2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

The Spicy Scent of Home

The Spicy Scent of Home

Nasi Lemak in Germany

The ground chili paste in my pan is spitting hot and searing red. The luxuriant crimson mush, made up of shallots, dried chilies, and a handful of ikan bilis (white anchovies) ground earlier, darkened in the oil. The angry fumes scald my eyes, causing me to tear up.

“Oh, that’s going to be one hell of a freaking spicy sambal,” says Christian approvingly as he walks across the kitchen to unlatch a window. My husband hovers over my shoulder as I continue frying, and watches me pour the rest of the fried ikan bilis into the mix.

It’s 10 a.m. in Hermsdorf, a little village in East Germany. Spring air fills the kitchen and mingles with the pungent spice. I’m preparing the chili that makes up an important component of nasi lemak, a Malaysian breakfast staple that consists of coconut-milk rice, roasted peanuts, cucumbers, and boiled eggs. But because our German friends will recoil in horror if they don’t get bread for breakfast, we plan to serve it later for dinner, for my husband’s birthday party.

In Malaysia, feeding someone is the most important act of love. When greeting someone, it’s not unusual to ask them if they’ve eaten. Knowing that your stomach is full assures the other party that you’re well. And if not, the person asking will invite you for food. And here I am, proving my love by trying to recreate the perfect nasi lemak, a comfort dish that Christian and I bonded over, while we were still dating in that part of the world. This is not the first time I’m making it, but this is the first time with the right ingredients. The previous attempts, without the ikan bilis for the chili paste and pandan leaves for the rice, was lacking punch. Christian didn’t mind but I knew better. Living in Germany has taught me to be meticulous. Every ingredient counts.

Just a day ago, we were shopping at Go Asia, a major Asian grocer in Berlin filled with rows and rows of spice and sauces, noodles of all imaginable flavors, and Asian herbs and vegetables neatly packed and glistening fresh. I gasped when I entered; I was awestruck with the choices. Christian said it was as if I had discovered Wonderland.

Hermsdorf, which was once part of the ex-German Democratic Republic, offers no such supermarkets. The closest Asian market, 12 miles away, is a dingy squat. On the dusty shelves are only two choices of soy sauce and little else. Needless to say, pandan leaves and white anchovies were unheard of. At Go Asia, the supermarket was airy and glowed with promise. The two-hour drive was worth it.

My kitchen is now officially coated in layers of oil and hot chili splatters. Wafts of coconut and sweet pandan leaves escape the bubbling rice cooker. Freshly cut cucumbers lay on the chopping board. Peeled hard-boiled eggs in a bowl. A fishy, spicy scent lingers in the air. I hear our neighbor below crack open her window. She coughs. It smells like home.

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