If you haven’t had nasi lemak for breakfast, then you can’t call yourself a Malaysian. This dish is our national staple. From roadside vans to local stalls and high end restaurants, there will be a nasi lemak within reach at any given moment. We often take our daily fix for granted. But in a city of rising living costs, what is the true price of nasi lemak?

To find out, I visit one of the oldest nasi lemak stalls I know. Nasi Lemak Tanglin, in Medan Selera, has been in business since 1948. The stall started selling nasi lemak by the roadside before upgrading to a weatherproof venue in 2001. Originally helmed by the late Suriyati binti Jawirunah, the stall still uses the same recipe to this day. Thronged by regulars like myself, the stall has also served both our current Prime Minister and his predecessor, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. When the latter was in power, rice from Tanglin was a requisite at every Raya function.

The stall is now run by Suriyati’s 28-year old granddaughter, Faizatul Akhma. Her job includes manning the booth, ordering supplies, systemising quality of food and punching calculators (no sight of a cash register here). The rice here is delicately steamed, a process that takes no less than two hours involving washing, drying and toasting each grain. The result is fragrant and fluffy. I ask Faizatul if customers would tell the difference if she were to chuck the grains into one gigantic rice cooker. ‘Kalau saya guna teknik lain, nanti old customers datang complaint rasa tak sama dengan masa nenek saya,’ she insists.

As well as maintaining this labour-intensive approach, Faizatul is under pressure from fluctuating food prices. On some days chicken is RM5 while on bad days prices go up to RM9. Faizatul also insists on using packaged ingredients her grandmother used (I see her whip out a bottle of kicap popo). Yet she insists on keeping the price of her nasi lemak the same. ‘Memang susah sikit tapi harga saya charge masih sama. Tak payah untung sangat lah,’ she laughs it off.

I wonder how other nasi lemak stalls are faring, and make my way to Kampung Baru, the declared land of authentic nasi lemak. CT Garden, the most popular of the shops in the area, is a scene of Malay couples, telenovelas and (later at night) post-clubbing crowds. At RM0.50 each, the packets of nasi lemak at CT Garden are small, but the shop is well known for its array of side dishes. The owner, Huzelrayman, presents customers with a swoon-inducing spread of quail eggs, beef rendang, paku pakis, chicken sambal and fried potato shavings. Best of all are their tempe goreng, which are worthy of sleepless nights.

As I gush about the tempe, Huzelrayman is quick to point out the difficulties in running a shop in these times. He shows me a bill for a bulk ikan bilis order two months ago amounting to RM80. The same bill today marks RM118.  Huzelrayman must also contend with the fluctuating prices of materials, such as banana leaf wrappers, and even water. The price rises are most apparent during Raya periods, when demand goes up. Because he knows that customers will leave if he hikes up his own prices, Huzelrayman instead sometimes removes some of his more expensive side dishes, such as his petai sambal. He may also be forced to take quails eggs off the menu in future.

As a shy attempt to comfort Huzelrayman, I ask if franchising in more saturated areas is an option. ‘Kedai-kedai lain buka franchise tapi rasa tak sama’, he replies. ‘Kalau saya nak franchise, saya nak orang yang masak yang sama juga.’ He assures me however that, for now, CT Garden is holding up against competition thanks to its reputation. The shop also only opens at 6pm, once the nearby competing canteens and chains have closed for the day, which helps. I smile, but I can’t help feeling concerned.

With such small margins, stalls and shops like Tanglin and CT Garden can only survive based on the strength of their food and their customers’ loyalty. Yet, with a population already squeezed, these customers would be the first to complain if the price of nasi lemak were to go up. While high end restaurants get away with charging as much as RM35 for a nasi lemak, local joints struggle to keep their costs down. But it’s clear that proprieters like Huzelrayman and Faizatul will perservere for as long as they can. After all, the show must go on.

Nasi Lemak Tanglin, Medan Selera, Poliklinik Komuniti Tanglin, KL. Open daily, 7am-12.30pm

Nasi Lemak CT Garden, Jalan Dewan Sultan Sulaiman, Kampung Baru, KL. Open daily, 6pm-4am