Nasi Kandar Print
Written by Administrator III   
Tuesday, 10 March 2009 10:01



    It’s available at practically every street corner and row of shops, almost as ubiquitous as, if not more so, than hawker food. Indeed, it used to be hawker food. Indian Muslim (mamak) vendors would walk around the neighbourhood, carrying the rice and curries which were balanced in tiered baskets on either end of a long pole (kandar) lain across their shoulders, shouting out their wares. When beckoned by a hungry patron, they would stop, lower the pole and lay out the tiers so that he could see and select what was on offer.

    Nowadays they don’t do this anymore; for hygiene and logistics reasons, they have now gone upmarket, so to speak, and nasi kandar outlets abound all over Penang and the rest of Malaysia.

    It’s a particular blend of spicy food eaten with plain or flavoured rice which is subtly different to Malay or Indian cuisine, although sometimes the line is not clear, and overlaps more as time goes by.

    According to 54-year old Zubaidah bt Mohd Hussein, who has been running the Nasi Kandar stall at the Lee Huat Cafe at the junction of Green Lane and Tan Sri Teh Ewe Lim Road for the past 35 years, the food used to consist of just rendang (a dry beef curry), fried fish or chicken, and a curry with lots of gravy.

   Nowadays, many more dishes have been added, and on top of those few staples, you’ll also be able to try many different types of curries, including one of our most famous, Curry Fish Head. There are also tau kua (firm taufu), fish, squid and prawns, different types of meats cooked in a variety of ways: in sambals and gulais (curries), in ketchup (thick soya sauce) or in biryanis.

Vegetables are also served, cooked in different styles: coconut-based soups (masak lemak), sweet and sour, plain stir-fried or with chillies and other spices. The only limitation to what you will find will be the imagination and skill of the nasi kandar cook – some places can offer up to 50 different choices – and how big your eyes (or stomach) are, and of course how deep your pocket is!

    When eating alone, individuals usually grab a plate of rice, then help themselves to whatever takes their fancy, plonking everything on the same dish, dousing everything with as much fragrant gravy as they wish. It’s a quick and easy way to appease the hunger pangs. This can be eaten with fork and spoon or, like many locals prefer, with fingers of the right hand – some aficionados claim it is the only way to eat rice with curry. However, it does require a degree of skill scooping the curry-soaked rice up and ensuring it gets to your mouth without losing half of it down your shirtfront along the way.

    However, couples or families may wish to share dishes, in which case the curries are served in small individual saucers; altogether a more civilised experience but doesn’t quite have the same panache

    There will also be side dishes to accompany the tasty meal, and local vegetables cooked with spices like okra (ladies’ fingers), aubergines and cabbage. Many places also serve freshly-made breads (Roti Canai and Dorsai to name but a few) and murtabaks (filled with cooked spiced ground meat) to go with the delicious curry sauces.

    Everything is totted up for you by sharp-eyed attendants so you’ll be presented with a bill at the end. The whole is finished off with a glass of sweet hot Teh Tarik (tea) or Teh Halia (ginger tea).

    As the term, and cuisine, originated from Penang (in fact, so synonymous is it with Penang that the Chefs Association of Malaysia, Penang Chapter, have called their monthly newsletter “Nasi Kandar”!), it would stand to reason that there are many outlets in this state – apparently some 250 or more. That is quite something, particularly as we have many other types of restaurants, coffee shops and food courts too! Some date back decades – a century or more – and are still run by the original proprietor’s descendants. A few have become so successful that they have developed into chains with one in practically every large town in Malaysia. Each has its own specialties, and many still use the same recipes that their great-grandfathers developed and perfected.

    Nasi Kandar is the epitome of our food, cross-cultural and popular with all races, as it appeases the average Malaysian taste for something hot, savoury yet full-flavoured at the same time. And of course, it’s got to be rice-based. That’s why, wherever you go, you’ll probably chance upon one of these outlets, with patrons tucking into food, at any time of day or night. Some of the larger outlets are open 24-hours, an indication of just how popular they are.

    One word of advice which probably applies to any unfamiliar food eaten in any country: if you are unused to hot, spicy cuisine, then go slow. Rather like your body needs to acclimatise to our warm, humid weather, your stomach needs time to get used to chillis and coconut milk!


 Helen Ong is a self-confessed foodie who loves to hunt down the best of Penang. She is the author of the book Great Dining in Penang. Check out her blog on


Last Updated on Thursday, 12 March 2009 13:44