June 02 , 2003

Wind of Change Sweeping Nasi Kandar Business

A Special Report By Siti Aishah Mohamad

WIND OF CHANGE… The humble nasi kandar which is synonymous with Penang since the 18th century, is now a multi-million dollar business.

PENANG, June 2 (Bernama) -- The humble "nasi kandar" which is synonymous with Penang since the 18th century, is now a multi-million dollar business that is still thriving.
From those days when the food with multiple curries were sold from baskets shouldered by the seller from either end of the "kandar" pole, it is now served in air-conditioned restaurants.
A favourite with port workers and labourers in those old days, the nasi kandar then moved to stalls in coffee shops and the alleyways, providing cheap, delicious and nutritious food from morn to morn.
A specialty of the Indian Muslims fondly called "mamak", the food are also sold in other towns in the country but the name of the shops or stalls would invariably have the "Pulau Pinang" or "Penang" tag to advertise the "authenticity" of the food -- similar to the "char kuey teow" or fried noodles of the Chinese.
The dirty sarong or once-white attires of the nasi kandar sellers, the cheap utensils and broken chairs and stools have now made way for uniformed waiters and waitresses and shinning clean three to five-star restaurants to rival the American fastfood chains.
Along the way, lovers of the food also have spun "stories" to regale each other. One has it that the more dirty the nasi kandar seller is, the more delicious is the food.
Another has it that the "secret" why the curries of a popular joint in Penang island were so good was because they were "recycled" and were as old as the day it started business. But that is because the "founder" of the shop would dish out a bowl of the curry to mix with the fresh pot which he cooked the next day!
Many who had taken the food and found it expensive, also have their own tales to tell. They claimed that when they challenged the seller or "mamak" to a slow recount of the bill, they almost always found it to be lower than the first count!
The popularity of the food lies partly in the fact that it can be eaten by all the races -- Muslims and non-Muslims --in the country. The other is the "secret" recipes of the Indian Muslims which can be found nowhere else, not even in India where their forebears come from.
According to a local kitchen worker of a popular shop here, their job was to cut and clean but when it comes to cooking, the mamak would take over the task to guard their trade secrets.
Some mamaks claim that their recipes were handed down from generation to generation.
As the business becomes more competitive, it is no wonder that some have emerged as "giants" with huge capital investments for their chain of shops emerging from Alor Setar to Kuala Lumpur.
"We took 30 years to expand because we wanted to study the market to see how we can become a modern business with a new image," said Sirajuddin Mohammed Mydin, managing director of Kayu Nasi Kandar Sdn Bhd, one of the biggest and popular nasi kandar businesses.
Sirajuddin who is smartly dressed with a tie like any businessman, said, they are trying to shed the old image of nasi kandar which did not care about cleanliness and hygiene, using old and battered utensils and furniture. Worst of all, is using the bare hands to serve the food!
"I am very happy that we have managed to change the old ways as well as image of nasi kandar and many other sellers are emulating us.
"They have renovated or refurbished their restaurants and changed their utensils and furnitures to stainless steel, installed air-conditioners, and decorated their premises with lights and so on," he said.
Tracing the rise of his family business, Sirajuddin, 41, said they moved from Penang to Kuala Lumpur in 1964 and they opened "Ajmi Restoran" in Petaling Jaya in 1965.
However, it was only in 1974 that his father, Badurusaman alias Mohd Mydin, 76, took the business more seriously by opening a stall, that is, "Kayu Nasi Kandar" at a Chinese restaurant in Section 2, PJ.
In 1990, Sirajuddin together with his father and younger brother, Burhan, expanded the business to Medan Selera, Petaling Jaya, before opening a branch in Damansara in 1999.
He said between 2000 and 2003, his family opened eight branches of the business, of which six are in Klang Valley (Taipan, Pusat Bandar Damansara, Giant, Putrajaya and the Food Garden of KLIA) and two in Pulau Pinang (Bukit Jambul and Jalan Penang).
They have just opened their biggest restaurant with a 420-seating capacity in Section 2, Petaling Jaya, next to the Chinese restaurant where Kayu Nasi Kandar first started.
"We still maintain our image and prices at this new restaurant. Our intention is to serve and thank our loyal customers who had patronised our business all this while," he said.
