One of the most well-known foods from the Kelantan state in Malaysia is a meal of rice salad – locals love it for breakfast, but its delicious any time you can find it.
Some recipes including over 20 fresh ingredients, this dish is packing herbal, fruity, and spicy vibrancy at every flavor level.
Each plate of Nasi Kerabu is like a work of art, easily one of the most beautiful things I could ever hope to eat for breakfast.
When you’re in Kota Bahru, Kelantan, Malaysia, one of the best restaurants to have this food is located just a few kilometers from downtown. Its name is Nasi Kerabu Panji.
Nasi Kerabu – Malaysia’s ‘Rice Salad’
Translating literally to ‘rice salad,’ this dish is so much more complex than its simple name might have you believe.
You can have it with meat or fish, just with eggs and herbs, or even go full vegetarian. The rice itself is usually colored (always using natural ingredients, usually flowers, for color), and I have seen piles of pink, green, and purple before – at Nasi Kerabu Kanji the rice they’re serving is bright blue!
Nasi Kerabu can be ordered mild, or just as easily made brutally spicy, and any and all ways I have ever had it have been absolutely delicious.
Kelantan State, Northern Malaysia
In Northern Malaysia, the state of Kelantan lies just across the border from Thailand. While it seems that these two areas would cook using similar ingredients and flavor profiles, each of these areas is full of food that’s totally and wonderfully unique.
Since the first time trying this in early 2015, what sets this dish apart in my mind is how it comprises entirely fresh ingredients throughout! The healthful-ness of it, yet taking nothing away from the flavor, this is one of my favorite things about eating Nasi Kerabu.
Everyones Favorite Breakfast!
Something that is similar between the Malay Kerabu rice salad, and the Khao Yam salad from Thailand, are both local favorites as breakfast foods.
So, as is the case with most great breakfasts in South East Asia – the early bird gets the best worm, and you need to try to get there early.
The chance of Nasi Kerabu Panji restaurant selling out before lunchtime is a daily guarantee – I assure you, plan your morning well, you don’t want to miss this meal.
Making Your Plate
Nasi Kerabu starts out with a simple brown piece of paper, and this will be your plate. They will put it on a thin serving basket for you, following it with two huge scoops of rice from a steaming container.
I’m not kidding when I say the scoops are huge, this has to be one of the better meals in all Malaysia for a foodie traveler on a budget.*
After this comes my favorite part; watching the chef spooning, dumping, adding, and sifting each colorful ingredient is incredible. This dish is literally art in food form, and its the best kind of art too – it’s art that you can eat!
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Nasi Kerabu is Art in Food Form
After mentioning you want it as ‘nasi kerabu,’ the chef’s assistant will rapidly top off your rice with fresh vegetables and tons of fresh herbs (They also have ‘nasi campur,’ which starts the same way, but is not a salad. Nasi Campur is a choose-your-own mix of curries, cooked veggies, or meats, served over rice, another delicious and well-loved local Malay favorite meal… (round two for today?)).
Throwing on a mix of wonderfully fragrant and fresh green herbs, next comes a spoon or two of roasted coconut shavings, and a brightly colored sambal sauce.
You can go ahead and immediately ask for a double portion of sambal sauce.
A Truly Amazing List of Herbs
Let’s see if I can remember just the fresh ingredients they were using this day (and by the way, as most of these are local, they can change slightly throughout the seasons).
Our dish today has mung bean sprouts, wing beans, long beans, carrots, and strips of cucumber.
There is also mint, turmeric leaf, Kaffir lime leaf, Wild Pepper leaf, and finally also Vietnamese mint (‘Rau Reung’), all of these fresh!
Finally topping this with dry red chilies, some torch ginger, shreds of lemongrass, it all finally is put together with the moisture (and of course, adding sourness) from a few squeezes of fresh lime juice (and you do that part yourself).
Now that’s a blast of herbs – and that doesn’t even include all the ingredients that go into the protein portion of the plate (more below), or the other pre-made side dishes you can have with this rice as well!
Check quickly if there’s something you don’t want (or something you might want extra of), because they are just flying through the motions here, whipping up hundreds of nasi kerabu salads every hour.
Rice Salad with Roasted Goat
It is one of the most vibrant, bright, and deliciously aromatic meals you could ever want for breakfast, honestly I can’t help but feel lucky here, eating such a dish.
