Nasi kandar is an original meal that originated from Penang. It literally means "rice on the shoulder".
From as early as the late 19th century, coolies who work at the port of Penang basically survived on nasi kandar for their lunch. At that time, Penang was already an established international port at the north of strait of Malacca.
The coolies were immigrants mostly from China and India. To feed the multitude of workers, cheaply and efficiently, rice peddlers came to the coolies' workplace at the wharf on foot. The rice peddler balanced a mangrove pole about seven feet long on one of his shoulders.
At each end of the pole, there was a large pot in a basket suspended from it containing plain white rice and on the other end, another pot filled with one curry dish such as meat curry or fish curry. The idea was a quick one dish plate with some meat or fish with gravy on a bed of rice. It was also very cheap for these coolies, at that time, a plate only cost about five cents!
Nasi kandar has come a long way since. As one of Penang most famous food, you can now find it everywhere around Malaysia. No longer plain white rice with a single curry dish, at a typical restaurant, there are lots and lots of variety of curry and types of food being served. The original dish still remains at every restaurant, which is the black gravy meat curry dish, with a strong aniseed flavor.
The meat is always very very tender and the sauce is very delicious indeed. Being a Muslim restaurant, no pork is served and only halal beef, lamb, chicken and fish are offered. Some restaurants also offer thick spicy soup served with white bread. The kinds of meat that go in the soup? Beef, chicken, lamb, quail, tripes, goat, cow tongue and ox tail. Each is a delicacy and also quite expensive.Many types of curry with different tastes you can get at a nasi kandar place. Side dishes also include spicy crispy fried chicken, over-cooked vegetables like cabbage (I do not really fancy the way the vegetables are prepared - way too soft to my liking), pappadom and also fresh milk, yogurt and bananas as dessert. More and more include briyani and tandoori in their menu.
Roti canai, chapatti and naan bread, the favorite snacks for all races in Malaysia are also available. Some nasi kandar restaurants are franchised and their restaurants are open 24 hours.
Busy career women throng to these outlets after work to get the curry for their family dinner. Men usually like to have their "teh tarik" (sweet milk tea resembling a tea shake) and chat with their pals over a game of football shown on the big screen television there. Some restaurants resemble a food court and have wi-fi connection! Others have private air-conditioning rooms for small groups. Some also include a swing set for their young patrons. It is a happening place and part of Malaysian colorful food culture.
Nasi kandar has a reputation of being more expensive than other types of local restaurants in Malaysia, given the same standard. While most people know the fact, it is still a popular place to be patronized. For me, it is a convenient place to meet friends and chat. The atmosphere is informal and you get a lot of variety. Anyway, you can still get cheaper nasi kandar at the night market and some hawkers stalls. The trick is to know where to look for them. The locals usually know out of the way places.
In Penang, Line Clear nasi kandar is a hit with the locals and visitors alike. It is one of the oldest establishments selling the food. It boasts special curries which you can never have anywhere else. It has to be tried to be believed.
Kayu Nasi Kandar ("kayu" refers to the mangrove pole used by the original peddler) originated from Kuala Lumpur but now have a branchin Penang at Bayan Baru.
Pelita restaurant group has the most outlets throughout Malaysia. Pelita even has a branch in Chennai, India!
The funny thing is, each restaurant claims that theirs is the most famous and delicious one in Penang. Judging from the long line at their counters during lunch time, I can say all of them have their own loyal fans.
Do not miss the chance to sample nasi kandar at your nearest outlet every time you have a craving for spicy curry.
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