24/01/2024 01:16 PM
From Nina Muslim

One day in April last year, Theresa Lam woke up and wanted nasi lemak, the de facto national dish of Malaysia, for breakfast.

The only problem was that the 52-year-old public relations consultant was on a diet – specifically a low-carb diet where one consumes fewer carbohydrates than recommended. It is a popular form of dieting to manage weight and control blood sugar.

“I was craving nasi lemak but I didn’t want the nasi (rice),” she told Bernama at her apartment in Sri Damansara here. 

Originally from Hong Kong, the Malaysian permanent resident has already cottoned to nasi lemak as the breakfast of choice like any Malaysian. But the amount of fat and carbs in the dish is high – the rice in nasi lemak is full of saturated fat, thanks to its coconut milk base – and it is served with a spicy and sweet sambal, cucumber slices, fried anchovies and peanuts, and a hard-boiled egg, all wrapped in a banana leaf. 

Nasi lemak is very popular despite its reputation as one of the richest and unhealthiest breakfast options in Malaysia. Little surprise that the country has one of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in Southeast Asia.

Theresa Lam, co-founder of Gila Goodness which makes the Malaysian-flavored granola, arranges cases containing nasi lemak, tom yum, ondeh-ondeh and pineapple tart granola. --fotoBERNAMA (2024) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

Stopping her diet was a non-starter. So Lam resigned herself to eating her usual healthy and fibre-rich breakfast of granola, which consists of rolled oats, nuts, seeds and honey or a sweetener, with Greek yogurt. But the craving became an itch that just wouldn’t go away.

Finally, she asked her friend and cooking enthusiast Vivien Chin if she could make granola that tasted like nasi lemak

“I said ‘Crazy, man. Cannot la’,” piped in Chin, laughing. But then the 60-year-old thought about it further and decided to try adapting her family’s nasi lemak sambal recipe to granola-making.

Because “(t)he soul of the nasi lemak is actually the sambal, right?” added Lam. 

The result was nasi lemak granola, which almost everyone Bernama talked to agreed tasted like nasi lemak. The granola includes crispy fried anchovies and peanuts and smells like coconut and pandan.

Friends and family enthusiastically bought the granola and came back for more. In July, Lam and Chin launched a company called Gila Goodness to make and sell these granola bars and brought on Lam’s husband and three others as partners. 

They introduced other flavours along the way: tom yum (a sour and spicy soup) and ondeh-ondeh (a local dessert).

To their small circle of friends and family, Lam and Chin have shown that it may be possible to ‘have your nasi lemak and eat it too’. By the new year (2024), they had widened that circle of customers to thousands via word of mouth, direct sales at holiday bazaars and online

Now they hope to widen their clientele, targeting the curious, the health-conscious as well as Malaysians living overseas, by introducing a new flavour, pineapple tart (a local fruit pastry), for the Chinese New Year and Hari Raya celebrations.



A sedentary lifestyle and good food have made Malaysia the country with one of the highest prevalence of obesity among adults in Southeast Asia. In the 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS), 50.1 percent of adults were overweight or obese (30.4 percent overweight and 19.7 percent obese). 

According to the 2019 NHMS survey, 3.6 million adults had diabetes and 3.7 million cases were undiagnosed. 

In 2023, heart disease was the leading cause of death among Malaysians, followed by pneumonia, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia. Diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure contribute to heart disease.

KPJ Damansara Specialist Hospital dietitian Yip Song Qing the nasi lemak granola may be a healthy addition since it has a higher fiber content, which helps to lower cholesterol. --fotoBERNAMA (2024) COPYRIGHT RESERVED

KPJ Damansara Specialist Hospital dietitian Yip Song Qing said while Malaysian cuisine has many healthy options, there are plenty of dishes that quickly become unhealthy if taken too much. 

Some so-called unhealthy examples include carb-heavy roti canai (flatbread), sweet and creamy teh tarik (frothy milky tea) and carb-heavy char kway teow (fried flat rice noodles). 

“The popular dishes, like nasi lemak, mee goreng (fried yellow noodles), char kway teow and all these  – they are usually high in fat, high in calories,” she said, adding these dishes were many of her patients’ favourites. Healthy options include soups and foods that are steamed, boiled or grilled.

She said granola may be a better option for breakfast, depending on the ingredients.

“All I can say is this nasi lemak-flavoured granola might have higher fibre content which is helpful with the cholesterol-lowering properties,” she said.

In its original form, the fibre content in nasi lemak comes only from the cucumber and peanuts, which do not have as much fibre as granola.

However, Yip hesitated to say granola is healthy, stressing it all depends on the amount of granola one consumes.

“Portion control is important,” she said, adding that even so-called healthy foods like fruits can be dangerous for diabetics if taken too much.

Portion control is something tech reviewer Adam Lobo struggles with when snacking. But the granola has helped him improve his diet. He found out about the various Malaysian-flavoured granola from his former colleague, who also knew Lam, while visiting the colleague’s home.

He told Bernama his favourite flavour is ondeh-ondeh, mixing it with chocolate protein mix for breakfast daily.

“I’m a huge Liverpool football fan, so I snack a lot (when I stay up to watch their matches). Typically, I would have chocolate and stuff. (But now,) nasi lemak and tom yum granola are what I occasionally have (as snacks) when (I watch) a Liverpool match,” he added.



Among the health-conscious, younger generation and urbanites, granola is not some exotic dish from a far-flung land. But even in Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Valley, there are pockets of people who greet the nasi lemak granola and other items with confusion.

Both Chin and Lam said it was their first challenge when trying to introduce their product to the masses.

“A lot of people still don’t know what is granola,” said Chin, describing their experience selling it to the public during a holiday bazaar in Cheras here.

Theresa Lam (left) and Vivien Chin.

The problems did not stop there. Lam said among those who knew what granola was, many did not know how to eat it as they were used to eating sweet granola with milk or yogurt. As nasi lemak and tom yum granola are more savoury, pairing these flavours with milk or yogurt would not have been a good match.

“In Asian culture, our diet is more – we have something savoury for breakfast. In the West, it’s sweet granola,” she said.

She would suggest various ways to eat the granola and encourage her customers to experiment, either eating the granola on its own or using it as a topping or a side. 

“(Some people) put nasi lemak or tom yum to spice up fried eggs or scrambled eggs,” she said.

Yip thought having the granola with eggs was a great idea.

“Sounds good. You have the fibre. You have the healthy oil. You have the protein – it’s good,” she said, adding this is how to make granola part of a healthy and balanced diet.





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