemak, so understandably, I am extremely curious to see what all this hullabaloo is about. All things considered, I prepare my taste buds and head to Shaw Centre.
The restaurant seems less fancy than I expected. Perhaps, I may have overestimated my expectations. The restaurant sits along a corridor and does not feature the typical floor-to-ceiling glass facade of what one might expect at a fancy restaurant. It has an open front, allowing diners to walk in freely without having to be attended to by a waiter.
The outlet is completely bereft of diners on this Tuesday night, save for two servers—one at the cash register, and another to help you put the food on your plate behind the nasi–padang-style counter.
What I tried
The Premium Nasi Lemak (S$18.50) is served on a yellow plate, in contrast to the white plate of the regular Nasi Lemak (S$12.50) It seems like both dishes are almost visually identical, except for the inclusion of some sambal prawns in the Premium choice.
The rice, when eaten with the sambal, tastes like how a nasi lemak should, but does not quite make for an exceptional iteration. The ingredients that make a nasi lemak superior is in its moniker—the nasi (rice) and the lemak (the combination of pandan and coconut milk in the rice), which in the case of Lemak Boys, falls short of anything extraordinary.
The rice, though fragrant, lacks an extra kick to it, which I assume is due to the moderate use of santan (coconut milk).
I then took a bite of the fried chicken drumstick—its skin pleasantly crispy, and its meat, tender and juicy. The fish otah is also easily enjoyable—not too fishy, and with a very low spice level. So far, everything seems overwhelmingly average.
The omelette that came with the set does not have any redeeming factors, however, and to my disappointment, the sambal prawns, which were meant to differentiate the Premium Nasi Lemak from the regular one, also did not live up to its price (and hype, might I add).
Though they all taste like how they should, the dishes, particularly the sambal, lacked an admirable savoriness, which I assumed is due to them controlling the amounts of stereotypically “unhealthier” ingredients like santan and MSG. The same can be said for the Sayur Lodeh (S$3.00), which to me, is missing a certain satisfying richness of a much superior version.
The drinks, on the other hand, were a welcome treat. The Lemongrass (S$3.50) was refreshing, while the creamy milk-and-syrup combination in the Bandung (S$3.50) works to keep your stomach from bloating up too quickly.
For me, it is the Chendol (S$3.00) that stole the show. It came in an unassuming glass jar, with a consistency more akin to that of custard pudding. It’s sweet, tasty, and the smooth custard pairs delicately with the sweet chendol flavour.
I finished the whole jar in under 10 minutes, and would lick it clean if I could—if only my mouth could fit through the opening, of course. This, ironically, is perhaps the most lemak dish at lunch today.
For the price that I had to pay, I will say that you can find better alternatives elsewhere in Singapore for much lesser. That said, however, the food is not all that terrible, and makes for a good rudimentary introduction to what a nasi lemak is for someone less familiar with the dish. It’s also perfect for those who might have a lower tolerance to spice, and those who are perhaps not accustomed to the strong santan and pandan flavour of the more traditional nasi lemak.
The nasi lemak at Lemak Boys feels like a healthier take on the classical Malay dish, albeit with santan and MSG used very sparingly. It is great if you’re health-conscious and have money to spare. However, if you’re around the area, and looking to satisfy your nasi lemak cravings, it’s hard to go wrong with the more economical Lee Wee & Brothers at ION Orchard. Alternatively, you can also try River Valley Nasi Lemak at Lucky Plaza for a more traditional version, served in iconic brown paper wrapping.
For me, I much prefer the extra oomph from a makcik’s home kitchen. Don’t flame me for this, but I think the unhealthier version is better and more worth it. In any case, if you’re going to be enjoying such an iconic dish, why not go all the way?
Expected Damage: S$15 – S$25 per pax
Price: $ $
Our Rating: 3 / 5
1 Scotts Road, Shaw Centre, #03-10, Singapore 228208
1 Scotts Road, Shaw Centre, #03-10, Singapore 228208