Nasi kandar, the spice-laden Penang delicacy

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Nasi kandar, the spice-laden Penang delicacy
Nasi kandar with a side of omelet, shrimp curry, and sambal chili paste

IO – Penang Island, Malaysia. So many attractions can be found in this exotic locale: traditional and modern healing services, natural beauty, and culinary delight. And the first among the Pearl Island’s kitchen delights is the nasi kandar, widely known throughout Malaysia since the 19th century.

You can spot nasi kandar stalls and houses all over Penang, in the same way you can find warung Tegal or Padang food stalls all over Jakarta. They are similarly laid out, with a glass-covered counter presenting a number of side dishes for white steamed rice.

Nasi kandar, the spice-laden Penang delicacy
Nasi kandar with a side of red-sauce chicken and stir-fried spinach

Nasi kandar, literally “shoulder-borne rice”, was initially sold by hawkers walking around carrying rice and side dishes in containers suspended on bamboo or mangrove poles across their shoulders. The word “kandar”, meaning “shoulders”, is originally from the Urdu language. These migrant sellers from Northern India found their way easily into Islamic Malaysia thanks to trade and religion at the end of the 19th century up to early 20th century.

Penang’s Weld Quay harbor was named an international port at this time. Naturally, it means that traders, sailor, and laborers came to the island in droves. Low pay, long hours, grueling work – the workers and sailors need convenient, easily available, and affordable food that they can eat quickly and easily. And that’s how enterprising Muslim Indian traders swoop in and grab the opportunity.

In the early hours of the morning they already appear around the ships that’s just being loaded or unloaded in the harbor, ready to feed the starving and tired sailors and stevedores with their fragrant, filling dishes. Each of these kandar men carries two large containers with their poles: one of them contain rice, whether pure steamed white rice or spiced biryani rice (frequently both); the other contains a miracle of side dishes – vegetable curries, chicken curries, seafood curries. They would set up station under nearby trees or spread out their broillies, and feed the ravening hordes swiftly and affordably. Each plate of nasi kandar would only have set you back by 5 cents in those days.

Nasi kandar, the spice-laden Penang delicacy
A nasi kandar restaurant in Penang open 24/7

As time goes by, nasi kandar sellers settled down. They started to open stalls and restaurants specifically selling this range of foods in the 1970’s. Nasi kandar, also famously known as nasi mamak or “good mother’s rice”, is now available the entire day, not just for breakfast, thanks to some restaurants’ policy of opening their doors 24/7. It is no longer just food for low laborers – now middle-class and even upper-class families get to enjoy it.

These Indian restaurateurs proudly guard and hand down their stories and recipes over the generations. No matter which nasi kandar place you go to, you will know that it is an Indian place from the sights and smells. You can tell that the many, colorful dishes will be spicy and complex. The moment you take a seat, you will be welcomed with either pure white rice or yellow biryani rice, both freshly steamed. All you have to do next is point what kind of vegetable or curry side dish you want to eat with your rice.

Like its Indonesian counterpart the nasi padang, this rice is frequently “banjir” or “flooded” with curry broths. Just its aroma is more than enough to whet your appetite. The side dishes most frequently served with nasi kandar are telur bawang (shallot or leek omelet), shrimp curry, fried squid, kentang balado (potato salad with chili paste), ayam bumbu merah (red marinate chicken), curry chicken, stir-fried green beans, stir-fried spinach, as well as rendang daging and ayam kapitan (the Captain’s chicken). Some nasi kandar joints actually have unusual items in their menus, like rabbit curry and ostrich curry. All the curried dishes feature broth made with coconut milk and multiple spices, giving them a savory kick and different types of heat and favors.What will you drink with your meal? Ais kosong (plain water with ice), ais limau (lime juice with ice), or teh o (plain tea)? Make sure that you don’t make the mistake by ordering teh – sure, it means “tea” and you think you’ll be getting plain tea that you can add with sugar or lime or cream – but in Malaysian street dining, it actually means “milk tea”! Make sure you don’t order the wrong thing – describe what you want exactly when you order.

No matter how long time passes, nasi kandar remains an affordable dish. Plain white rice with no side dishes can be bought at RM 1.00 (about IDR 3,500.00), while a piece of chicken usually costs RM 3.00 (about IDR 10,500.00). However, it’s true that the bigger the restaurant you visit, the costlier the food will be. Most nasi kandar places showcases their menu on big boards mounted on their restaurant wall, allowing diners to plan ahead how much they want to spend on their meal.