To celebrate the oneness of Malaysia also means to fete its delicious diversity. In this series, we take a closer look at the iconic foods of the country’s states and territories.
Click the link for all the stories in this series on Great Malaysian dishes
Illustration: Foo Chern Hwan
Nasi kandar started out as food for the coolies, but today is a sublime treat for fans who can’t get enough of its addictive tastiness.
In the 1900s, itinerant Indian Muslim hawkers would sell rice and curry to dock workers at Weld Quay in George Town, Penang. They would carry their rice and curries in pots which they hung on a bamboo pole carried on their shoulders.
This method of yoking their fare on their shoulders is called kandar in Bahasa Malaysia – which is how nasi kandar got its name.
It was originally a meal for labourers to refuel, so nasi kandar is always a hearty meal.
According to Feasts of Penang: Muslim Culinary Heritage by Wazir Jahan Karim, the original nasi kandar consisted of fish curry with ladies fingers or eggplants, fried fish, fried curry beef and boiled eggs.
The repertoire of dishes has certainly increased at the nasi kandar stall with offerings such as giant curried prawns, fried or curried squids, fried fish roe, fried liver as well as fried chicken and fried quail.
Vegetable dishes are limited – usually stir-fried cabbage or long beans.
The real lure of nasi kandar lies in the curry gravy, or rather, the mix of curry gravies, some say. You choose your main protein and the server would do a dance of dousing the rice with a scoop of this curry, and a slick or quick dashes of various other gravies, tasty juices and bits and bobs. You only need to specify if you want to “banjir”, literally to flood, your rice.
Some customers order the toppings in neat separate dishes to share at the table, but true connoisseurs would always pile everything on one plate and flood it with the secret mix of gravies.
Nasi kandar is a Malaysian institution but its origins are Indian. The Indian Muslim cooks are mainly from the Athiyutu village in Ramnad district in Tamil Nadu, South India. Nasi kandar cooks still make their own spice mixture for their various curries.
Tamil Street and Lorong Kampung Malabar used to be the nasi kandar centre of George Town. Nasi kandar hawkers went from being itinerant peddlers to selling from three-wheel carts to renting a stall in Chinese coffee shops.
The late Haji Kirudu Muhammed Kuppaikanni (also known as Haji KK) was the first to set up a nasi kandar shop in Penang. His shop was on Tamil Street and was open 24 hours to cater to the traders at nearby Chowrasta Market.
Before that, Nasi Kandar Haji KK later started Nasi Kandar Pelita Samudra in Chai Leng Park on the mainland.
Eventually, it expanded to become the Pelita Samudera chain with nasi kandar restaurants all over the country and even overseas.
Penang remains the best place to have nasi kandar and everyone swears by their favourite restaurants. Malaysians from different races and backgrounds all love nasi kandar and would think nothing of joining long queues or getting their fix at all hours of the day.
But over the years, prices at nasi kandar stalls have also increased in tandem with inflation rate.
Some of the most popular nasi kandar are the Nasi Kandar Kampung Melayu in Air Itam, Hameediyah on Campbell Street, Nasi Kandar Beratur on Jalan Majlis Kapitan Keling and Line Clear on Penang Road.
More dishes from Penang
Char Kway Teow
Char Kway Teow is essentially stir-fried flat rice noodles. A good plate would have the aroma of the wok hei, and its flavourings of lard oil, garlic, soy sauce and chilli paste would be perfectly balanced. Shrimps (and sometimes mantis prawns or crab meat), and slivers of Chinese sausage enrich it. Bean sprouts and chives are added later in the frying to retain their crunch and freshness, and blood cockles go in last as you don’t really want to overcook them. In the hands of an accomplished cook, the combination of these ingredients and stir-frying them over a charcoal fire make for a most scrumptious meal.
Assam Laksa is a fish-based noodle dish that is sour, sweet and spicy. Its gravy is made with tamarind, flavoured with shallots, turmeric, lemongrass and chillies. To counter its strong full-on gravy, the rice noodles are garnished with a salad of julienned crunchy, fresh vegetables such as cucumber, lettuce, onion, mint, torch ginger and chillies. It is accompanied with prawn paste, otak udang. The popular assam laksa stalls are at Joo Hooi coffee shop on Penang Road and the Air Itam laksa near the market.
Mee Goreng is a dish that reflects Penang’s multiculturalism. Stir-frying and its main ingredient, noodle, are Chinese but the flavourings are Indian. It’s unlike the Mamak mee goreng we get elesewhere because Penang hawkers make their own chilli paste with ingredients such as dates and sweet potatoes. The noodles are garnished with bean sprouts, tofu, boiled potato, egg, cuttlefish sambal and two different types of prawn fritters. Some hawkers also add beef. Popular mee goreng stalls are at Seng Lee Coffee Shop on Bangkok Lane and CRC Mee Goreng at Seong Huat Coffee Shop on Larut Road.