According to Sirajuddin, they received all kinds of comments when they opened their branch in Bukit Jambul in Penang but business was so good after six months that they opened another branch in Penang Road.
Their foray into Penang incurred the ire of other nasi kandar operators who saw them as "outsiders" coming to corner the business in Penang.
"All kinds of accusations were levelled at us, like the restaurant is owned by a Hindu, the chicken were supplied by a non-Muslim, that we used witchcraft to lure customers and the latest being SARS," he said.
The rumours about SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, he said, has caused his business to drop by 30 to 40 per cent.
However, he believed that his customers would continue to patronise his shops because of his quality assurance for customer satisfaction.
Knowing that good management is the key to their success, he aims to branch out to Butterworth, Kedah, Johor, Melaka, London, India and Australia.
The wind of change is also sweeping Pelita Samudera Pertama (M) Sdn Bhd, a nasi kandar chain of 12 restaurants in Pulau Pinang, Kedah, Petaling Jaya and India.
"Before we started, we had thought about introducing a new approach and image to selling nasi kandar with uniformed workers and caps," said chairman Shamsuri Ahmad.
He said they did not inherit the business from their fathers like the other operators but they started with eight partners with different educational background and expertise.
Among those in their board of directors are an architect, a religious leader, businessmen, managers of food business and chef.
In eight years after they opened their first shop in Chai Leng Park in Perai on July 1, 1995, Nasi Kandar Pelita Samudera had opened 11 other branches.
"When we first opened our branch in Chennai, India, the response was not good because the people were not used to the food since the recipe were those of the mamaks of Pulau Pinang," he said with a laugh.
This year, they would be opening their "Pelita Highway" restaurant in Auto City near the Juru interchange of the North-South Highway. That restaurant would be their last branch in Penang.
"That is enough for Penang because they are too many nasi kandar restaurants in the state. We will open a branch in Sungai Petani and then concentrate on Kuala Lumpur, Johor Baharu, Melaka and Ipoh," he said.
Incidentally, Perlis, Kedah Pulau Pinang are nasi kandar-eating states and the food is in vogue in the Klang Valley mainly because of the many "northerners" who have made KL their homes.
Shamsuri said his company would be opening a branch in Bangalore and Bombay in India, and they are looking for a suitable place in Perth, Australia and London.
Like his competitors, they also faced all kind of problems when they launched their business, not least of which is the shortage of workers and slander.
Shamsuri said they were lucky to have a partner, Khaliq Jamal who was a well-known chef in a five-star hotel. Nicknamed Kaliq or "Misai", he could cook chicken in 60 different ways.
Misai was given the task of training 80 cooks recruited from among the locals and India.
Shamsuri proudly said each branch serves about 60 different dishes including their house specialties -- fish head curry and the different spicy curries.
He said they do not 'recycle' their food because they have so many customers that they have to practise the modern approach of cooking their food once every two or three hours.
"We give priority to customer satisfaction because our clients come from different levels of society, different races, from the ordinary people to VIPs," he said.
Their prices are the same with every branch except for a few dishes comprising prawns, squids, crabs and fish heads whose prices depend on size and market rate.
They had also gone downstream by setting up Ayam Pelita Sdn Bhd in the Juru light industrial estate in 2001 to slaughter and dress the chicken, besides housing three cold rooms to store the chicken and seafood.
He said 12 local workers were being trained to obtain their certificate from the Pulau Pinang Islamic Religion Department (JAIPP) and they slaughter 2,500 to 3,000 chicken a day to supply to all 10 branch restaurants.
Although the nasi kandar restaurants have been mushrooming over the years, the traditional stalls are still going strong with ever increasing patronage.
"We are not worried, we have our own loyal customers who do not like to eat in restaurants," said Osman Mydin, 69, the owner of the famous Line Clear nasi kandar stall along Penang Road.
He said his prices are reasonable and acceptable to the customers but what is more important is that his food is delicious.
"We use a lot of spices and onions to make our food tasty without any food enhancers," he said.
Osman said his is one of the oldest nasi kandar business in Penang, having started in 1947 in the same alley with four or five tables before it became well-known as "Line Clear" some 20 years ago.