Never ceasing to amaze me, the number of ingredients in every plate of nasi kerabu is just incredible.
At no time though, will you feel as though the chef is just going overboard – every flavor has its place, and your eater’s palate could not be more satisfied.
It is so fun to mix up that masterpiece of food art, and dive directly in, but remember to take just a second if you would, snap a shot, and send it to us (and leave a comment below, to let us know how you enjoyed your meal here today!).
Kambing Bakar (Roasted Goat)
Just as popular as the fish and eggs, has to be the amazing version of rice salad with ‘Kambing Bakar’ (Roasted Goat) – don’t leave Kota Bahru before you’ve had this version as well.
Driving up to the restaurant, you may see smoke signals arising from one side – the instant your nose is within reach, the goaty smoky meaty aromas may be undeniably drawing you in.
They serve the goat with a tangy barbecue sauce, but the smokiness in that pure goat meat is wonderful on its own. The meat is chewy, yet nicely tough as only roast goat meat can be. There is some variation in each cut though, alternating the smoky and juicy fatty strips with those of just plain, goat BBQ meat.
Its amazing, and I could never choose which one I like more.
The goat steak comes directly from the charcoal grill, and you might even hear the ingredients around it sizzling on your rice. You should order at least one plate with roast goat each and every time you visit Nasi Kerabu Panji.
Mackerel with Peanut Curry
For another variation to get with the same nasi kerabu salad combination, try a fried fish with curry.
A very thick curry, full of crushed peanuts, and sweet and slightly sour, probably from sour tamarind fruit and some sugar.
This was not my favorite curry here, but that’s only because it was a bit too sweet (and not very spicy), but it does smell wonderful with the addition of coconut milk in the curry sauce mixture.
Dry Fish Crackers
Finally, a key condiment I forgot to mention are the fish crackers. I notice that most local people eating at Nasi Kerabu Panji like to just crush them over the entire plate, and then mix the dry chip pieces down into the rice.
These are also very popular throughout the entire region of Kelantan, you can see them at roadside shops, or other small restaurants like this one.
You can find them including shrimp, or fish like this, and they include flour as well – these work great to help dip up some extra curry sauce with every bite, or just simply as a nicely crunchy snack on their own.
Stuffed Peppers – Malay Style (‘Solok Lada’)
Although a single pepper with fish meat comes included when ordering your nasi kerabu with ‘the works,’ this addition is so amazing that I have just have to mention it in more detail.
The texture of the fish meat is incredible – the roasted coconut added to the mash is instantly noticeable as a smell, and then a texture too, and you can feel tiny crunches of the coconut meat amidst the nicely smooth steamed fish meat.
The smells mingle so wonderfully, and finally you have the crunchy pepper’s inner flesh which finally sinks and gives way to the creamy, barely resisting fish meat inside.
Incredible Textures of Fish Paste
Each batch of fish has been mashed so finely that its more of a fish paste than it is fish meat, and if it could possibly get any better, try eating this first and following it with an entire bite of pickled garlic.
Just make sure to rub that garlic into the salted egg yolk first (which I think are duck eggs) – now that’s a bite to write home about.
Note: Walking through the market in Kuala Terengganu a few days earlier actually, we came across another food stuffed in a similar way – but they weren’t using peppers, they were stuffing fish into more fish!
You can check it out in the video from that day here (link)
Similar, but Different
Southern Thai food is already one of my all-time favorite cuisines, and so I’m sure that anything similar to it is going to be awesome outright.
But its one of the most beautiful things in a foodie’s life to have a meal of something you thought would be good, and then have it just blow your mind, even more delicious than you ever had expected.
Finally, even though the recipe ingredients I have in a list above seem extensive, there are plenty of other ways that people are eating this, in other parts of Malaysia, using yet even more things I haven’t even heard of before.
While many of the ingredients are the same, as everything is sort of basing around that simple rice of rainbow possibilities in the middle, the flavor combinations can include really anything that grows locally all throughout Malaysia
Note: For example, here is another restaurant serving an amazing meal of nasi kerabu, quite different than that at Nasi Kerabu Panji.
Nasi kerabu is simply wonderful, and this is a food you absolutely can’t miss on any trip to the beautiful land of Kelantan in Malaysia.
Name: Nasi Kerabu Panji
Location: Google Maps (link)
Hours: 6am to 1:30pm
Price: Our meal for 3 people came to 31RM (US$7.59)